Part 1: المدينة (The City)
The air smells of spices and mint tea. Cumin, paprika, cayenne, turmeric, and cinnamon are displayed in conical piles in the storefronts that line the narrow street. The hard dirt road beneath our leather sandaled feet is packed down, as if a thousand pairs of feet have already walked along the same path this morning. Our goal for the day is to find our way to Jemaa El Fna, the main square in Marrakech’s medina quarter.
My friends and I have been walking in a single-file line in an attempt to stay out of the way of traffic. I’m at the front of the line, leading at my usual brisk pace, while Vivian and Miller are following close behind (or at least trying to). I hear a motorbike from behind us and cling closer to the edge of the path, so that my shoulder is practically scraping against the outside walls of the shops. The road is about the width of a car, although the throng of pedestrians makes it completely unfit for cars to pass through. I’m not sure what side of the street I’m supposed to walk on here—it doesn’t seem as though there is any pattern to the chaos on the streets.
Another motorbike passes by, and as I turn to get a better look, I see that this one is homemade— fabricated from a collection of spare bits of metal strapped together with a greasy engine attached. Directly behind it, a sparkling white Vespa is making its way forward as best as it can through the crowd. My eye catches something red painted on the side of the scooter, just behind where the driver sits. The red paint seems to be dripping… it couldn’t still be wet, could it? As my eyes follow the paint trail up toward its source, I see that the color is seeping from a lifeless, white-furred animal draped across the back of the Vespa. I look at the driver, then at his hands, which are clutching the handlebars and something else: the head of the animal.
I turn around to see if Vivian and Miller are still behind me. They are, and by the looks on their faces, they’ve witnessed the same thing.
“Bonjour, mademoiselles,” a shopkeeper calls from in front of one of the stalls.
“Bonjour, hello,” I respond, quickening my pace.
“We have many nice things inside— perfumes, tea…”
“No thank you!” I call behind me. Within seconds we pass in front of the next shop, which sells all the same things as the last.
“Hello, how are you today?” The shopkeeper asks.
“Good, thank you. We’re in a rush, sorry!” I say as I walk away. Of all the things New York has taught me, the art of avoiding strangers is something I carry with me everywhere I go. It’s our first day in Marrakech, and I’m acting the only way I know how to act in a bustling city. I’m alert and guarded, I keep a straight face, and I refrain from talking to strangers on the street, for the most part. I walk with purpose, as though I know exactly where I’m going and as if it’s critical that I make a beeline for my destination.
But we’re not in a rush at all.
After many wrong turns down zigzagging alleyways and three stops to ask shopkeepers for directions in exchange for promises to return to browse the stores later (as if we could find our way back if we tried), we make it to Jemaa El Fna. In the square, there are tourists in Levi’s with sneakers and locals in knockoff Levi’s with flip flops or in long linen robes with full sleeves. There are men with snakes draped over their shoulders, men guarding monkeys on chains, salesmen selling fruits and nuts and perfumes and oils and spices, souvenir sellers, and a tooth puller. A mosque towers in the background, obstructed by a handful of palm trees with slender trunks. It’s impossible to take everything in at once.
I think back to a conversation I had with my mom before I left for the trip. It went something like this:
“Is Morocco safe?” she asked.
“Yes, I’ll just have to be conscious of pickpockets and motorbikes in the streets and things like that. But don’t worry, I’ve spent enough time in big cities to know how to manage,” I answered.
“Do you think it will be very crowded, like Manhattan?”
“Something like that,” I told her, to make Marrakech sound like a place that would feel somewhat familiar. But Marrakech is nothing like Manhattan, or anywhere I’ve been before. And that is exactly why I wanted to come.