A Reflective Walk through Marrakesh

Power has a double component: it is a person’s ability to do something; or the ability to direct or influence the behavior of others.

The double component can also be seen under its single and plural aspects: single, a person’s own capacity, involving themselves only; or plural, a capacity that involves others.

A powerful person can be, for example, someone strong enough to spend long stretches of time alone, work long hours without the reassurance of proportional pay, or satisfy family needs through wits and charisma.

This photo essay explores my interpretation of the two aspects of power as seen during my stay in Marrakesh, Morocco, where I spent few days walking around the city, getting lost in the alleys, exploring the souks (markets), spending times with locals, and my personal perception of a multifaceted city with its multifaceted people.


Life begins early in Marrakech. The main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, reflects the rhythm of the city. At 8am I saw men, as well as teenagers, exhibiting their merchandise in a dimly lit souk. I had mint tea and a pastry in quiet coffee shops with a modern look, mostly for tourists during the day. The many patios overlook the open space of the square where the orange juice stands, dozen all identical to one another, were already serving freshly squeezed drinks. Roaming locals--women offering henna, children selling tissues, men offering photos with chained monkeys-- started to dot the scene along with the cabs, while everybody dodged the street cleaning crews.

‘Chi dorme non piglia pesci.’ We say in Italy, translated: ‘Those who sleep don’t catch any fish.’

After five days in Marrakech, I learned that time and planning is relative. I waited one hour for a coach to depart or someone to arrive for a meeting. And that was no big deal. But although I saw very few tourists around early in the morning, locals didn’t wait for them to start working.

Jemaa el-Fnaa is the city’s main square in the Medina quarter (old city). The city was founded in the XI century by the Almoravids, and its XII century renovation basically shaped the square to its current form. From lunchtime the square vast space becomes a busy mass of people up until late night.

Jemaa el-Fnaa is the city’s main square in the Medina quarter (old city). The city was founded in the XI century by the Almoravids, and its XII century renovation basically shaped the square to its current form. From lunchtime the square vast space becomes a busy mass of people up until late night.

I found historical architecture and artistic expression in the more popular destinations, such as the Ben Youssef Madrasa or the Badhia Palace-- touristic hotspots, yet exquisite representations of Moroccan culture.

Aniconism is a proscription in Islam, for which the representation of sentient life forms is prohibited. It's art focused on geometric patterns, calligraphy and the arabesque.

The colors of the Moulay El Yazid Mosque, next to the Saadian Tombs, are elegant and warm on a spring sunny day. Entry to mosques is prohibited to non-Muslim, so I enjoyed the outside of the complex.

The colors of the Moulay El Yazid Mosque, next to the Saadian Tombs, are elegant and warm on a spring sunny day. Entry to mosques is prohibited to non-Muslim, so I enjoyed the outside of the complex.

Nevertheless, I found cultural expression also in one of the thousands of anonymous and dusty alleys, in the form of an elaborated door decoration.

The Moroccans I have met were proud of their heritage, and many were happy to talk about events of the city’s history, often in either English or French (the average Moroccan speaks three languages: Arabic, French and English). Many felt comfortable requesting a tip after answering a question or taking a photo. 

A local I met at a conference at the University Cadi Ayyad explained that for historic, cultural and climatic reasons, social and family life happens inside a riad (a traditional Moroccan house) or a building. Therefore, a windowless, three story high wall might enclose a colorful and busy reality of everyday life.

A local I met at a conference at the University Cadi Ayyad explained that for historic, cultural and climatic reasons, social and family life happens inside a riad (a traditional Moroccan house) or a building. Therefore, a windowless, three story high wall might enclose a colorful and busy reality of everyday life.

I walked through streets that were busy with people. Different smells filled the air, and souks were empty except for the vendors and the mint tea aroma. I saw empty buildings in ruins or neat houses.

No matter where I was, few people were idle. A person might have been sitting on a stool, but as soon as I approached their stand - selling carpets, or lamps, or wood items – they jumped up and started talking to me, even if I didn’t even looked at what they were selling.

Vendors try hard to engage with foreigners and they are very persuasive. I bargained for anything I bought in the street, trying to interpret the vendors’ behavior and body language when they spoke in Arabic. There are the smiling types or the verbally aggressive ones, but bargaining is common practice.

Scooters, bikes and mopeds were a ubiquitous sight, especially in the souks, and it did not matter how narrow or busy. They didn’t really wait for people to let them pass. If they did, they would have never moved. They zipped through the crowd and the objects, brushing against me while I pulled my feet away to avoid getting one more tire run over them.

Marrakech's Medina is dotted with big or small souks, which can consist of only a few alleys or entire complexes. Makeshift covers run from building to building to protect people and merchandise from the occasional rain or from the intense heat.

Marrakech's Medina is dotted with big or small souks, which can consist of only a few alleys or entire complexes. Makeshift covers run from building to building to protect people and merchandise from the occasional rain or from the intense heat.

One morning I walked to the tanneries in the north-east part of the Medina, next to the Bab Debbagh (a bab is a city gatehouse along the historic walls). In the alleys, away from the tourists traveled streets, small businesses occupied a couple of rooms or just a few square feet.

It appeared to me that everybody I saw from the street worked with their hands. Artisans were everywhere.

Leather; wood; moped’s engines; food. Raw material was being worked on or something was getting fixed. A young man was improvising a support for a bike while two boys were balancing repair parts on their scooter, zipping through the pedestrians. People were focused at their task at hand, whether it was carving a wooden door or directing a donkey pulling a cart. I stopped a few times to talk to carpenters, often a mentor with an assistant, and asked about their work. They engaged in the conversation without particular excitement yet paying attention. Their focus was impressive.

In wandering around the Medina, I noticed how fast the atmosphere could change just around a corner. Rows of repetitive and apparently identical shops give way to calmer areas where life seems to follow a different rhythm.

In wandering around the Medina, I noticed how fast the atmosphere could change just around a corner. Rows of repetitive and apparently identical shops give way to calmer areas where life seems to follow a different rhythm.

A perhaps less refined skill but historical nonetheless is working in the tanneries.

An unofficial guide was waiting outside the complex for the next visitor when I arrived at the outside of the complex. I followed him while he was talking about the process of the open-air factory. He handed me fresh mint branches full of leaves to smell, to cover the odor from the raw leather. The smell turned out to be not as strong as I’ve read about, or as he hinted at.

Men were knee-deep in the pools, working the leather at one stage or another in the process. That leather would then have been put in storage for next summer.

The historic tanneries, the white, one story building in a row, had been expanded to cover a big open space. Few men were at work but the place felt busy. Faint colors were everywhere, but none were involved in dying the leather, a process that does not take place here. I heard an occasional whistle blow, pacing the rhythm of the work.

The historic tanneries, the white, one story building in a row, had been expanded to cover a big open space. Few men were at work but the place felt busy. Faint colors were everywhere, but none were involved in dying the leather, a process that does not take place here. I heard an occasional whistle blow, pacing the rhythm of the work.

I walk a lot. I walk even more when I visit a new place. I saw many shops along the labyrinthine Medina. I often wondered if the vendor in a shop was also the person who created the objects.

In the ‘Ensamble Artisanal Marrakesh’, an artisan cooperative, artisans were working in their shops right before my eyes. But on the busy narrow streets of the city, the person might not even be the owner of the shop, let alone an artist.

In one of my walks I finally saw that one of the vendors was also the artisan, something that I later spotted a few more times. He was working hard to impress a family of three, who eventually seemed to be buying few different items when I last glanced back.

This carving technique implements three, if not four, of the limbs. The right hand quickly moves the bow up and down to rotate the piece of wood. The right foot holds the scalpel down and firm while the left hand slightly moves the tool where the artisan wants it to be. The man worked swiftly, repositioning the scalpel occasionally to create the small carved piece of wood in matter of a minute or two.

This carving technique implements three, if not four, of the limbs. The right hand quickly moves the bow up and down to rotate the piece of wood. The right foot holds the scalpel down and firm while the left hand slightly moves the tool where the artisan wants it to be.
The man worked swiftly, repositioning the scalpel occasionally to create the small carved piece of wood in matter of a minute or two.

In virtually every single store and shop I walked by, and definitely in the souks, only men were working. Women, on the other hand, work in the Argan oil industry.

The last day I took a trip to the hills, to the Berber town of Ourika. It was a touristic trip, but interesting and insightful nonetheless. In this village we visited a cooperative of Argan oil producers. The modern building, white and clean, clashed with the ancient product it hosted and looked anachronistic in the otherwise run down village and unpaved streets, turned muddy from the rain.

Women are highly involved in the oil industry, and there are often women-only owned businesses. Supporting this product supports and entire lifestyle and maintains a traditional way of producing a unique product.

It seems that Phoenicians had been trading Argan Oil since the XV century BC. The production is labor intensive and time consuming. Patience and focus are required. Culinary oil is different from cosmetic oil, definitely not to be ingested. There are four main steps of production and everything is often made by hand. Fancy and expensive bottles found in the West are often produced by women, such as the four depicted here.

It seems that Phoenicians had been trading Argan Oil since the XV century BC. The production is labor intensive and time consuming. Patience and focus are required. Culinary oil is different from cosmetic oil, definitely not to be ingested. There are four main steps of production and everything is often made by hand.
Fancy and expensive bottles found in the West are often produced by women, such as the four depicted here.

Moroccans can be innovative. They try to make a profit out of any idea or opportunity.

After visiting the Berber village our guide, who spoke six languages, took us for a hike higher up on the hills. I could see the snow-covered mountains right behind them against the gray sky. The air was crisp, but not cold, and the hike was a pleasant change of activity from the city routine.

Halfway into the hike, I passed a stand covered with tarp. I could hear the faint radio or TV voice coming out. I am still not sure what that was, but imaged it was a resting point of some sort. I suspected that knocking on the tarp and asking about it would have led to a request for a tip, which is common.

The hike followed a small valley uphill, first through a marked path and then through boulders and rocks carved by centuries of running water. The water of the creek was fairly cold, coming directly from the snow runoff. The soil’s deep red was the background for the tree’s green newborn leaves.

The hike followed a small valley uphill, first through a marked path and then through boulders and rocks carved by centuries of running water. The water of the creek was fairly cold, coming directly from the snow runoff. The soil’s deep red was the background for the tree’s green newborn leaves.

Marrakesh, just like its residents, has adaptability and history within; the random and the planned; the powerless and the ambition.

‘La necessità aguzza l’ingegno,’ we say in Italy, which translates as, ‘Necessity makes wits sharper.’ In my brief experience, residents of Marrakesh are in need of more physical resources, but seem to already have the wits to figure things out at the moment, and even more in the future.

Many, if not most, historic buoldings in Marrakech's Medina have a rooftop terrace. I enjoyed the sunset colors over the city while the call to prayer filled the air.

Many, if not most, historic buoldings in Marrakech's Medina have a rooftop terrace. I enjoyed the sunset colors over the city while the call to prayer filled the air.


Photo by author.

Richard was born in the US, grew up in Italy, recently moved to the UK after few years in Oregon. Architect by day, but also athlete and photographer, he alternates sports to reading and writing. Find his work in The Dreams' Chest.