A functional old town

As my plane descended into Marrakesh, I wondered if this would be a place I’d be able to write anything about. At the time I suspected, probably not. This was likely because all my limited imagination had managed to conjure up was an Arabic Bruges, a city which despite being a famous tourist attraction and a great place to visit, to date I have not managed to come up with a single paragraph on which wouldn’t put the most chronic insomniac to sleep.

After a relatively sleepless Christmas eve, I woke up the next morning and nervously made my way towards the Medina (Old city). I really had no idea what to expect. Being Christmas day, a shred of instinct expected little more than tumbleweed. Fortunately for this sightseer, there is no Christmas in Morocco. As I strolled down a quiet street, approaching the Medina’s outer wall, my ears were gradually filled with the sound of a busy city. As I walked through a gate in the wall I was greeted with the most incredible sight: Absolute bedlam. Donkeys, Horses, Camels, Scooters, Push bikes, Motorbikes, Carts, Wheelbarrows… Everything that could possibly be moved was being moved at speed, with little regard for pedestrians. My visions of a quaint beautiful desert city were smashed to pieces.

Satellite dish on the move

Within minutes I had found the souqs, but I’d seen this kind of thing before and predictably, they were of no interest to me. I continued to push my way into the Medina, continuously dodging a medley of moving people, animals and vehicles. Within about an hour I’d established that there was something very very different about this place. Having travelled to 31 countries to date, I wasn’t expecting too many surprises, but this place blew my mind.

So just what was it that had me so excited? was it the Moroccan rugs? The Snake charmers? The Orange juice?

Most European cities have an “old town”, but these areas play little-to-no part in the lives of the locals, they are merely containers for bars, cafes, and souvenir shops mostly frequented by tourists, and occasionally, locals treating themselves. This template is repeated literally hundreds of times throughout Europe. Not surprisingly, I was expecting the same of Marrakesh.

A new window being hacked out of the masonry

Just a few minutes walk from the souqs, I encounter a ramshackle electronics repair shop, inside is a guy repairing CRT televisions. Holy Hell, Hans; What on earth is going on here? Firstly, It’s been several years since I’ve seen a CRT television, let alone someone repairing one. As it turned out, it was only a taste of what was to come.

A general repair shop

As I wandered on, I encountered the workshops of more and more industries: Blacksmiths, Textiles, Food, Clothing. I could go on. In a nutshell, Almost every activity required to support human life was happening, and happening inside a handful of square miles. Sure, there’s places with a lot of industry, but what was so incredible, was quantity and diversity of industry in such a tiny space; furthermore, none of this was for show.

Push-bike structural repair

The most obvious hint that all this wasn’t a tourist puller was the difficulty of taking photos without being yelled at, or having everyone in a 12ft radius demanding 20 Dirham. Tourists were not welcome in these parts of town. For me, it had become very difficult to imagine an “Old town” with any economic activity other than selling booze and fridge magnets, but here I was standing in the middle of a what seemed like a microcosm of 1800’s industrialised Britain.

Blacksmiths at work

I wandered around for hours and hours, fascinated by the madness of this place; all the while, one question was on my mind: Will us westerners ever live like this again? We used to, a few hundred years ago, but sadly, other than shops selling  mobile phones, handbags and shoes, very little can be found in our towns these days.

A white post, obscuring a Television repair shop

As romantic as it’d seem returning to our version of this way of life, unfortunately the catalyst for such a shift would hardly be described as positive by any competent economist. In a society living in the stranglehold of global markets, wishing upon the aforementioned would be, in most circles, lunacy. I think this way of living makes a lot of sense and normally I’d be quick to chime in on such a discussion, but having so much invested in this western world, it’s tough to know where to stand.

As countries become richer, more and more of this “old way of life” is bulldozed, concreted over, and replaced with the western project we call “Progress”. I do wonder what should we be wishing for here: For Morocco to stay poor, so we can continue to witness these incredible places, or for them to transform into a wealthy country. Having money is good, right? If there is one thing I’m fairly sure of, it’s that if Morocco did become rich, the Marrakesh Medina would be transformed from a functioning living and working city into a super tourist-machine ‘Venice of Africa’. Sadly, it’s already heading in that direction, and it’s us tourists which are driving that transformation.