The seven seater taxi whisks us along the dual carriageway in the warm darkness, the children excitedly pointing out palm trees and Arabic signs. It’s not long before we are driving through a narrow archway in the city wall and the open desert is replaced by alleys, enclosed by looming walls.
The alleyways are dark and largely deserted. The taxi turns corner after corner, slowly gliding ever deeper into the labyrinth of the city. Eventually we reach a street that’s ablaze with light, the taxi crawls past tiny hole in the wall grocers shops with towering piles of round loaves on the counter and bulging bags of crisps hanging from the shutters. The driver valiantly pushes on but we are travelling slower than the streams of people flowing past us.
We edge past a donkey and cart, piled high with vegetables. There isn’t room to fit a carrot between us, the cart and the shop on the other side. As we overtake the donkey, a teenage boy peers grinning through the taxi window, waving as he shouts hello.
Just as I wonder if we are ever going to make it out of this street, because the taxi can barely move, the driver stops. He phones someone on his mobile, talking in short, clipped Arabic sentences, then tells us to get out. You are here now, he says. We know we are staying in a house in the medina, but have only the vaguest idea where. The street is teeming with people. People hurrying with their bags of shopping, people gossiping at the tea seller’s on the corner, people cooking kebabs on smoky charcoal grills, people standing and staring at us, the tourists with the cumbersome back packs and the yawning children.
Out of the crowd steps a middle aged lady in Western clothes and headscarf, asking “Victoria?” I reply in the affirmative and she tells me in French that her name is Jamilla and she will show us to our house. She sets off at a fair lick and we trail behind, dragging children and bashing bags into people hurrying past in the opposite direction. We pass bakeries with shelves full of smooth, white, proving loaves, a mosque with men in jellabas and skull caps sitting in the entrance, watching the world go by, a stall selling sheep heads and cow tongues, a fluorescent lit tailor’s shop with an elderly man puttering on an ancient Singer, a doughnut stall, the smell of hot oil wafting through the dusty night. Boys on bikes career in the opposite direction with alarming speed, laughing as we try to jump out of the way.
Suddenly, Jamilla darts down an unlit alleyway, opposite a bakery. We follow her along the twists and turns, trying not to feel too scared by the tiny, inky-dark, passages leading left and right and hiding a multitude of possibilities. After a couple of minutes, we reach a dark wooden door in a mud-coloured wall and she retrieves a set of keys from her bag. We are here. She shows us around our tall, thin home for the week then leaves us to wonder how we’ll ever find our way out again.
We’d been worried that Marrakech would be a bit tame.