By Ryan Child
The chaotic atmosphere of Marrakesh, Morocco, is like nothing you’re used to. The coolest city in Morocco is unique in its regimented disorder. Horses pulling green carriages mark the roads that the motorcycles and taxis weave through in a wave of terrifying harmony. The main openings that lead into the narrow souks are at the top of Jemaa el-Fna, Africa’s biggest city square. Before exploring the traditional street markets you must first, however, cross the square, which in the daytime is littered with monkeys on chains, snake charmers and circles of people surrounding physically impaired humans.
I met Mamo working at his stall one Friday night after the food market had quickly sprung up in the center of Jemaa el-Fna and the orange juice vendors had turned on their lights. “You like that scarf? Cheaper than Tesco man,” he said, with a huge smile illuminating his slight face.
“All I have is 30 Dirhams,” I said, offering the equivalent of about $3.50 for the green scarf hanging on the entranceway to Mamo’s cavernous stall.
“What?” he laughed, smoothing the front of his jacket with both hands. “Why you try to pay sheep’s price for a camel? Haha. Come in, come in. No obligation to buy. Come on,” he waved. “What do you want? The scarf is 200 Dirhams. Please, look around.”
And with that he was back outside in the busy walkway outside his stall, opposite the popular Café de France.
Two dark-haired women walked past. “Sarkozy-le maintenant,” Mamo called out jokingly, incorrectly calling for the former French president to step down. The women, both wearing black leather jackets and dark jeans, looked puzzled. “Cosa?” the taller of the two asked.
Mamo’s ears pricked as he searched for the Italian part of his brain. “Ahh, Berlusconi, haha. Le donne italiane sono forti,” Mamo said, tensing his biceps and twinkling his eyes. “Venire. Venire.” His broad smile led the Italians into his territory. They left with a new “genuine fake” Louis Vuitton handbag just five minutes later.
“What did you say to them?” I asked.
“I told them that Italian women are strong women, haha. And, of course, I am right because they decided to buy something for a real price. But not you, London man.”
Mamo, or Mohammed Bouchtat, 19, was born in Marrakesh in 1992 during a particularly cold January. He was also born during a leap year. Apart from those two anomalies, though, Mamo has lived the typical life of a young man in Marrakesh.
I asked him how he learned so many languages, five in all, before the end of his teenage years. Animated with the gesticulation of an Italian, concise in his speech like an Englishman, and as sincere as a Scandinavian, Mamo told me his very Moroccan story.
“You don’t understand,” he said. “ Language . . . ” he paused, looking around at the football shirts and popular brands adorning the tarpaulin walls. “Communication is not learned. For me it is an obligation of Marrakesh. Since I have been eight years I have been here in Jemaa el-Fna. This big,” he said, measuring the height with the universal flat palm at his waist. “You hear the people speak and you learn about them and you want to please them.”
“And your parents?” I asked.
“Here, with me. The right life is to come here where the foreign money is. This is not a special idea, but clever like Alan Sugar, hey?” He laughed.
Where the foreign money is, though, happens to be in the pockets of foreigners that can grow tired of the constant Moroccan sales patter.
Jacob Kuhn, a Swedish traveler I met at a rented apartment in the southern town of Essaouira, said he had left Marrakesh because of the vocal salesman like Mamo.
“I hate the desperation tactics they use in the souks and all over the square in Marrakesh,” he said. “Even the taxi drivers wouldn’t leave me alone. The problem for me is that, if I want something, I will get it. And I don’t want people to keep asking me when I’m just walking around, trying to enjoy the city because Marrakesh is also very beautiful.”
The thing is that many visitors are persuaded to purchase items by a group of salesmen that are, undoubtedly, some of the finest communicators in the world. And, when night falls, a new troop enters stage left.
At about six o’clock the African sun breaks into hues of orange and pink upon the Marrakesh skyline, setting beneath the Koutoubia Mosque Minaret Tower that dominates the city’s skyline.
An hour before, the boys from the food market arrive to set up the white centerpiece that houses more than 20 restaurants. Most of the stalls serve similar menus of seafood, kebabs and traditional Moroccan tagines. The main differences between them are the boys that are charged with attracting customers.
Like the boys in the souk, these young salesmen are adept linguists and expert communicators. Within the imaginary border lines that separate each stall, around 6 or 7 of them, ranging from 17 to 30 years old, carefully identify and approach customers from 6 p.m. to 12 p.m. every night of the week.
Having been identified and approached, I sat with my free mint tea and chatted with Hassan, a 24-year-old with long eyelashes and a military-like haircut. Outside the show had begun. One of the boys had spotted a group of English teenagers that, I learned later, were working in a volunteer program helping orphans in the city. The boy looked over to Hassan, the best English speaker, who left with a smile and danced his way onto the stage.
“Wowww, you girls are finger lickin’ good,” he said with a comic glint in his eye. “Hahaha. C’mon boys, ‘no money no honey.’” Around the back of the group two other boys gently encouraged the group closer to the stall’s entrance. With the herd now close enough, Hassan turned to me and began to clap and sing. “That’s the way uh huh uh huh, I like it. That’s the way uh huh uh huh, I like it.”
The chefs behind the huge display of food clapped and sang along. Everyone in the small tent looked over at the group of young English travelers. Hassan’s arm was around the waist of the biggest male in the pack and, after a few minutes of a much practiced comedy routine, including a couple of “high five, too slow,” seven more people were eating food they didn’t know they wanted.
It seems incredible that such a basic shepherding process works so well but, after seeing it on a number of occasions, and talking with both predator and prey, it became clear that much more than just physical herding is in practice.
I failed to get Candy’s last name, but the 20-year-old American from south Florida explained why she ate in the middle of Jamaa el-Fna almost every night, despite the fact that there were so many beautiful rooftop restaurants less that 100 yards away.
“When we first arrived in Marrakesh, I just walked straight past the middle restaurants because they hassled us so much,” she said, twirling a lock of brown hair between her bubblegum pink nails. “Then one night I was on my own and I talked to one of the boys and there was just something about his eyes that was so, I don’t know. Not desperate, like, more determined and confident but really nice as well. And he just said ‘let’s sit down and eat.’ So I did for some reason.”
About Candy, Hassan said “everyone needs something different.”
Candy was lured to the same stall as me and, although Hassan sat with her that one time, I have never seen him do it again. Does she care?
“No because I get free tea and sometimes I don’t buy anything, I just sit here and listen to the drums and watch people walking around. Plus the food is actually really good.”
What she is also doing, apart from enjoying the unquestionable enchantment of this city in the evenings and the excellent calamari, is making the stall look popular and helping to bring in more business.
Most guide books, including Lonely Planet, advise travelers to eat at the busiest stalls. What most guide books don’t tell their readers is that Jemaa el-Fna, with all of its disorder, is a finely tuned sales floor where the patrons have covertly domesticated what looks an untameable bull.
Back at his stall, Mamo continued with his sale. “Listen, don’t tell anybody, but . . . ” I waited in anticipation as Mamo waved to the Italian girls who must have been doing another lap.
“You can buy this scarf for 50 Dirhams,” he said, without an ounce of insincerity. The tiny scarf was in a holey Tesco bag and in my hand before I said a word back. I handed over the green 50 Dirham note over and shook the salesman’s hand.
On my way out I noticed the ragged shoes on Mamo’s feet. “Was our whole conversation just about the scarf?” I asked.
“You don’t like the scarf?” he asked back.
When I returned the next day another boy on the stall told me Mamo had gone to look after his mother and wouldn’t be back until the next day. He wasn’t there the next day either.
“No,” I thought, walking through Jemaa el-Fna as dusk fell that Monday, “Our conversation was about survival.” And I didn’t understand a word of it.