Marrakech, Morocco: When night comes falling

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Marrakech, Morocco: When night comes falling

As anyone who has had the good fortune to go will tell you, Marrakech is a city of noise, especially in the grand central square. Here by day snake charmers and fortune tellers call for attention, motor scooters blat past, cars on the unmarked road around the perimeter sound their horns, fruit and vegetable sellers shout invitations at you to sample from their attractive displays, Berber musicians play impromptu sessions, people hold animated conversations . . .

And at night when the restaurant tables are set up, it happens all over again. But more of it, and louder.

Little wonder then that many retreat to rooftop cafes and restaurants to eat delicious meals prepared in the ubiquitous tagines, and sip sweet mint tea in the relative quiet.

But there is another Marrakech. The silent city.

Late at night after the tourists have drifted away, when the restaurant tables have been stacked in a corner and the musicians are nodding down into low, trance-like rhythms, the lanes and blind alleys off the square – also crowded by day with merchants, pedestrians, donkey cars and scooters – are deserted.

The wares have been stowed away and the narrow lanes now appear as wide as streets under the jaundiced glow of intermittent light bulbs and flickering fluorescent tubes. Once familiar lanes now look disorientingly different. This is now a world owned by wandering cats and old men sleeping in deep doorways.

P5010306Footsteps echo off stone walls and heavy wooden doors, locals retreat to the inward looking homes and riads, and Marrakech can be eerily silent.

Like Venice in winter when the stones freeze to the touch and black canals are as still as death, Marrakech at midnight and beyond is a very different world.

Up ahead in a lane an unseen door closes with a low thud, down an alley hooded figures move into fuzzy pools of light and disappear again as they sink into deep shadow, a bundle of rags moves as an old man shifts into a more comfortable position . . . .

The smells of the day – incense, spice and the dusty odour of old material and wood – seems to have disappeared into the black sky above the lane's webbing of sticks and tattered cloth, the world here is now still.

A distant radio brings the barely audible sound of an exotic song, made all the more mysterious by being so disembodied in the night.

For the late stayer, or early riser who gets into the alleys and lanes before merchants open their doors and unload wares onto the street and the calls to prayer started to echo above, Marrakech can reveal itself in a very different way.

One morning early we walked as sleep rubbed itself out of the eyes of cool lanes. Unused to seeing tourists out at this time, vendors smiled and chatted with no thought to making a sale so early. And we were waved into a place we might otherwise never have seen, or given a quick go-by during brighter, more hard-sell hours.

P5010321Through a large door we entered a massive store stacked floor-to-ceiling with Berber artifacts, bad knock-offs of Salvador Dali paintings, multi-coloured shoes filed on a wall like abstract art, leather goods, pots and pans, jewelry, lamps, hookah pipes, mirrors in chequer-board frames, old photos of Berber women, plates, glassware . . .

It was like entering the last moments of Citizen Kane where the exotic loot of the world has been stored in a warehouse. This was a living market yawning into the dawn as the owner shuffled around and women swept the floor.

No one tried to sell us anything, so we lingered undisturbed.

Later in the day, by chance, we passed the same place. It now seemed unrecognisable. Outside were stacks of doors and mirrors, people cajoling tourists passing-by to come inside (none did that we saw) and a sense of urgency which hadn't been there previously.

Marrakech seemed like that most of the time, urgent and busy.

But Marrakech can be as quiet as it noisy. For those who make time to find the silence.

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