Monday, July 09, 2007

Realm of the senses

The best thing to do in Marrakesh is to give in without a struggle. This is a sensual, colourful world, with a pounding heart and where even the most sensible people go mad or become artists. So much to take in, like the sunset, the snake charmers, the endless cups of mint tea, scolding your tongue on a tangine, the throbbing souks, the evocative atlas mountains, it's residual hippiness. It's a mixture of the exotic and the downright bizarre all revolving around it's main square, Djemaa el-Fna (although so huge it's sort of not a square at all, more like a sunken extent of sky). In this gay-intolerant country, men go there after dark, dressed up as women and perform dances for the entertainment of other men. People tell stories while others sit in a circle, listening, rapt. A man with missing teeth sits with a tray of 100s of teeth and dentures posing for mock dentist photographs with the tourists, pigs heads are skinned and boiled whole for a special tasty treat. The equivalent of the British pub in Marrakech is this square, and it is fabulous; although I didn't really like the snakes, and found the monkeys on chains a bit upsetting. It can be a little tricky, too, if you're a Western woman unaccompanied by a man; the pinching of bottoms is quite fashionable here. But a good put-down (eg "haram" - forbidden) sorts it out. But all in all it was surprisingly hassle free, I felt safer here than I have felt in many European countries.

The hammam (public baths) experience is one for the brave. I was assigned a big woman in wet knickers who spoke no English who put me in a steam room until I was about to pass out then proceeded to rub me with the famous black soap and what felt like a scouring brush. She rubbed me hard. She rubbed me everywhere. She rubbed me in places no man has gone before. She was scraping off sheaves of dead skin in huge quantities - I was, apparently, embarrassingly filthy. I was in pain.

Next came the "massage", which involved some very mean kneading on her part. She rolled me over, pushed me about - the hammam echoing to the not unkind laughter of my fellow hammamees. She made me stand up, and then she threw a bucket of ice-cold water over me; I screamed and the whole place erupted. Believe me, you must be prepared to sacrifice your dignity. Needless to say I felt wonderful afterwards.

So my advice is to give in to weird and wonderful Marrakesh, compelling spectacle and sensory overload that it is, don't follow the guide books, it's simply impractical to get a firm grip on it.

Have a look at my other Marrakesh photos on Flickr

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