Simon Allison in Marrakech
No one noticed him appear, but suddenly there he was, walking in step beside us through the manicured gardens that lead towards the ancient Koutoubia Mosque and the even older medina behind it. With one hand casually thrust into the pocket of his white robe, he struck up a conversation, breaking into a broad smile when he saw the uncertainty on our faces. “It’s me, Mohamed!” he exclaimed. “You know, from the hotel.”
We nodded in agreement. He didn’t look all that familiar, but then again it was a big hotel and no one wanted to be rude. Hello Mohamed. Swiftly he spun his web. So where are you from? How long are you in Marrakech? Have you been shopping yet, is there anything in particular you are looking for?
“Carpets! I know just the guy. Very reliable, very authentic, I promise! Follow me!”
And so, trapped by invisible strands of politeness and social nicety, and troubled by the nagging thought that maybe, just maybe, he really was from our hotel, we allowed Mohamed to lead us through the twisted, cobbled maze of the medina and into a labyrinthine carpet shop.
An hour and several tiny cups of sweetened Moroccan tea later, we emerged with three over-priced rugs. Mohamed was waiting for us. “Argan oil?” he asked hopefully. “Ceramics?”
By now we were wiser, poorer and thoroughly irritated — with ourselves, mostly, because we knew we had been played.
Mohamed is a tout, one of an army of unofficial “guides” that hassle tourists in Marrakech’s old city. They offer to navigate through its narrow alleys, for a generous tip, or escort you straight to the best-priced souvenirs in town. “One hundred per cent authentic,” said Mohamed. Once a guide attaches himself to a group of travellers, he — they are all men — can be almost impossible to dislodge without being aggressively rude.
The problem is by no means unique to Marrakech, but it is especially pronounced here: the old city has become almost entirely dependent on tourism, with two million people visiting in 2017. The competition for the tourist dollar is fierce.
‘Marrakech, it’s only tourists.” It’s Mohamed again, but this is a very different conversation. Sitting in a coffee shop on the outskirts of the old city, he has dropped the act. I told him I was a journalist, and it turns out that he’s got things he wants to say. “I talk serious now, I talk from my heart.”
He grew up in the Marrakech medina in a family of eight children. He never went to school. He got married at 22, and has two small children, 10-year-old Ayman and six-year-old Salma. He is 40, and is the sole breadwinner for the family.
Six days a week, Mohamed sits on a bench between the ultra-luxurious La Mamounia Hotel and the Koutoubia Mosque, waiting for tourists to wander past. He has a keen eye for potential clients: apparently Africans, Americans and Italians are good for business, but he avoids the French and Germans because they don’t pay.
Most of the time, he gets brushed off. He may speak to dozens of tourists before finding one that is gullible enough to fall for his routines. In a week, he will have one, or maybe two paying customers. It’s a long, thankless and boring job, and it does not pay well.
The only cash he gets is from tips, and he is lucky if he takes home more than 1 000 dirhams (R1 560) a month. He depends on this cash to feed his family. Because he is not an officially registered guide, he does not get commissions from the shops that he shepherds tourists towards. Instead, they reward him in kind: he gets some spices from the spice merchant, argan oil from the herbalist (“the good bottles, not the ones they mix with olive oil”), and the carpet shop owner gives him a sheep once a year. The sheep goes for about 1 500 dirhams (R2 340); most carpets sell for many multiples of that.
He would like to be a registered guide, but the bureaucracy and corruption involved in the accreditation process makes it impossible. “You have to know someone in the ministry,” Mohamed says. “I don’t know anybody.”
Periodically, police will raid the medina and round up all the unofficial guides. When Mohamed gets caught in their dragnet, he spends a couple of days in an overcrowded cell, locked up together with drug dealers and thieves. He does not want to talk about what the prison conditions are like, except to say that “jail is bad”.
Mohamed does not really understand why tourists find touts like him so irritating — especially because he is equally irritated at times. “They will pay €200 (2 140 dirhams or R3 350) for a meal in La Mamounia Hotel. But the same people don’t want to pay me 100 dirhams to show them the best restaurant in the medina, where they can pay 300 dirhams for a meal for four people. Why?”
Nonetheless, despite his frustrations, Mohamed is acutely aware that modern-day Marrakech, for all its proud history, is entirely dependent on foreign tourists. He remembers when America invaded Iraq in 2003, and suddenly tourists started to avoid the Arab world. Marrakech was empty for a month. No one made any money. People didn’t eat. He cannot afford for that to happen again.
Mohamed wants a different life for Ayman, preferably outside Marrakech, in a village where he can make a living by doing something with his hands. “This life in Morocco, it’s very hard work,” he says. “Will you tell people, so they know?”
After coffee, we part ways. Mohamed heads straight back to his bench, where he will sit and wait until the next unsuspecting tourist comes along. “It’s me, Mohamed!”, he will exclaim. “You know, from the hotel?”