Day 3: Souks, Hammam and Henna

I woke up this morning to the sound of the call to prayer at 5am. It was a layered sound, starting beautifully and culminating in a dirge. There are mosques everywhere, each with their own signature sound. I slipped out of bed and padded up the stairs to the roof in my bare feet. Agony.

I was able to fall back to sleep for an hour before having breakfast and getting ready for the day.

Jo hired a local guide named Moh, no doubt short for Mohammed, to take us on a tour of the médina and the souks.

Me, Moh, and Lor

He led us on a walking tour of Marrakech that started with the places where things are made. It was a revelation. 

So many of the things I see at the stores – both here and stateside – I thought were mass produced, spit out of a machine somewhere and assembled in a factory.

But Moh walked us through the tiny streets where we saw artisans chip pieces of tile into tiny, intricate shapes, using the crudest of tools. These are the tiles you see by the thousands everywhere, all made this way.

Those gorgeous perforated light fixtures I assumed are stamped in a factory? Someone sits there with a drill press or a hand saw and painstakingly cuts out each piece. Ditto for all the hand carved wood and inlaid bone work. The art that crams the souks and can easily be dismissed as a tchotchke was actually made by people who gave a little bit of their lives for them.

Moh ducked us into a room with an oven built into the wall. A man waited to load bread into the oven for neighborhood families. Part of the home cooking ritual is to bring risen dough to the communal oven and then wait until it comes out. 

All homes have the same exterior, a crumbling and nondescript wall with an old door. We walked by one doorway that had workers coming and going; Moh asked if we could peek inside, which revealed the most spectacular wedding cake of a home I have ever seen. He said he didn’t know what was inside, he just asked if we could take look.

The commitment to artistry, craftsmanship, tradition and beauty had me on my knees. How are we so backwards in America that we throw away all the beautiful handcrafted things of our past and replace them with plastic crap from the internet? That we tear down and replace rather than restore and repair?

Marrakech is so visually stunning, juxtaposed with extreme poverty, it’s a lot to take in and reconcile. What I find interesting is how little Moroccans seem to care about what things look like on the outside – perhaps preferring to keep a humble exterior – and saving the beauty for those invited in.

A riad under construction

As we moved deeper into the city (aka the mèdina) the commercialism increased, and the intensity.

Moh declared, “I will not let you buy anything here, it is all shit from China.” Although I had the suspicion that we was cockblocking all the merchants so he could steer us towards his own store.

I walked next to him, shading him with my umbrella and we talked about our travels. He was recently back from Paris. He has been all over the world although I don’t think any place can rival the color you find in Morocco.

He took us to one of the many palaces in Morocco. “You do not need to see them all,” he said, “one good one will do.” It was like touring with Nina.

Come 12:30 we had reservations for lunch on the roof Kasbah Café. It was a gorgeous little café with bougainvilla, umbrellas, and a view of the rooftops. Terrace cafés are a Marrakech specialty and you can’t judge one by its first floor. The shabbiest storefront often leads to the most beautiful roof.

A crane built a nest on an adjacent roof and tended to her babies. 

Morocco is a vegetarian’s dream. I ordered the four moroccan salads as an appetizer – I should have stopped there – and the vegetable cous cous.

Lunch was a delight, followed by a deep dive into the souks. Jo made it clear we didn’t want anything to do with the parade of reptiles and monkeys in the main square. I flinched at the sight of them with shackles around their necks. The best thing one can do is not get involved, if they don’t make money or get attention, hopefully they will give up and do something that doesn’t involve exploiting wild animals. A show of compassion, especially one that involves money or a “rescue” only causes more of them to be captured. It’s horrible.

I kept my head down and followed Moh to the maze of shops.

It was no small feat to stay together in the souks. Moh hired a helper to bring up the rear, to sweep up the stragglers that got distracted by something shiny. Losing your group meant being hopelessly lost.

I spotted a dress similar to one I saw 15 years ago at Narita airport on my way to Bangkok with Loony. An African woman was wearing it and I was so enchanted that I drew it in detail, taking notes in the event I ever tried to replace it, but never did.

But there it was. 

Now that I know what it’s called, I can find it on the internet, but it felt like finding a needle in a haystack

I ran into the stall, bargained for a second and dashed out with it under my arm having probably paid too much and not knowing if it fit. Mohammed found me and we ran to catch up with the group. 

Shopping with that many people is a challenge. Bargaining takes time and your best tool is ambivalence. Sellers know you are trying to stay with your group, they can sense the desire to wrap it up and take advantage of it. That said I was a sucker they saw coming a mile away.

I did my best to not get lost while I purchased some baskets for The Tiny but in retrospect realized I should have saved all my shopping for the last few days of the trip, once I had a better feel for what was available and what things cost. It’s easy to get dazzled by the selection and caught up in the buying.

By the time we headed back to the riad I was exhausted. But not too tired to detour to the local public hammam (bath house) for a look.

Raid Matham has its own hammam but I happen to love the community aspect of a public bath house. Jo looked at me like I was nuts to want to partake with the locals, but Moh said they welcome visitors. While he couldn’t take us inside, he took us to the boiler room next door where he introduced us to the the Ghanaian man who stoked the fires day and night with rubbish, sawdust, and whatever he could find.

He is a talented a musician, Moh mentioned he collaborates with a western jazz musician.

And an artist.

This art was scratched out of the paint.

I have never been to a place like this. I am used to busy squares, bargaining and people trying to sell me things, but this place is something else. Everything was a feast for my senses.

By the time I got back to our riad I barely had time to undress and head to the in-house hammam.

The tiny room was amazing – made entirely of the burnished marble stucco I’ve been swooning over – with hot water pipes running through the benches. Every surface radiates heat. The room was steamy and warm when I entered.

I have been to hammams and Korean spas, I know the gromage routine. I stood completely naked while asked to sit, lie down, turn over, etc, while a woman scrubbed every bit of my body. It was intimate yet perfunct, kind of like being taken care of by a nurse. I went with it and let her scrub all the dead skin off me and rinse me with buckets of hot water.

The woman who did my hammam didn’t speak any English but was the sweetest, most loving woman and also did housekeeping for the riad. When I tipped her at the end of the week she held me tightly and wept. It was the most naked display of gratitude I’ve ever experienced.

When I was done she wrapped me in a Turkish robe and I went downstairs to get a henna tattoo, a welcome treat from Jo. She hired Miriam to adorn all of us.

My skin doesn’t like to take henna. Perhaps it is too dark, the pores too small or large, who knows. But the design Miriam freestyled onto me was lovely until it came off.

Jo fetched trays of appetizers and Hesham set a beautiful table. We ate cheese, bread, olives and fruit, and then I excused myself. I can’t remember falling asleep, but it was instantaneous. I am officially in love with Morocco.

3 thoughts on “Day 3: Souks, Hammam and Henna

    • Morocco was amazing, it was truly the trip of a lifetime. I’m glad you are enjoying the posts, there are more to come!

  1. I love your pictures! Basil and I must go there. There are so many places in Spain that have a similar feel. I would go crazy in the markets…..the food, the handmade treasures, the people watching.

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