Roaming the markets of Marrakech

During my university winter break, I went on a trip to Marrakech with my family from 21-29 December 2018. It was the first time I set foot in Africa and I was really excited about this trip. Marrakech is a former imperial city and is the 4th largest city in Morocco. With its rich history and culture, it is no surprise that Marrakech is one of the most appealing and visited cities in Africa.

One of the first things that most people talk about when recounting their experiences in Marrakech are the markets. The marketplace consists of the famous Jemma el-Fnaa, an open square packed with street vendors and live performances, and the other souks (Arab markets) nearby. The atmosphere in this marketplace was incomparable with any market I have ever been to.

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Bustling Jemma el-Fnaa during the day

Jemaa el-Fnaa

This is the main lure of the Medina (Old town) in Marrakech. Jemaa el-Fnaa is a big open space that starts to get busy from midday all the way till night-time. If you want to avoid the heat and visit the square when it is at its busiest, I suggest going at dusk.

Everything related to Moroccan culture can be found in Jemaa el-Fnaa. Majority of the stalls in the square sell food. Most of the food stalls only sell meat dishes, although there is this seafood stall (Number 14) that I really liked because the seafood was fresh and good. The spiced tea, which contains various ingredients like cinnamon and ginger, is also a really good treat in the cold weather. Do note that although bargaining is a common practice in Marrakech, food prices are not negotiable. But food is already quite cheap in the first place.

Live performances mainly consist of musicians, dancers, snake charmers and monkey handlers. It is clearly obvious where they are because these performers are boisterous and many people tend to be drawn around them. Be warned that the performers expect you to pay them if you stand around watching. There are also lots of people selling Moroccan artifacts or offering services like henna drawing and fortune telling.

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However, Jemaa el-Fnaa is highly notorious for harassing tourists. This is the main reason why some tourists refuse to return after visiting this place once. The workers from the food stalls are probably the worst offenders of them all. The moment you walk by a food stall or café, they will approach you, hand you the menu and keep trying to convince you to eat at their stall. If you are a Chinese like me, be prepared to hear sellers calling out to you in their awful Mandarin and Japanese. It was irritating to constantly listen to their aggressive demands, although I was impressed that 2 people correctly guessed that I am from Singapore.

I also encountered some other undesirable people in the marketplace. There were a few times where I was approached by beggars immediately after I took out money to make a purchase. When eating at the food stalls, I saw a few kids entering the food stalls and pestered customers to give them free food. Thankfully I didn’t encounter pickpockets.

Here are some tips on how to handle or avoid harassment when visiting the Jemma el-Fnaa:

  • Be very careful when taking photos. If the food sellers or performers notice you taking photos of them, you will be harassed incessantly. However, feel free to take photos if you have already made a purchase.
  • The best way to deal with food sellers is to look at them, say that you are not interested and walk away. If you ignore the food sellers from the beginning, they tend to follow you and keep trying to get your attention.
  • Do not entertain beggars or kids that approach you. Enough said.
  • Dine at rooftop cafés or restaurants. You can enjoy a great view of Jemma el-Fnaa and be completely safe from harassment.

Souks

The souks are located near the Jemma el-Fnaa and the main area is called Souk Semmarine. This is a good place to visit during the midday as the area is mostly sheltered from the hot sun. The souk district is made up of passageways packed full of shops selling Moroccan artifacts like lanterns, lamps, carpets, pottery, handicrafts, clothing, shoes and so on. Everywhere you go, there are lots of interesting sights and smells to take in.

There are less shops in the souk district selling food, and you tend to find spices, sweets and nuts instead of cooked food. I especially liked the conical presentation of spices in the spice shop. In the pastry/sweet shops, you may notice that there are lots of bees swarming over the confections. I know that the honey content of the confections attracts bees, but I don’t know why the shopkeepers are intentionally keeping bees together with their confections. I only bought sweets from shops that were free of bees.

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Once again, be discreet when taking photos while walking around the souks. Any shopkeeper that spots you aiming your camera or phone in their direction will hound you relentlessly. Staring at a shop is also an open invitation to get pestered, so avoid doing that if you are certain that you are not going to buy anything. You could also consider wearing sunglasses to make your intentions less obvious.

Haggling over prices is the norm in Marrakech. Look around different shops and take note of the usual price of a certain item you are interested in. When bargaining with the shopkeepers, you could start by asking for 1/3 off their suggested price. But do note that once you start the bargaining process, you are expected to make the purchase eventually as the shopkeeper can get really upset with you if you don’t. By the way, most shops and restaurants in Marrakech only accept cash, so do ensure that you are carrying sufficient cash wherever you go.

Overall, the markets of Marrakech delivered a fascinating experience that I could never have envisioned. I liked the souk district more than Jemma el-Fnaa because it is less chaotic, there are more Moroccan craft being sold here and no food sellers or performers to mercilessly annoy me.

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