Morocco's city of many colours

Marrakesh is a kaleidoscope of images; everyday objects appear luminous. Ian Holmes explores the old town and, overleaf, takes a rocky road south
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS not yet midday in Jemaa el Fna, the big irregular square at the heart of the souk in Marrakesh, but already the sun seared every open space, and pierced the covered alleys of the souk with dusty shafts of light that played tricks with the shadows and the imagination.

The souk itself and Jemaa el Fna, translated as "the place of the dead", are colourful spectacles on most tourist itineraries of Morocco. For many who live in this ancient, "red", walled city, they are also vibrant sources of livelihood, and places where traditional and modern ways of life meet.

At daybreak, the square is an empty wedge of tarmac, lined with taxis. Soon, boys selling fruit juice appear, their barrows piled with oranges, limes and grapefruit, bright beneath a sky of freshly squeezed blue. As the sun climbs to the music of snake charmers' pipes, random stalls rise from the ground.

Nearby cafes open to serve those working in the souk. Beyond their windows of intricately wrought iron, the streets grow busy with traffic: donkeys drawings carts, buses, taxis, Vespas and bicycles.

All morning, Berbers arrive from the Atlas Mountains, south of the city, bearing bundles of goods for auction. At the heart of the souk, in the Criee Berbere, they wander the narrow tunnels, calling out prices.

Those selling fleece may have come to see the dyers of the Souk des Teinturiers, where vivid cascades of wool strung from the walls are one of the most memorable images tourists take home from Morocco.

Yet it is the stalls of the souk's herbalists that most reveal why daily life here is so steeped in colour. Arrayed with jars of brilliant powders, their shelves are like rainbows: bright red cochineal, yellow saffron, deep blue cobalt, indigo, lavender, cinnamon and turquoise, all drawn from plants and minerals found in Morocco for centuries. Such intense colours, electric beneath a North African sun, have drawn many artists here, notably Delacroix and Matisse. Many are used in solution to dye clothes, traditional and western garments alike. Others form the bases of natural remedies for those who cannot afford modern medicines. Some, such as antimony and henna, long-believed to ward off evil spirits, are still used as cosmetics. Those that are spices remain as central to Moroccan cooking as they have always been. In these jars, cocktails of spiritual and aesthetic beliefs meet the needs of life today, which is all the brighter because of it.

Weave the colours of daily life together, and you have someone's life story. "A kilim's pattern is the tale of its creator's life, and nobody else can say what it means," one carpet-seller in the souk explained, a shade wearily. Business was slow. He showed me his modern European carpets, popular with young Moroccans. Traditional crafts were no longer seen as ways of earning a good living, he said. Only through education and a profession could the young succeed.

Unemployment in Marrakesh is high. Worst hit is the old residential area of the medina, north of the souk. Groups of men play pool and cards for cups of mint tea, or mill around the niches in every wall, where craftsmen crouch as they beat copper, stitch leather or shape clay, making goods for the souk.

Around the medina's streets, beside hairdressers and bicycle-repair shops, and those selling old cookers and radiators, vendors lay out their wares on the ground: rows of spanners, arched around calculators, knitting magazines, tennis balls and bottles of nail varnish. There is something wonderfully haphazard in their choice of stock, and something delightful in its presentation. And this can be seen in any stall on any street across Morocco, whether it is selling tribal antiques or plastic laundry baskets.

Even in the humblest homes, pleasures greet the eye. Beautifully simple patterned tiles decorated the crumbling courtyard that the family of my guide, Hassan, shared with two others, where we sat while he explained to me why his own story was typical of modern times.

Hassan left school at the age of 10 to learn his father's trade as a tanner. After 15 years, he gave it up to become a guide. It was an easier life. Today, he "works" the souk day and night, feeding his family on tips and, sometimes, on the commission he makes on items "his" tourists buy in the bazaars. But in a long, slow summer, margins in the souk's 5,000 stalls are as narrow as its tightest alleys. Only by selling hashish to tourists in Jemaa el Fna each night did Hassan make any money.

"Looking for something special?" A voice in the darkness of the square asked me that night. Forty pounds could buy any pleasure I desired. I glanced at some business cards that were passed to me. They belonged to the voice's regular "customers" - European sales directors who visited Marrakesh on business then stayed on for pleasures less easily available at home.

Across the square, in the flickering light of gas lamps, fortune tellers crouched before their cards, and Barbary apes performed their tricks. Musicians and comedians did their turns for the crowds, only pausing to ask for payment from any raised camera. Rows of kitchen tables, laden with food, were lined with benches of people eating their evening meals. Meat sizzled on grills, flames leapt from braziers, vats bubbled. The darkness swirled with steam and the scent of spices, and shadows danced with the colours of night.


GETTING THERE: Royal Air Maroc (0171-439 4361) flies daily, London to Marrakesh, except Wednesdays; Super Pex tickets with a maximum one month's stay cost pounds 301 return. Trailfinders (0l7l 937 5400) has return flights for pounds 205, on Tuesdays or Saturdays.

GETTING AROUND: Internal flights from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate cost pounds 32 return on Royal Air Maroc. Hertz (0181-679 1799) have a car rental office at Marrakesh airport. Daily bus services connect villages along the Dades Valley, from where excursions are easily arranged with local taxis. Morocco Bound (0171-734 5307) and The Best of Morocco (01380 828533) offer excursions to the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Moroccan Tourist Office (0171-437 0073), 205 Regent Street, London W1R 7DE; Cadogan Guide to Morocco by Barnaby Rogerson (pounds 14.99)