Before I visited Marrakech, it would be fair to say I didn’t expect to leave with anything other than fond memories of the city. As someone who has been fortunate enough to travel a lot, nothing prepared me for the culture shock I would experience during my stay. To say I disliked Marrakech would be unfair, but in all honesty I can’t claim to love it either.
I know, I know, I can practically hear the gasps already. Hear me out though. Despite Marrakech challenging me on many levels, I do not regret visiting and would whole heartedly recommend others to do the same. In order to explain why the city of Marrakech left me feeling so conflicted, we must start at the beginning of the story, and therefore at the heart of the city: Jemaa El Fna.
Marrakech’s main square is captivating from the off. The smell of exotic spices waft through the air to the soundtrack of snake charming flutes. An enchanting playground for both tourists and locals, Jemaa El Fna offers everything from ancient storytelling to monkeys. From the moment you step into the square you will be consumed by the ambience and overcome by a mad desire to explore. Jemaa El Fna is undoubtedly the central hub of the city and no visit to Marrakech would be complete without it. Though be warned, this fusion of culture and entertainment comes with its own side effects, not all of which are easily reconciled.
The Main ‘Attractions’
Even though these stories are being told in Arabic (a language I confess I am woefully ignorant of), this was one of the most fascinating sights in the main square. Crowds of locals gather for these traditional recitals in which audience members are hauled up for illustrative purposes. You might not understand what is being said, but you will be captivated nonetheless.
These are amongst some of the most eagle eyed tradesmen you will find in the Medina. All it takes is a mere glance in the direction of the snakes and you will have one of them draped around your shoulders before you know it. Whilst most of the cobras generally appear to be in good condition, many other breeds of snake are not. I have also read claims that these animals have had their fangs removed to prevent injury to tourists, so interaction should be avoided. However, speaking from experience, it is very difficult to shake off a snake charmer when you are already (by choice or not) wearing a snake. Unfortunately, if you find yourself in this position, it is nearly impossible to get away without making a donation. Knowing that we had already been trapped, I took the opportunity to take some photos for this article and gave as little money as possible. This was one incident which left me feeling very dejected and morally torn, especially as it was not an experience I had sought out.
Perhaps the most vocal of Jemaa El Fna’s residents are the hunched women who brandish henna patterns aggressively at western women as they walk by. At first glance it appears that the women are using large needles to administer the henna, but these questionable utensils are in fact syringes. One of my most terrifying moments was naively stopping to chat to a local woman and suddenly having to wrench my hand out of her grip as she came at me with this monstrous looking implement. After already feeling emotionally drained from our experience with the snake charmer, this made me nothing short of hysterical and drove me to hide in the Riad for the rest of the evening.
If you are walking around Jemaa El Fna, you will be aware of the calèches even if you don’t know what they are yet. This is the local term used to describe the horse drawn carriages that can be seen all over the city. Nowhere appears to be off limits for this transport and it is likely you will have to dive out of the way of a horse at some point during your trip. I have read that the horses used around Marrakech all undergo regular inspections by the animal charity SPANA to protect their welfare, however in my opinion not all of the horses appeared to be in good health so we declined to ride.
This was definitely the thing that upset me the most. To say that I am petrified of monkeys would be a stretch but after nearly being scalped by one in Thailand, I would definitely consider myself wary of them. Although monkeys wandering about in the wild would make me nervous, this is something I would accept. After all, it is their home and not mine. What I cannot accept however, is the blatant suffering that I saw in Jemaa El Fna. I don’t think I am alone when I say that seeing monkeys wearing nappies and football shirts makes me feel uncomfortable. Add in a few heavy duty metal chains to drag the monkeys about and I felt downright angry. A culture difference is one thing but outright barbarism should not be acceptable anywhere. Needless to say, I felt both anxious and saddened whenever I passed these creatures in the square, partly because I was scared one would appear on my shoulder but primarily because I was powerless to stop the cruelty.
Having eaten street food in numerous countries prior to my visit to Morocco I had no concerns about the market food. We spent one evening wandering around the square filling boxes with sickly treats and couldn’t have enjoyed the experience more. What followed on a subsequent evening was sadly not so pleasant. We decided have a budget dinner to save a bit of money by eating in the market. The first thing you should know if you have a similar idea is that the market is not that cheap in comparison to most of the budget restaurants around the Medina. The meal we ordered was horrible: we were served chewy chicken and some very questionable lukewarm rice. This isn’t to say that street food should be avoided completely though; we spoke to others who had brilliant meals on the market. Check out my guide to the best food and drink in Morocco here.
A Final Thought…
I have never visited anywhere quite like Jemaa El Fna. Without the dark side of its animal tourism industry, the main square is the perfect place to enjoy an authentic Moroccan experience. There are the colourful souks for a fun bartering exchange, freshly squeezed fruit juices waiting to be devoured and picturesque rooftop cafes to watch the hustle from if it all gets a bit too intense.
However, the harrowing animal abuse that is present all over the Medina will tug on your heart strings and ultimately leave you feeling sad and angry. Saying this, I realise it is very easy for westerners (myself included) to pass judgment. Morocco is not a wealthy country and it its important to remember that poverty plights many of it’s residents. For change to come to the tourist entertainment industry, the residents must see a reason to alter their treatment of animals which will only come from an increase in living standards. From what I saw elsewhere in Morocco, conditions for animals were much better out of the big cities. This could be because there are less tourists so animal entertainment is not in demand.
Morocco boasts a stunning landscape and some of the warmest hospitality I have ever experienced but sadly my trip was tarnished by the cruelty I saw in Jemaa El Fna. Whilst I would definitely recommend visiting Morocco and plan to go back, I feel like there would need to be a large shift in ethics before I have any desire to return to Marrakech.
Have you visited Jemaa El Fna? What are your thoughts?