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Rethinking Marrakech

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I hadn’t thought a place could change this much.

Nearly 30 years ago I visited Marrakech and I remember a pushy, leering place, with men almost grabbing at me to get me into their shops. The only two times I’d ever been tricked in travel happened there.

Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech

Thousands of stalls line the souks of Marrakech. The most hard-sell are along the edges of the Djemaa el Fna, the legendary medieval square that beats at the heart of Marrakech

I spotted a handbag I liked and negotiated the price, as one does in Marrakech. I took it away, proud of my purchase and my clearly superior bargaining skills. It was made of soft Moroccan leather, with a flap over the front, a bit like a saddlebag. But when I lifted the flap, the section underneath was far darker than the rest. This particular item had been sitting in the sun for weeks, months perhaps, and the exposed section had naturally faded. This incident was self-inflicted; I should have opened the bag before buying it. But it left me with a sour taste about being cheated.

That sour feeling was reinforced when I bought a small sheepskin, gleaming white and soft as cashmere. The salesman kindly wrapped it for transport but when I opened it at home, instead of my creamy sheepskin I found a mottled brown and beige thing, of sheared hair, pieced together with leftovers. Another lesson learned: never let a purchase out of my sight after I’ve paid.

I also remember Moroccan salesmen (they are inevitably men, since most women are still at home) as being far pushier. Men would try to drag me physically into shops, often locking their fingers around my arm for emphasis. The verbal assault was constant, a din of come hithers, of look only, of cheap cheap cheap. For someone who likes her own company and shuns crowds, I felt under constant pressure. The experience was not a good one.

Recently I returned to the scene of these dastardly crimes, mentally armed to ward off the hard-sell and primed to check each purchase with minute precision.

The economic crisis in Europe hit Morocco hard and business has not been good, so I expected things to be even worse. Yes, I was still approached by every stall-owner, but gently, asking me if I’d have a look, and most surprisingly, allowing me to leave with a smile when I said No. No snickers, no pulling, no howling. Just a smile and a thank you (of course being nearly 30 years older probably had something to do with it).

Nor did I experience any of the scamming I had been so geared to expect. I wasn’t shortchanged in the three weeks I spent in the country, and found people to be generally honest, even in the face of my own mistakes with unfamiliar currency. I met hope and goodwill, artistry and history, huge pride and an unwillingness to be considered second-class in any way. The country is admittedly poor and many people live near the poverty line, but to most Moroccans I spoke to, that was a temporary situation.

So what happened? There are still scammers, as there are in any country, and men still lust after foreign women, especially those who appear vastly different than the local women they know, because they are blonde or dress differently. But the come-ons were lighter and more polite.

That doesn’t mean women don’t get hassled – they do. But some of the edge is off.

I’m told that strong economic growth has helped. So has a concentration of tourist police, both in uniform or less visible, dressed as beggars or tourists. Urban Morocco has significantly modernized, and television has brought other cultures into everyone’s home.

Morocco evolved – but I had not, bringing with me old attitudes and expecting things to be as they were in 1987. I failed to arrive with an open mind, and instead dragged my prejudices with me across decades.

Places do change.

But sometimes, the hardest thing to pack is an open mind. 

This post is part of the #Indie30 challenge Р30 Days of Indie Travel, by Bootsnall.


  1. Penelope on April 2, 2014 at 7:51 pm

    Nice to know! Planning to visit Morocco later this year. Frankly I love being 30 years older (like you, the red hair and pale skin always attracted the wrong kind of attention in many countries). Will be reading you for the next 29 days as well, so don’t think you can slack off!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 2, 2014 at 8:24 pm

      Ouch! But I should point out that we can post in ANY format – blog post but ALSO fB/Twitter/G+ status update, photo, video, painting… so on busy days be ready for the Tweet!

  2. Emma on May 13, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Firstly I always enjoy reading your blogs and posts.
    So I totally loved Morocco, highly recommend it and I will defiantly go back some day! Marrakesh is an amazing place, but for me the hassles, brash comments and the rudeness took its toll on me. By the time we had travelled constantly for 12 days all over Morocco, in all weather conditions, I was close to breaking point!
    We never had such a hard time in any other place on our trip to Morocco, at times young men were even aggressive when we declined to be shown “The Way”, we even got called “Big Racists” to which I actually laughed out loud!
    So sadly Marrakesh does not make it in to my top 10 places in Morocco, but the good times far out weigh the bad on this trip!
    Not that anything like that will put off a Kiwi Gal like me and My South African travel buddy, we sure have plenty of amusing to tell friends over a cup of Mint Tea!

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on May 13, 2014 at 1:29 pm

      So glad to see you’re got the spirit and can separate the good from the bad – so many people have negative experiences, which end up turning a destination into a ‘bad’ one for them. Morocco drives me crazy because I hear a lot of experiences like yours – and then a lot that are exactly the opposite. It seems to be a country in which extremes are highlighted – very rude or very polite. Still, kudos to you for trooping on – but I agree, of all the places I visited on a three-week trip recently, Marrakech was not at the top of the list. Conversely – it was a lot better than the last time I visited a couple of decades ago…

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