The Funky Cold Medina and Other Tales From Marrakesh

Eric Brown
May 26, 2014 · 18 min read

Marrakesh is one of those rare places that lives up to the promise, like Venice. I arrived during Eid, the holiday that celebrates the end of Ramadan, when people have been fasting all day and binging all night and they’re totally upside down. Eid is the reverse of Mardi Gras, where people go nuts after the atoning and self abnegation is over. Well, I arrived at my Riad in the heart of the old city after twenty four hours of semi-entertaining travel and struck out for Jemaa el Fna — the massive square in the heart of the old city.

The Funky Cold Medina

Here you can eat all manner of offal and weird stuff — I pulled my best Andrew Zimmern and tucked into a mind bending (and hopefully not stomach emptying) two bowls of chopped up sheep’s head (unless it was goat or dog or catfish, but whatever). I ate with my right hand like the guidebooks tell you. (Actually they don’t. By the way, my grandmother’s stinkiest eau du cologne could not get the goat essence out of my right hand for days, so I’m guessing it was goat.) It was served with a shmabulous salt corn meal ccruscsted sofr bun, Jst follow up with uly (This is what I actually wrote at the time, finally back at my hotel that evening and moments before I passed out from a goat-induced stupor — I have no idea what “Jst follow up with uly” was supposed to mean).

Three little sheep, thinking happy thoughts

I think what I may have been getting at was that they boil the sheeps’ heads in a salty, cumin-y stock of some kind. Then they pull the heads out of a big pot and set them on the table, staring glumly at their customers (both the sheep and the sheepmonger), before the sheepmonger pulls out this scimitar-looking device and starts hacking away at the poor fella, with bits of bone, brain, and juice flying this way and that. It’s kind of like being at a Gallagher concert, except with sheep.

Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a food travel show

Then the guy puts the hacked up bits of this and that into a little bowl and hands it to you. Some other guys occasionally dips a dipper into a huge crock of oleaginous liquid — is it butter? Sheep fat? And pours it over a bowl of head meat, or dunks a hunk of bread in it. I didn’t have the wherewithal to request what is clearly the double double animal style (literally) version of sheep’s head love. Next time. You want more? Hand him your empty bowl back and he refills it. There are no forks; this activity adds new meaning to head in hands. When you’re done, if you’re nice, they hand you a piece of what looks like notebook paper to wipe your sheep-infused right hand (and do limit your food-related activities to the right hand). Just like home.

There were other delights. The sheep’s head was also served with a dandy sweet minty tea. Beer would have put me over the top. People would have had to forcibly remove my ecstatic body from the premises, so maybe it’s good they didn’t have beer. Then we wandered off to another stall to have even more tea. This tea was the mole of teas — more ingredients than we could figure, but there were cloves, ginger, cinnamon, pepper?, mint of course, and who knows what else. It was spicy, pungent, sweet, and really good. And we had little bowls of some brown stuff that they keep in mounds on the table. I still don’t know what it was, but it had brown sugar, cinnamon, and ground up something or other. It was certainly a dessert, but that’s all I was able to determine.

The other food stalls looked equally good — lentils, beans, tripe, kebabs, fresh orange juice, and four or five stalls selling snails. Walking through the food stalls means subjecting yourself to the imprecations of the food hawkers. One guy got after me — “Hallo! Hallo! Sit down! Sit down! You want kebab?” I wasn’t ready so I said “no thanks.” He decided to change tactics. “Shut up! Shut up!” he shouted. If I want this kind of service, I’ll move back to Queens.

On my first night in town I nearly fell out of bed at some ungodly hour, awakened by the call to prayer. My traditional hotel (called a “riad”) is in the middle of the medina. The medina is the walled old city of Marrakesh — it is a corn maze of narrow passageways, walled compounds, and such. So we’re in it. And so the call to prayer surrounds you. It was as if the muezzin (Arabic for alarm clock, I think) was standing at the foot of my bed. The sound is everywhere. In my sleep deprived, ambien-addled state, I couldn’t fully appreciate the cultural moment, but some little part of my lizard brain must have acknowledged how cool it was.

Riad Saba — Not bad for $150 a night.

Everyone’s heard the song — you don’t pull on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind…and so on. Well, there’s one thing you should never, ever, do, and that’s try to bargain with a Berber. This is the big leagues, boys and girls. This is like trying to throw a fastball past Babe Ruth. All day, every day, they beat unsuspecting foreigners out of their money. And yet we keep coming back for more. And why the heck not? After all, it’s all here — the rugs, the jewelry, the STUFF!

And so today, my colleague Paul and I dutifully marched our sorry selves into the souk to do our part for the Moroccan economy, and to do battle with the best. Guys who would stuff Donald Trump into a tagine and eat him for lunch.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter this souk

Was it a fair fight? Hell no. Did we have fun? You betcha. And boy did we walk out of that souk with a bunch of stuff. Here’s how it goes. You walk into a shop and one of the sales people comes up and smiles warmly, offers assistance, but only if you need it. You want to take your time, no sweat. Want some tea? It’s FREE! (each and every time someone asked us this question they would say “It’s FREE!” with what seemed like the exact same inflection. I can see kindergarten teachers across Morocco each morning opening the day by saying, “good morning, boys and girls” and the response being “have some tea, it’s FREE!”

It’s free like the first toke on the schoolyard is free, my brothers and sisters. Actually the “free” tea is really, really good. They serve it in little glasses that look like shot glasses for very big people. And the tea seems to be appreciably different each time. Once it’s really dark with a lot of sugar. The next time it’s lighter and less sweet. Then it’s fresh muddled mint. And just like I’ve lapsed into this tea reverie, so you will find yourself drifting happily into this tea-induced state in which you just want to buy everything in the store. And your salesman, he’s so friendly and nice.

First we bought rugs. It was early in the day and you’re reminded that the first sale is good luck and that this price will be the best of the day and you think “yeah, first sale of the day’s a freebie” (like the tea), and he says a price and you say a price and there’s only smiling and niceness and pretty soon you’re walking away with carpets. Hey! We were just looking! Now we’re carrying bags!

We got warmed up by buying some rugs here

And the rug guy says “you like spices? Here’s my brother’s shop” and you go in and sure enough, brother (really? We should have quizzed them, in separate rooms, like on NYPD Blue — “what toothpaste does your mother use?”) busts out the tea and between the mint and the sugar and the whole thing of it you’re sniffing spices and pretty soon you’re carrying more bags. On the other hand, I walked out with lamb tagine spice and chicken tagine spice and some crazy tea. “Won’t it smell in my luggage?” “No problem, I’ll put two bags.” Dude coulda put ten bags because my hotel room smells to high heaven. I’m going to have to buy a glass jar and put it in ANOTHER glass jar.

I swear, my luggage still smells

Then we walk into another little shop and pretty soon we’re being led out of the shop and down a maze of alleyways, far from the bustle and we’re in three floors of Moroccan Madness — like Aladdin threw up all over the place. Jewelry, art, lamps, pottery, just about anything you can think of. And what do you suppose our new friend, Abdul, a second generation Marrakeshi (if that’s what they call them), says as soon as we’re ensconced in the store?

Okay, class, everybody at once: “have some tea, it’s FREE!”

Abdul’s father moved to Marrakesh from the desert. He’s a slight fifty four year old man, with the kind of face that made you just want to give him your wallet. Nice, friendly, caring. In fact, Abdul told me that if people just accept his first offer, he reduces the price because you should NEVER accept the first offer. I wanted to ask him more questions. Do you bargain at the grocery store? The butcher? The DMV? (“I’ll give you three hundred dirhams to renew my license.”) Here’s another strategy — anything you’re remotely interested in, he puts on the table, so you can compare. And he’s helpful. Paul picked up a small silver menorah and Abdul appeared out of nowhere and helpfully offered, “Downstairs there is more Jew pieces!” and when you’re finally exhausted, he moves in for the kill. “Okay, let’s begin,” he says. And there’s a table full of stuff you really don’t want and you start to feel like you’ve been summoned by the Godfather and you hope you’re up to date on your insurance.

So I had a bunch of stuff on the table, some jewelry and assorted tchochkes. It was all very nice, but I honestly had no idea where he was going to start. So he pulls out a pad of paper and he tells me that he will start with a price and then informs me that I will reject that price and put down my price and he will reject that price and put down another price until we agree. And if we can’t agree, no big deal. He likes me and respects me and understands. It’s not like he’s an Berber from the Atlas mountains, he says. Now those guys are tough, he commiserates. And I’m such a nice fellow from America. We’re going to do just fine. Now that sounded reasonable. I’m in Morocco and Abdul is showing me all his cards. Well, hell. If Sandy Koufax tells me he’s gonna throw a fastball I’m still not going to hit it.

So Abdul writes a number on his paper, and it’s 18,000 dirhams. And I’m thinking, “hmmm three hundred bucks, that’s a bit high”, but the whole idea is the bargaining, so maybe I’ll get him down to somewhere between a half and a third of that. So, say, somewhere between a hundred and a hundred and fifty bucks. I had a bunch of stuff, and so I was feeling pretty good. This is a good, efficient, reasonably affordable haul. After all, I’m in Morocco and my family’s home and I got to come home with some serious goodies. So, good. I’m liking this.

And then my wheels started turning, slowly, figuring exchange rates, and it was like a picture coming into focus. He didn’t start at three HUNDRED dollars, he started at three THOUSAND dollars. And my mouth went dry, and maybe I spit up some of the tea, I’m not sure. And I’m really scrambling. And so I tell the calm, lovely, smiling Abdul that obviously my taste in fine tchochkes was better than I could afford and thanks and thanks for the tea, and have a nice life and Abdul says, with that wonderful, loving, winning smile, so warm and caring, “oh no, you have to make a counter offer, I can always say no.” I felt a little like Nathan Detroit shooting dice with Big Julie and Big Julie pulls out a pair of dice with no spots on them and he says, “the spots wore off, but I remember where they were.”

And my head starts spinning and I’m palpitating slightly and I have no idea what to do. So I start taking out some of the stuff I never wanted in the first place that somehow found its way onto the table, and, with a totally straight face, I offered him a hundred bucks for some assortment of Moroccan stuff. And he was lovely about it, and told me that what I had done was just fine, we’re going by the rules. I had half expected him to pull one of the jewel-encrusted swords off the wall and lop my head off, but no, he dropped his price to fifteen hundred and I want to one twenty five and he went to something and I went to something and then I made my final offer, a hundred fifty bucks, and he turned me down. The Moroccan guy turned me down.

I couldn’t believe it. Had I won? Had I lost? I have a basic rule that within reason, you don’t walk away if you’re close. After all, I can’t remember what I paid for any of the bajillion souvenirs I’ve bought. (Okay, my wife Janine once paid ten bucks for a fifty cent bag in Thailand by accident. Or was it Mexico and bag was five bucks? — whatever, you get the point.)

And I walked from the store, empty handed. It was kind of like leaving a casino forty eight hours after you walked in with exactly the same amount of money you started with.

So we kept on. I was okay with myself. If I got a Moroccan to say no, I was a tough American.

And then I met Ahmed Ait Habibi. Ahmed made Abdul looks like Freddy Kruger. The smiling, the tea, the nice stories. He lived in College Park in Maryland! Just like me! We’re brothers, practically. Then he goes into his office and pulls out photos of his brother and his sister in law and people from New Zealand and I ask him where he’s from and what he says turns my blood cold.

“I’m Berber, from Atlas Mountains.”

And I’ve picked out something really nice and truly unusual and he pulls out a notebook and he draws a shape like a crucifix and he puts his name on one side and mine on the other and he writes down a bunch of boxes — and he says “here’s where my first price goes and here’s where yours’ goes and then I put the next one here and you put the next one there and the final price goes in the circle.” I’ve been here before, on the dedication page of “Atlas Berbering for Dummies.” And we go. And the amazing thing is that I paid pretty much what I thought it was worth, about a third of his first price. And then we did the Berber handshake and touched our hearts and our heads and kissed each cheek (I swear, I swear, I swear I’m not making this up) and it was over. I was a spent husk.

My Atlas Berber buddy
Who do you think won?

Oh, and then we got accosted by a fifteen year old kid and ended up in a textile shop (no tea, but some good photos!) and it was really over.

Okay, we’re in the home stretch here.

I’ll pick up the story at the Hammam, the Turkish bath. My colleague Paul and I decided that after a long day supporting the Moroccan economy, a bit of relaxing steam and light exfoliating might be nice. And indeed it was. At some point a Turk emigrated to Morocco and took his bath with him, because this appears to be quite the thing here, although the concept is kind of associated with the Turks. No matter. The hammam is a glorious thing. We were led to the changing room where we were instructed to leave the underthings on (and I say good! — this is a family blog) and we were sent to a very hot room with a sort of peaked ceiling to relax on our backs and start the schvitzing. The walls were seriously hot to the touch, and as I looked up, I realized that we were more or less the meat in a tagine (the conically-shaped Moroccan crock pot). Every so often someone would come in and throw water on us, which was good, because I was starting to bubble, and then finally came the exfoliation.

Two sturdy looking women entered, brandishing fuzzy mitts bearing the legend “Les Bains du Marrakech” (which we would be presented with later as a souvenir) and started scrubbing. They scrubbed and they scrubbed until they hit bone and then they left us there to heal. I commented on the muddy exfoliant they used, since even after hosing off the room like firefighters there were still bits of scrub on the bench, when Paul corrected me. That wasn’t scrub I was fingering, it was skin. That’s one way to lose weight.

Nevertheless, it was a slice of life and we emerged from our session with the loofah ladies lighter, shinier, and quite chipper. Then it was dinner at the Riad — a shmabulous soup called harrira that’s made from chick peas, lentils, coriander and other good stuff. This is the soup people traditionally eat to break their Ramadan fast each night and you can see why — it’s thick, hearty, and packed with flavor. Then it was a tagine of beef and potato with a bottle of wine. Morocco may be a Muslim country through and through, but it’s no problem to have alcohol in your hotel or at a proper restaurant. I personally find this to be a delightful mix of cultures.

In fact, the food really is amazing. My innkeeper served a very simple breakfast each day that included this amazing fig jam, bread with olive oil from trees they own outside of town, and crazily good orange juice. In the main square there are probably twenty orange juice stands, where for 3 Dirhams (about 40 cents, give or take) you get the best glass of juice you’ve ever had. Not that I’d fly halfway across the world to get discount juice, but you take your little victories where you can.

Another little victory is the triumph of the lazy — a cooperative market called Artisan Maroc, just outside the old city walls. This market has dozens of little tiny shops with representative crafts from across the country — silver, textiles, carpets, you name it. The stuff is authentic — no Chinese knockoffs (he said, confidently, sort of). And get this — the prices are ACTUALLY LISTED. And no haggling. I would step in to a shop and the shopkeeper would smile and say “hello.” And that was it. No tea. (It’s FREE!) No “Shut up! Shut up!” No photos of the relatives. No disquisition about how I was about to get my pocket picked. No crucifix. No dry mouth. Nuthin’. Just good old honest ‘merican shopkeeping. I have to admit, I liked it a lot.

My favorite shot. I surreptitiously (I thought) took a picture of this snake charmer. He spotted me an came after me for a tip, so I took another picture! Wacky American!

My advice to anyone who goes to Marrakesh is this. Just go to the frigging Artisan Maroc and save yourself a lot of grief. I spent days worrying that I got ripped off, and I have to say that the negotiating made my mouth a little dry. Oh, it was fun in a crazy “I’m-in-Morocco-getting my-ass-kicked–by-an-Atlas-Berber-who-is-missing-at-least-one-very-necessary-tooth” sort of way, but let’s face it, it can get a little stressful. I’m happy to report that the price I ended up paying my dentally-challenged Atlas Berber friend from College Park was about right, but I had a few worried moments.

Dinner in the market is kind of the same way. You wander through the stalls and you’re swarmed by the dinner touts “Hola! Bon Soir! Hallo!” trying every language they can think of on you to get you to sit at their stall. One of them shouted “Hey! It’s finger licking good!” I can’t imagine that line really works. One night a few of my colleagues expressed a desire to give the forbidden sheep’s head a try and I led a field trip into the marketplace, feeling a little like Lawrence of Arabia (well, maybe Flashman) leading my charges, fending off the entreaties of the packs of culinary jackals, trying to find a stall that looked popular, but empty enough to fit a group of six (a physical and mathematical impossibility, sadly).

We settled on a stall that might not have matched the first night’s experience for the following reasons. 1. They seemed happy to see us. This felt like a bad sign. The first night, we picked the stall that seemed indifferent to our presence, sort of a reverse Groucho Marx, in that we wanted to be in the club that didn’t want us as members. 2. They had soft drinks. Waaay too modern. 3. They gave us forks. This disturbed me deeply, but I didn’t let on. At the other place, it was eat with your hands or starve. Our postmodern sheep’s head was still good, but perhaps it lacked the je ne sais quois of the other place. There were also more contiguous pieces of meat, which made for easier chewing, but felt like a slight cheat. But until we sat down, running the food tout gauntlet made me feel something like a cocktail waitress at the Tailhook Convention. Once you sit down, of course, you’re safe. Even these guys must have some kind of rule about physically removing another man’s customer from his stall. The food stalls are no place for the indecisive, trust me.

Travel is about the unexpected moments, though. That’s probably why the first sheep head was better. I had no expectations, at least none that did not involve gastrointestinal distress (which I’m happy to report never occurred). My last morning in Marrakesh was a case in point. I had to get up very early to get cash to settle my Riad incidentals, so I set off for a bank machine in running shoes and shorts. So I’m standing in the medina in running shoes and shorts and realized that I had all the tools I needed to go for a run! Runners in general get odd reactions from people (although the most entertaining reaction I ever got were the schoolchildren outwardly laughing at me in Kigali), but you really get some funny looks running through the medina at 6:30 in the morning. I have to say, though, that there’s nothing like an early morning run to see a place as it really is.

Man in cart

In fact, whether you’re running or walking, there’s nothing quite like seeing a place as it’s waking up — shopkeepers setting up, street cleaners dealing with the previous night’s mayhem (and man, is the place a mess in the morning), folks off to work, stuff like that. That’s when a place feels really real. The touristy shops are still shuttered, but the bakeries are open, and the coffee shops, and real stuff is happening — a guy was dropping off live chickens at the butcher, a fellow delivered an impossibly high stack of eggs from his moped, a woman completely covered in black (how could she see? I couldn’t even see mesh) was walking her child somewhere. Men in long beards and skullcaps and long dress-like robes moved resolutely from there to here. It was all so…cool.

As I mentioned before, Marrakesh is like Venice, in that delivers on its promise. You go to Venice and you want to see canals and guys in kerchiefs and old crumbly buildings and you get that in spades. Same for Marrakesh — the snake charmers, the souks, the sounds, the smells — it’s the rare place that is pretty much what you expected it to be. The place is so exotic, and so textured, yet still very accessible.

After all, you can get a cheap, very lovely place to stay with gracious hospitality, you can exfoliate, you can go to the haggle-free market, and you can get a drink. You can even eat sheep’s head with a fork and wash it down with a Coca Cola if you want. Or you can haggle with the Berbers, get lost in the maze, and get a glimpse of what people who are nothing like you do with their lives. And we didn’t even venture out of town, where you can ride a camel in the desert, visit the hill towns, or go to the beach. Seriously, what’s not to like?

I hate to oversell stuff, but I have to give Marrakesh two happy thumbs up. I can’t wait to take my people, whom I’m certain will love the shopping and the culture and the food and the free tea almost as much as I did.

Signing off, I remain your faithful correspondent.

    Eric Brown

    Written by

    Nonprofit Communications Consultant. Former Hill Staffer. Just finished my Master's (Studied Kagame's Rwanda). Into cooking, travel, and I still like the Mets.

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