“This is the crazy place.” My guide, Mustapha, grins at the scene: hooded men in djellabas (robes) swoop between shaded alleys; Yamaha motorbikes hiss and pop through throbbing crowds; rust-coloured cats dart between zelije-tiled doorways. People pulse past gilded goods like blood through veins. The morph and muddle of colours and movement evokes a Jackson Pollock painting.
“‘What a souk’ means ‘what a mess’… like my children’s room,” jokes Mustapha. When he smiles, he smiles big, showing a neat row of white teeth that match a short white and grey beard.
We met at Almaha Marrakech, my riad, before exploring Marrakech’s squeeze of souks. Despite a slight limp, he quickly weaves between donkeys (“local Mercedes,” he quips), carts piled high with watermelons and men running with bulging bundles of curled leather.
Golden light seeps through a slatted roof and onto the crush of people moving down the too-crowded Souk Semmarine. Mustapha swings left and we make our way towards an area crowned with copper and brass lanterns, casting rainbows on dark-brick pavement. “When I was here with Alec Baldwin, he told me this is like a movie,” Mustapha nonchalantly offers. “He loved it. He bought one door.” I laugh at the idea, but Mustapha explains: “He was here for Mission Impossible.”
He knows he’s impressed me, and quickly adds: “I’m also a friend of Maggie Gyllenhaal,” before producing his phone and showing me a series of images: one with Maggie and her family, another with a towering Alec, and a third showing a glowing Mustapha sandwiched between Mark Strong and Daniel Craig.
He smiles big, starts to sing Another Brick in the Wall, and hurriedly limps off. I follow him to the quieter corners of this maze, where men are huddled over bags, darkening fragrant leather with oil and carving patterns into shiny silver trays. Others sip mint tea between bouts of embroidering vibrant ottoman poofs with long needles. “We don’t make Mercedes in Morocco, but we make beautiful decorations,” says Mustapha.
I’m lost in the labyrinth, but Mustapha seems to know every inch of this place. We stop before a shrivelled old man crouched in the doorway of a cluttered workspace. He’s sifting through a pile of change when Mustapha speaks to him in Arabic. “We call him Omar International Bank,” Mustapha explains, pointing to the pile of copper and silver coins Omar uses to decorate belts and bags. Omar finds 10 pence, and shows it to me proudly. I nod approvingly, and we move on.
Further along, a yellow-slippered foot bobs from between a doorway. It belongs to a man dressed in all white — skullcap, trousers and loose cotton shirt — who’s sitting cross-legged on a stool. He’s absorbed in concentration, carving a Hamsa Hand motif into a tile, and doesn’t seem to notice us watching.
Along these narrow streets, there’s a hum of artisans hammering, welding, carving and sculpting. Mustapha’s tour beyond the main streets of shops and shouting has me impressed. I only have enough dirham for a handmade ceramic bowl, but if I were Alec, I’d have bought a door too.