One of my favourite movies is Hideous Kinky, about a single, free-spirited hippy mother struggling to bring up two children in Marrakech. As a single mother of two myself (with boho inclinations), I’d even fancied myself as a little like the cool Kate Winslet character, but obviously without the poverty or the tendency to sleep around.
So off we went to Marrakech in Kate’s footsteps, albeit to a fancy hotel rather than a single room in the Medina, the old, walled city that Kate called home.
I’ve been to Marrakech many times, most recently with my partner, staying in a gorgeous riad, the old style of Moroccan townhouse that’s been reinvented as chichi tourist accommodation, all splashing fountains in hidden courtyards and rooftop terraces with Moroccan food and views of the High Atlas Mountains. We prowled the alleys of the souk, shopping for Moroccan home accessories, haggling happily for hours, drinking beers in a sunny café overlooking the Djemaa el Fna square as the call for early evening prayers rang out.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not like this with children, even well-travelled ones like mine. For a start, even the most dedicated junior shopaholic is unlikely to want to spend a whole morning sifting through identical iron candleholders on 20 different stalls. Everything is just that little bit too different from home. An exquisite chicken tagine cooked with olives and lemon juice is too lemony. Pizzas are weird and pungent.
Yet it’s the small things children notice that make a place like Marrakech a whole lot of fun. It took me two days to realise that Lauren thought the souk was called the soup. They’d never seen donkeys pulling carts laden with anything from mattresses to fridges before. They were tickled to see names like Coke and McDonald’s in Arabic.
We chilled out for a day to get into the holiday mood, then hit the city centre. However, by the time I’d instructed Lauren and Joel about not wandering off, not photographing street entertainers, not expressing an interest in anything unless they wanted to buy it, they were terrified.
We ran the gauntlet of a crowd of ‘guides’ offering tours of the souk before emerging into Djemaa el Fna, the vast square that’s the focal point of Marrakech. Once used for executions, then later as the city’s crowded, crazy, fascinating and noisy meeting place, nowadays the square is something of a parody of itself, thanks
to tourism. But it’s still like a giant fairground where Moroccans gather to chat, eat and listen to storytellers and soothsayers.
A man with a monkey on a chain immediately approached us and plonked it onto Joel’s shoulder, saying “Shake hands! Shake hands for photo!” I politely brushed off the monkey and its owner, but Joel was getting interested in the whole scene now.
Past the water sellers in their bright red outfits and tasselled hats, their water containers fashioned from dead goats; past the crowds gathered round a storyteller; past the din of the snake charmers, and we entered the souk.
I adore markets and will plunge in anywhere, however foul-smelling, for a bit of local colour, but it’s different for children. They were fascinated by the piles and piles of stuff, mainly tat, outside each stall, but intimidated by the enclosed narrow alleys, the attention from the stallholders and the stink of exhaust fumes as mopeds nudged their way through the crowds.
Lauren and Joel hung on tightly to my hands, taking in the sights and sounds uncertainly. I headed to the chicken souk, as we keep chickens at home, but the crowing of 100 cockerels in cages and the fearsome aroma was just too much.
Lauren wanted to buy keyrings with gaudy tassles for her friends at school and got annoyed with me when I moved her on, trying to explain there were another hundred stalls selling tassled keyrings. Deeper into the rabbit warren of the souk, we found a stall selling nothing but tassles. I encouraged her to haggle, trying to strike a balance between not being ripped off and not depriving the shopkeeper of a living. She got him down from 30 dirhams for one tassle to 40 dirhams for three, and was euphoric.
Less successful were our dealings with the pushy henna tattoo ladies on the square. One grabbed me, squawking: “Just one flower, lady,” and started squidging henna onto my hand from an icing squeezy bag. “Five euros!” As the children were fascinated, I stupidly agreed to five euros’ worth, ending up with a creeper halfway
up my arm rather than “one flower”, and a scorpion for Joel. So much for my haggling prowess, as I handed over a €10 note to stop her following us back to the hotel.
But Marrakech was beginning to weave its spell. Joel displayed his henna scorpion with pride. They were both indignant at the stalls with caged lizards. They lusted after the fake Converse All Stars. The stallholders were less aggressive than they can be when you’re without children, taking my firm “Thanks but no thanks” with good grace.
The following day, I treated the children to a ride in a caleche, the horse-drawn carriages that clatter around the streets of the kasbah and outside the huge terracotta walls in the New City. We trotted through the kasbah just as the food stalls were beginning to cook up barbecued meat skewers for dinner. The smells were mouth-watering, mingling, not unpleasantly, with wafts of spice, incense, rose water and, er, horse.
The children were mesmerised by life in the souk, but we were soon back in the square where crowds had gathered in the cool air. We dived into Argana, one of the square’s cafés, and the children amazed me by wolfing down vegetable couscous and lamb skewers. In their own way, and despite my initial anxieties, they had quickly absorbed a little of the magic of Marrakech.
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