For a visitor to Marrakech, one good trick deserves another, but the lesson learnt when dealing with the locals is sometimes it pays to walk away – especially when scissors are involved. By Andy Hazel.

A haircut in Marrakech

The hair salon visited by the author in the medina of Marrakech, Morocco.
The hair salon visited by the author in the medina of Marrakech, Morocco.
Credit: Agefotostock / Alamy

The medina of Marrakech opens with a trick. It plays out in a small, crowded courtyard, by the high ochre walls of the Palais des Princesses. Groups of men cluster in doorways chatting as motorbikes thread their way through the crowd. To one side, a wooden table holds hessian sacks of vibrantly coloured spices, a scene rendered even more photogenic by dusty light squeezing obliquely through the slats in the roof above. The second a visitor, such as I, slows their step, reaches for their camera or holds up their phone, they’re ambushed. The men break away from the doorways with cries of “Monsieur, monsieur, où allez-vous? Hey mister, do you need a guide? You want a photo? Where are you from? Where are you going?”

Ruses such as this have been an essential part of the Moroccan economy for centuries. Their underlying philosophy, I’d soon discover, fits straight into the playbook of Robin Hood and the resulting funds get divided among the group rather than being kept by the individual.

“Much as I had heard and read of the misgovernment of Morocco,” wrote pioneering travel writer Isabella Bird in 1901, “I was not prepared to find the reality far worse than had been reported.” In her time, European powers were vying for rule across northern Africa with typical barbarism, while rival Arab, Berber and tribal communities fought, traded and formed uneasy alliances that gave rise to a multilingual and ethnically complex society. The labyrinthine expanse of the medina, a space both ancient and modern, local and global, inside and outside, with blinding sunshine and shadowy recesses, could have been designed to disorient the visitor.

A market is not meant to be a passive experience, which means the best defence is a strong pretence: keep your phone in your pocket, don’t display a camera and feign an important but distant destination.

Even as you shut out one part of the medina, more rushes in. The scent of freshly baked bread, fruit, spices and horse urine compete for space in the sensory nervous system with the taste of mint tea and the dry heat of the day. All around, merchants and shoppers dodge buzzing motorbikes that wend their way between stalls and down narrow paths made concave with almost a millennia of use. A typical 10 square metres could host a tiny juice stand, a sprawling stall of richly hued pottery, a small cave of silk slippers, a shop holding hundreds of jars of olives, and a carpet emporium. A cacophony of vendor cries, haggling, gnawa songs and the vibrant shops merge with a ceaseless kinetic assault to create the retail equivalent of too much sherbet. Every surface is covered, every ceiling bedecked with more and more stuff, every corner obscured. It takes just a flicker of consideration for the show to begin.

“Oh, no, too much, too much.”

“What? Ha! No, no, no, no... Okay, this much. This much. No less.”

“Still too much.”

“No. That’s my lowest. No. No, no, no. No. Okay.”

But the touts in the medina are not the only ones with tricks. My own ruse to draw locals into conversation is to have a haircut. Over the years and around the world, the trims may have varied wildly in quality but they’ve got me an invitation to a rave in Glasgow, a home dinner in Reykjavík and insider knowledge about the local arts scenes of San Francisco and Wellington. In Marrakech, I’d be happy to lose a little off the back to gain my bearings.

The medina comprises overlapping districts that specialise in a trade, and in one laneway I find a cluster of barbers, compare prices and opt for the busiest place. Within minutes, the elderly manager is nodding in agreement at my offer of “50” and I sit down. Instantly, the cut begins. No conversation, no English, no French, no Arabic, no chance to say, “Short back and sides, please.” Even a raised hand and a “no” only briefly slow proceedings as his blade moves nearer and nearer to my scalp. Becoming eager for him to be more attentive, I use the one thing that I know makes a difference around here. I slip my hand into my money belt and pull out a 50 dirham note, the equivalent of about $A7. He takes it, puts it in his pocket and continues. Bargaining during a haircut is, I realised then – and even more acutely half an hour later as a breeze tightened my scalp – not the smartest move.

After 15 minutes that seem like an hour, his scissors dart towards my eye in what I take to be the beginning of a vicious assault but that turns out to be a quick trim of my brows. Seeing my flickering terror, he laughs, stands back and gestures for me to leave. “Two hundred,” demands the manager, his hand outstretched. After settling on 100, I leave.

Minutes later, pondering my mangled thatch, I am interrupted by a man walking towards me. “Monsieur, monsieur,” he calls, “You cannot go this way. It is forbidden. It is for Muslims only. I’ll show you the way.” I follow the man. He proves to be exceedingly polite and repeatedly informs me he wants no money. He is just glad to help.

“Why are you here?” he asks. I talk about wanting to have a better understanding of what I am seeing in the medina. He informs me his name is Khalil, he is Berber, and his friend runs the local tannery. Would I like to see it? “No money. I don’t want money,” he assures me, waving his hands. “Already I walk this way.”

We move quickly through the markets and out into a tangle of laneways. Serene donkeys stand piled high with crates of soft drinks. Men speak among themselves, their eyes never leaving the faces of passers-by. At the tannery gate Khalil hands me over to a rake-thin man with glasses who informs me he is the “manager”. Again, he insists he wants no payment before handing me a sprig of mint to press against my nose as we take a five-minute walk through the shallow wells and drying racks hanging throughout the square. The stench of pigeon shit, urine and quicklime all used in the tanning process, and the labour involved in the preparation of the leather, seems somewhat mediaeval. The tannery workers seem as oblivious to the stench as they are to the tourists navigating the planks crisscrossing the tannery. From there another man leads me to a nearby leather store where I assume that if I buy a slightly overpriced belt, the guides will get a cut. I haggle the price to slightly less than half of what was first asked, then step outside to find Khalil, the tannery guide and the final guide waiting for me. They ask for 200 dirham each. After politely arguing, paying them half that in cash plus a 100 dirham mobile phone card – literally all I have in my pocket – they follow me, shouting, “We are poor, pay us!” Across the laneway a group of men sit on a low wall watching and laughing as this theatre plays out, as it surely does all day long.

The next day, I return to the medina, but as part of a small group taking a food tour. I learn that bakeries are places where people bring their family dough to be baked, and that loaves are disc-shaped, better for sharing. Tagines allow food to be cooked thoroughly using very little water, ideal for a country that is largely arid mountains and desert.

Later that evening, I am in a bar speaking to a French woman in her 60s, whose heavy accent means I am still unsure whether her name is Elaine, Helen or Ellen, or one of its French equivalents. “I came to Morocco in the late 1960s,” she tells me. “And one of the first things I read in the guidebook was a list of things not to do here. No. 1 was, ‘If you are approached by someone who offers to give you directions, walk away. This is a scam and they will ask you to give them money.’ ” She continues, “Just before I came here last week, my first time since then, I googled things to do in Marrakech, and the No. 1 warning I read was, ‘If you are approached by someone offering to give you directions, walk away.’ ” She smiles. “I just laugh; laugh and walk away. It’s not so hard.”

I laugh too, and let my eyes linger enviously on her perfect coiffure. Before my haircut had a chance to grow out, the experience was rendered obsolete by Covid-19. A slightly less chaotic medina can now be experienced via virtual reality. Would-be visitors connect with a travel agency that employs a guide wielding a 4G-connected video camera on a selfie stick, bringing all the thrill of haggling to your living room, with shipping arranged by the company. As innovative, and necessary, as this arrangement is for a city like Marrakech, some encounters cannot be streamed.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 27, 2021 as "Cuts both ways".

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