Travel writing

On Marrakesh, the Djemaa el Fna, and The Call to Prayer

When I was about fourteen, my family and I went on holiday to Morocco. We went to Marrakesh, then to Essaouira by the sea, and then back to Marrakesh. But as a special treat, I was allowed to return to Marrakesh alone, one day earlier than everyone else. That evening is one of my favourite memories.

I was on a roof terrace, eating a tajine and looking down at Marrakesh’s main square, the Djemaa el Fna (jarm-ell-fee-nuh). It was Ramadan, and suddenly the Call to Prayer went out for iftar: the end of daily fasting.

Marrakesh’s main square is one of the liveliest, brightest, most colourful and effervescent places I have ever been, but at that moment the maelstrom of activity went completely silent.

The musicians stopped playing; the sellers stopped shouting. The square emptied completely as people rushed home to pray and eat. And I sat there watching, feeling very, very small among it all.

The first time I had ever heard the Call to Prayer was nowhere near as pleasant. We first went to Morocco was when I was eight or nine. We arrived at our hotel in the evening, and my parents and (younger) brothers went out to buy water and see the Djemaa. I was too shy and too tired, and I lay in bed, unable to sleep.

And then the Call to Prayer boomed out, loud and foreign, seemingly metres from my room.

I had no idea what that booming, incoherent voice was: I remember thinking it was some sort of siren. I pulled on my clothes, intending to rush downstairs for help, but the stairs were enormous, and I couldn’t bear the idea of everyone looking at me as I descended. So I stayed in my room, lights off, panicking, wondering if everyone was alright and what on earth was happening outside.

The Call to Prayer has gone from something terrifying to something wonderful. Now when I hear it I feel calm, relaxed, and as though I have come home.

Before I went to India, Marrakesh was my favourite place on the planet. (True to form, it has a lot in common with many northern Indian cities). It’s an enormous, sprawling metropolis, but the main tourist focus is the Djemaa el Fna and the souks behind it: stalls selling anything spill out for miles in increasingly narrow, winding lanes. There are other interesting things in the city: a beautiful mosque, some palaces, some gardens — but those play second fiddle to the extravaganza that happens each night in the centre.

I drank it in. When I was in Marrakesh alone, I walked past a beauty shop and a man gave me a small clay massager because — I kid you not — I looked so happy to be there.

This year, my dad, brother and I returned to Marrakesh for two days at the start and two days at the end of our holiday. And slightly to my surprise, I didn’t feel the thrum of happiness as I had done when that man gave me the clay trinket ten years earlier.

The main reason? When the main appeal of the city is a bustling market, there’s not much to do with your time apart from walk through the souks and look at things to buy. I’m not interested in buying things; 99% of the things I see in the souk leave me cold. Rather than a tourist, I have become just a consumer to be marketed to.

But I was still happy. Why?

Because there are always a lot of tourists in the Djemaa, but there are always — always — more Moroccans.

Became I was still thrilled by strangers saying “Where are you from? Oh, you are very welcome”; by children saying “Bonjour” to me and running away, giggling; by the banter the salesmen shouted, smiles wide.

Because for the first time I used the words for no and thank you in Arabic, not French, and people smiled and thanked me. It was a truly tiny thing, but it bridged the divide.

And because as usual, it was connections with other people that sustained and invigorated me during my stay.

Just like the Call to Prayer, it was understanding and empathising with people, rather than being afraid or thinking I was either different or separate.