'As a woman in Morocco you cover up, no matter what the guide books say'
Be prepared to get lost in the souks in Morocco: I did, writes Irishwoman Michelle Walshe
‘Go for a weekend, go for a week. I went for a year. And stayed.’
It’s so hot in Marrakesh in summer; clothes stick to your back, make-up melts on your face kind of hot. The dust swirls, visible to the naked eye, tangible, practically edible. And it’s red. Like the heat. Like the city, which sits stoically in the middle of the country in a climatic fishbowl suffering sweltering summers and freezing winters.
Winter arrives abruptly, leaving you changing your t-shirt for a fleece and glaring at the tiles on the floor that you gazed at so adoringly in spring and summer.
It tries hard to be the West, but this is certainly no New York. The western tinge is superficial. Go behind any of the elegant modern facades and you will find segregated eating patterns with men and women in different rooms. Arranged marriages are common and polygamy still exists, though it is no longer rife.
Cafes are men-only domains. Shopping malls cater for Muslim not western women. The veil is not only in fashion, it is integral to the culture.
As a western woman, you make adjustments. You don’t go out alone at night. In fact, you don’t go out alone at all. You cover up, no matter what the guide books say. And you speak French or you don’t manage.
Learning Arabic is helpful. A key word is Inshallah, which translates literally as “god willing”, though has come to mean no in reality. As-Salaam-Alaikum (peace be with you) and its response Wa-Alaikum-Salaam (with you too), are useful greetings to learn. They are used to mean something like “How are you?”
Everything has a price. Everything is for sale. Learn how to bargain and yet expect still to feel duped. Whatever price you are quoted, halve it, then halve it again.
Lost in the souk
Be prepared to get lost in the souk. Wander the tiny streets. Inhale the scents of fresh vervain, mint and cumin. Drink an avocado juice or an Oulmes, the Moroccan Ballygowan. Try some mint tea – and try not to blanch at the amount of sugar in it. Try a “crazy sandwich” in Djemaa el-Fnaa – it’s like a blaa but with zany ingredients. Eat tagine with your hands. Savour fragrant couscous, succulent dates, fresh crispy nuts, warm bread dipped in olive oil.
Sit on the edge of the square and watch the crowds: the tourists, the young Moroccan men with their older European girlfriends, the Europeans on city breaks, the American students, the snake charmers, the monkeys, the tricksters, the fruit sellers. All life is here.
Pause, listen, look. And shop. Visit the Quartier d’Or at the entrance to the main square if you want to buy some Middle Eastern yellow gold. It’s shiny, it’s sparkly. The square is a great place to buy phone covers, shoes and clothes but beware, goods made here do not have a long shelf life and break easily.
Oasis of calm
Take a red tourist bus tour and orientate yourself. Keep the Koutoubia Mosque in your sights and you won’t get lost. Jump off at Les Jardins Majorelle, a blue beauty and an oasis of calm. Visit the parfumerie across the street. Take taxis the rest of the time. They will try your patience but remember you are paying €2 for what you would normally pay €20 for at home. So smile and say, “Shukraan” (Thank you). Don’t drive. There is an invisible “third lane” apparent only to Moroccan eyes. Even if you have driven in Italy or Greece and think you have seen it all, you haven’t.
Go to a hammam; Turkey invented it but Morocco perfected it. It’s a social outing but leave your modesty at the door. You will emerge feeling cleaner than you ever have in your life.
Don’t visit in August, you will melt, or at Ramadan, which is a moveable feast, as everything is closed and taxi drivers are grumpier than usual. And make sure to bring home some Argan oil, the elixir Moroccans put on everything from their faces to their salads, they are only shy of putting it in their cars.
Ryanair flies from Dublin to Marrakesh every Thursday and Sunday. Go for a weekend, go for a week. I went for a year. And stayed.