Bedlam – n. a noisy confused place or situation.
If you are seeking the serenity of an oasis nestled in the barren landscape of the Sahara desert flanked by the Atlas Mountains, then brace yourself for an onslaught on your senses courtesy of the old Medina. It’s fair to say that bedlam is a word that can best describe the City of Red.
If you are a photographer the attraction to visiting this Moroccan city is self-evident. I was mesmerised by the endless narrow twisting alleyways, which seemed to be flanked both sides with numerous street vendors trying to sell almost anything to unguarded tourist.
The intense summer heat was only matched by the equally intensive and hard selling techniques from the locals in what is now a tourist trap. I found taking street shots incredibly challenging having coming from London, where snapping passers-by barely get noticed. In the Medina, however, there is no such luck. For every picture you make with a local there is an expectation of payment or if not, they would let their feelings be known.
Shooting from the hip is a great technique to master but this will only work if, like me, you are using a compact mirrorless camera, in my case a Fujifilm X100s.
You will find that the art of pre-framing the scenes in your mind first before you shoot, coupled with a good instinct to anticipate the unexpected, is a must.
Visiting all the main sites such as the Ben Youssef Madrasa, Jardin Majorelle, and the crazy Jema el Fna should be high on your list. However, if you are a keen photographer then immersing yourself with images of Marrakech taken by respected classic, contemporary photographers at the Marrakech Museum for Photography (MMP+) is well worth a visit.
Navigating through the city was a great test of my orienteering skills although my companion Google Maps was a God send. However, this only works if you can get a decent GPS signal which was hit and miss at the best of times. The other issue with glaring at your phone on the corner of a busy street is that it also attracts a large contingent of unofficial city guides.
“I take you to the Square” said one young guy with not great teeth, wearing a “genuine” Nike track suite, I love Marakech t-shirt and flip flops.
“No thanks, I know where I am going” I replied politely (hoping he didn’t notice my nose growing at that point).
“No problem, no money no funny” he said with a smile and a glint in his eye. He clearly knew that he had a lost tourist cornered at this point. I ignored him and confidently started to walk in a random direction to shake him off.
“No you are going the wrong way” he said looking puzzled.
“Follow me I will take you there” he said walking just ahead of me. He led me through a myriad of streets with seamlessly endless shops with just about everyone trying to grab your attention.
“Where are you from?” he asked. Was this his poor attempt at small talk or was he trying to guess the weight of my wallet based on my nationality?
“England”, I muttered.
“I like Manchester United” he said proudly. Well I suppose finding a Manchester Utd supporter this far south of Manchester was hardly unusual.
“That’s great. Do you get to see many home games?” I replied sarcastically. We carried on walking and by this time I was wondering where the hell he was taking me.
“This is my uncles business” he said pointing casually to a white painted building with a small reddish coloured weather beaten door.
“That’s great” I thought and wondering how I can give him the slip.
“Let me show you what he does, no pressure you don’t have to buy anything” he said. These were the famous last words.
Entering the unassuming building I was greeted by the smell of freshly woven rugs. How the hell did I get here? I don’t even want a rug. This was going to be a battle of the wills and I wasn’t sure I was going to end up victorious.
His uncle was well presented dressed in traditional a white djellaba and a pair of bright yellow balgahas. He proceeded by showing me to a comfortable seating area covered almost entirely by an assortment of rugs of various shapes and sizes. He bellowed at his assistant in Moroccan to begin the “rug beauty pageant”.
I kept on thinking to myself that despite all the preparation and reading I did before I got here I made the fatal school boy error of falling into this now blatantly obvious set piece selling technique. After what seemed like hours (maybe only 30 mins in reality) I gave into him. Thinking separately how the hell I was going to get this back on the plane he said “don’t worry I will fold this rug into a small package and you will be able to carry it with you. I will even get it sent to your Riad” he said reassuringly.
Great! I was now a proud owner of a brightly coloured rug I had no intention of buying and this was only three hours into the first day of my short holiday. This did not bode well for the remaining few days.