Marrakech 2: Souks
“No, that would give the wrong idea”, our twenty something chauffeur answered when we asked him whether he went to clubs. He was married and had a kid, he told us. In Marrakech you go to a club to meet a future wife. You don’t just go partying with your friends. When asked what his wife does, he answered that she cooks and takes care of their kid.
Public life in Marrakech is dominated by men. Sure, there are women in the streets, but they form a minority. Our chauffeur on Friday took us to a Berber market outside of the city. The local Berber community does their shopping once a week at such a market. Pretty much everything one wishes for in terms of food and non-food is sold there. But on about three hundred men, we found a only couple of women duck away in the back of the stalls. This definitely is a men’s world.
When asked where all the women were, every time we got the same answer: at home cooking and taking care of the kids. We soon found out that there was a certain logic behind this. Compared to the west, Moroccans get a lot of children – more than half a dozen per family. In addition to this, it turned out that the locals don’t go to restaurants and cafés. Everybody eats at home. The restaurants and cafés in Marrakech are just for the tourists and the French expatriates living there. The prices are accordingly: about two-third of what one would pay in Amsterdam.
Back in the old city, rows and rows of shops – the souks – provide a kind of permanent Berber market. The shops are run by men, obviously, and all prices are negotiable. Every shop owner asks you for your nationality. For a reason, we read in our Lonely Planet guide. There is a virtual list of nationalities organized to what they are willing to pay. The list is topped by the Americans, the Dutch are put on place eight. We are cheap, apparently. The funny thing is that it seemed to work in our advantage. After theatrical negotiations, some of the shop owners were willing to give us a good discount.
In the long and narrow souks, the shops display everything they have. The shops don’t seem to have a storage area. This in contrast to what we are used to in the west, where in for instance a shoe store only exemplary ‘samples’ of the sold products are on display. The precise product is stored in the ‘back’.
In the city of Marrakech the souks form a complex, continuous network of alley’s. A typical souk consists of a double row of small shops and has some kind of roofing to shed the street from the sun. Officially these are public streets, but since the souks are roofed and the shop owners collaboratively intervene at any disturbance – as we saw happening a couple of times – these spaces at least feel semi-public. Is the shopping mall a public or private place? In the souks, we didn’t know either.
When we took a tour into the nearby Atlas mountains, it turned out that the road – that is driven by a lot of tourists – was lined with shop displays all the way into the mountains. Everything we saw, was only there because of the tourists, our chauffeur explained to us. Along the road an alternative economy didn’t exist. The profit from agriculture (oranges, olives, etcetera) can’t compete with the earnings from tourism.
When we got out of the minicab in the village the road terminated, we took a stroll up to a waterfall. Again, the path was lined with shops. All just for the tourists, our guide explained.
Everywhere tourists come, shops pop up. A continuous shopping mall from Marrakech is being built all the way up to this waterfall. In a couple of years this little walk into the mountain might well have turned into a souk. In Morocco you can’t escape from the souks.