Just hearing the phrase ‘the souks of the Media’ has always invoked in me a sense of the exotic, conjuring up images of beautiful Arabic architecture, chaotic winding streets and shops stacked floor to ceiling with a kaleidoscope of treasures. This April I finally had a chance to spend a week in the city that had I’d long wanted to capture in photographs.
We stayed in a quiet riad just a few minutes walk from the main market square. Each morning we would push open it’s great iron door and step out into the apparent chaos of the souks. The assault on our senses was intense and immediate: the sights, sounds and smells emanating from the seemly endless shops and market stalls were at once intoxicating and overwhelming.
The Medina itself is remarkably preserved. Barring the constant buzz of passing scooters and mopeds racing past, one could easily imagine themselves traveling back in time. You won’t find a McDonald’s or Starbucks here.
While most people seemed relatively relaxed about having their picture taken – an occupational hazard in the area – getting a good shot is not without its challenges. Pause for more than a moment and you run a risk of being run down by a heavily laden donkey cart or being ushered into an impossibly cluttered spice shop to sip herbal tea and participate in a session of intense haggling. It doesn’t take long to figure out that the price on everything – including posing for a photograph – is a negotiation.
Amidst the crowded clamor of the streets, calm oases can often be found. Buildings in Morocco are typically designed to be fairly austere from the outside, their rich interiors are hidden from view. But step inside and one finds themselves in opulent open-air enclosures and lush gardens. The rooms are usually built around the perimeters and face inwards. This, combined with huge, thick walls, mean that many of the internal spaces are surprisingly quiet and tranquil.
Islamic tradition prescribes against the creation of images of people and animals, and particularly against creating idolic images of the prophet. In contrast to western interiors, which are often decorated with figurative art, traditional Moroccan interiors are lavishly decorated with ornate mosaics and beautifully patterned walls.
In the evenings, the mood of the Medina changes. The intense selling of the day seems to give way to a more relaxed carnival atmosphere. As the proprietors gradually close up shop in the surrounding streets, the square fills up with people gathering around in clusters to listen to music and stories. Morocco has a rich history of oral storytelling. Though I couldn’t understand the language spoken (apparently a mixture of Berber, Arabic and French) the scenes resonated with me deeply, bringing me back to a younger age, crowded around the campfire, my imagination ignited by stories told in the darkness.