The medina of Marrakech and the emerging middle-class

Riad al-Massarah

As a naturally early riser, I find the mornings very peaceful in Marrakech. For the past few days I’ve been awake to hear the first call to prayer. The sound of the muezzin from a nearby minaret marks the dawn and I gently open the window shutters to let the cool air carry the melodic sound into my room. Once the sun has fully risen, the birdsong begins and I can hear the neighbourhood slowly waking up. Presumably the devout get up early to pray, but the pace of this city is languid and business doesn’t get going properly until late-morning.

I’ve long dreamed of going to Morocco but I felt the call of other places much more strongly, which is why it’s taken me a while to get here. So I had a huge amount of expectations before arriving…and I haven’t been at all disappointed. It’s good to be back on the road on my own.

‘In Morocco’ by Edith Wharton is accompanying me during my time here, and although it’s a bit too Orientalist for my liking, she does a pretty good job of describing a bygone era in Morocco. Thinking about her writing, I’ve been walking around modern day Marrakech feeling a little envious of travellers from centuries and even decades past, where the wonder of this place would have been breathtaking. Being a traveller in a globalised and interconnected world — which obviously has loads of benefits — does mean that there’s very little that’s ‘exotic’ here. I’ve been a bit ruined by travelling too much in similar places. Still, I’m enjoying myself immensely and even thinking of coming back at the end of the year to see more of the country while I’m living close by in Europe. I’m also more curious than ever to see the south of Spain given the history of the region.

Mint for sale
Mint for sale

I’ve been exploring the huge medina (closed city) every day, enjoying being a tourist in a centuries-old trader city and wandering around without too much concern for time. I’m constantly getting lost in the tangle and encountering opportunistic boys who try to extract money from me by leading me out again. There are stray kittens everywhere, as expected in a Muslim country, and the pungent smells of horse shit alongside solid perfumes. I’ve also experienced the incredible natural fragrance of hundreds of bushels of mint and verbena piled high on a cart.

Marrakech has a pleasing palette of brown, blue, black and green, as evidenced by the beautiful mosaics found in old buildings. Although the city is mostly the same colour, it’s also punctuated by the bright colours of the wares in the labyrinthine souks; I’m sure the origin of colour dyes must involve Morocco.

I’ve more than done my bit for the local economy by buying beautiful things and not being too hard-line with bargaining. There’s a fair amount of poverty around and life seems like it would be a little tough for the majority, so a few extra bucks here and there means far more to the locals than me.

Shopping in the souk
Shopping in the souk

I have no idea how the sellers manage to get by with such intense competition. Walking around the souk – which is bigger and more impressive than the one I frequented in Aleppo – I also can’t help thinking how small the world of the sellers is, and how lucky I am to have so much intellectual freedom in my life to think and do new things everyday. I can only imagine the yearning that some of them have to escape from their monotonous routine, and a lifestyle that has virtually stayed the same for centuries. Particularly the younger generation who are growing up in a world where there’s the internet and more exposure than ever to different cultures and ways of life. But I guess there’s strength to be found in tradition too.

Sorbet at Cafe 16
Sorbet at Cafe 16

It’s not tough for everyone here though. Marrakech is actually far more modern than I expected and I spent a big chunk of time in Nouvelle Ville the other day to see how middle-class Morroccans live. And the answer is: not that different to the emerging middle class of similar sized economies. It seems in line with how economic progress is realised in the modern world. I walked past a massive Zara store several times, which is kind of funny given that a lot of Zara’s clothes are made in Morocco. I didn’t check it out to see how much the clothes were but it would surely be way more expensive than it should be given local labour costs. The ugly side of capitalism.

When I was hanging out at a popular hip cafe, a group of young Marrakshi were speaking in French, which indicates that French is still the prestige language — an unsurprising colonial hangover. I’ve used a little getting around and also buying, but mostly it’s been easier to use English. It feels funny to be in a Francophone country, and being surrounded by French tourists who are completely free to speak in their own language. I’m so used to English being the world’s lingua franca.

The relationship between France and Morocco seems to remain strong. One such partnership is the Jardin Majorelle, which was owned by French designer Yves Saint Laurent until his death in 2008. The garden was originally created by French artist Majorelle and many years later was revived and restored by YSL and his partner. It’s now governed by a foundation and it’s a spectacular legacy. The blues and yellows of the garden beautifully complement the city’s official colours.

At Jardin Majorelle
At Jardin Majorelle

The one point of true difference of Marrakech is the main square in the medina, Jemaa el-Fnaa. A trip to Marrakech is almost worth it for the spectacle of the square alone. There’s something medieval about the way the crowds gather every night to eat from one of the hundreds of food stalls that magically materialise at sundown. In the morning it’s mostly empty.

Jemaa el-Fnaa
Jemaa el-Fnaa

I sat down on my first night to a cheap bowl of harira soup before walking around afterwards to watch the crowds being entertained by snake charmers and musicians and storytellers. There are plenty of entertainers and services aimed squarely at tourists, so they’re well aware that playing up the exotic will earn them extra Dirham. I imagine that Jemaa el-Fnaa would be just as alien to a middle-class Morrocan.

Speaking of food, I thought I’d get quickly bored with the local fare but I feel like I’m barely scratching the surface — sweets, street food, tagines, meats, cous cous, salads, olives and pastries. Simple but delicious fare. Not to mention the abundant sun-kissed fruit like melon, figs and oranges. Oh, the incredible oranges! They grow everywhere here, like in Spain. Aside from having had quite a bit of sweet mint tea, I’ve been drinking at least half a litre of freshly squeezed jus d’orange a day.

Jus d'orange
Jus d’orange

Walking past doorways in the medina, it is almost impossible to get any sense of what’s behind doors. The riad I’m staying in is down a modest alleyway and marked by a submerged black door with a brass knocker – and when you step inside it’s a world away from the dusty streets. Staying in this wonderful riad in itself ranks as one of the best and most luxurious travel experiences I’ve ever had, especially as I received a discounted rate because it’s a hot time of year.

Breakfast at Riad Al-Massarah
Breakfast at Riad Al-Massarah

Riad al-Massarah is owned by two Anglo-European men, Michael and Michel, and from the moment I arrived I’ve felt very curious about what possessed them to buy an old riad and renovate and restore it as they’ve done. Of course there’s the financial incentive, but it clearly has to be more than that. They’ve been living here for more than seven years now.

When I went on an organised walking tour of Marrakech on my first day, the guide I had was quick to criticise Europeans buying up riads, turning them into boutique accommodation and pushing up prices so that property was out of the reach of ordinary Morrocans – but I immediately took his critique with a grain of salt because it can’t be as simple as that.

Is this a new form of imperialism? No doubt the price of property has gone up, but in any case these hotels encourage tourism, which is a significant source of income for the local population. Restoring a riad to meet the comfort of well-heeled travellers would be out of the reach of most ordinary Morrocans and the ones who could afford it probably aren’t interested in such projects if they’re similar to the elites of most developing countries (and I’m assuming they are). The average middle-class Morrocan probably doesn’t have too much to do with life inside the traditional medina and probably find it a little backwards.

I guess this is capitalism, right? It’s easy to have a go at the foreigners rather than the elite – which includes a royal family. I suppose one way to mitigate the effects of foreign ownership is for the government to limit what’s possible to own, which is what happens in many countries.

For sale in the souk
For sale in the souk

The particular riad I’m staying in is clearly run along ethical lines, with the staff treated well, attention paid to the environmental impact and a number of local charities supported. I’ve had long conversations with both the owners and even before I learnt more about the ins-and-outs of their business, I guess I was already pre-disposed to be on their ‘side’. Talking to Michel recalled a lot of my feelings about being an expat in Chiang Mai. The reality is, we aren’t taking jobs from locals and our contribution in taxes alone far exceeded the annual income of most. One only hopes that the taxes are being put to good use in order to build the social and physical infrastructure for the future of the country.

These things are never black and white but in a developing country like Morocco, with high levels of corruption, employment options are limited as is social mobility. The staff at the riad have a shot at improving the lot of their families, though of course they’re staff rather than partners. Still, perhaps this is the kind of ethical foreign investment that’s needed — the good side of capitalism.


6 thoughts on “The medina of Marrakech and the emerging middle-class

  1. Thanks for another entertaining and informative read… even if it did make me a little jealous! :-) Sounds like you’re having a spectacular time.

  2. Morocco is next on my list of places to visit, more so now I have read your tantalising account of Marrakech. I though a tour was the way to go but it seems you are on your own. I like the freedom of travelling on my own. If you have a minute your views. Thanks

    1. Hi Pat, it’s not too difficult to do things by yourself here, and to also arrange shorter tours locally. There’s a lot of tourist infrastructure, and certainly for Marrakech and Essaouira. I originally looked into doing a tour because I want to go to the Sahara but it turned out to be the wrong time of year and also didn’t have enough time. There is a lot of hassle that a tour would protect you from though, so that’s something to consider. Depends on how you want to do it. I’ve enjoyed doing this independently but as I’ve just written in my blog post, I got a bit of hassle being a solo woman. English seems pretty good these days, though having a bit of French would help too.

  3. […] In my last post I was musing about the lives of middle-class Moroccans and here I was getting a firsthand glimpse of a subset of the middle-class, the ones who return from being abroad. It reminded me of the relationship between the expat Vietnamese who come back to Vietnam, flashing their money around and feeling triumphant. Perhaps there was something of that here in Morocco too, with so many millions living abroad in France. Also, I think the only ones probably entitled to French citizenship were the ones born there, so total assimilation would be difficult. […]

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