For Morocco at its liveliest, head into the souks. The whole of a community’s market or bazaar quarter is called a souk, as well as the individual areas within it dedicated to particular crafts or goods.
Every Moroccan city and town of any size has its permanent souk, while rural village souks are usually transient, held only weekly and often named for its particular day of the week.
Large or small, urban or rural, the souks are real eye-openers. The souk in Marrakesh is particularly fascinating and a tantalizing world all its own. Within its vast and labyrinthine tangle of narrow streets, crooked alleys and small squares are myriad shops and stalls selling an astonishing array of goods.
Its Potters’ Souk overflows with both utilitarian and decorative plates, bowls and cups, along with the essential cone-shaped tajines in which the delicious dish of the same name is cooked.
The Carpet Souk, standing on the site of the one-time slave market which saw daily auctions until the early 20th century, is stacked and hung with a million intricately-patterned weavings from various regions of the country. Lines of colorful textiles dry on lines high over the alleyway of the Dyers’ Souk, while the Slipper Souk abounds with the popular leather footwear called babouches.
Likewise, sheepskins and wool, exotic jewelry, redolent perfumes and spices—can each be found clustered together in its own souk.
Women enveloped in long robes, with only eyes and fingertips visible, come to fetch their daily necessities. Filled as the city is with orange trees, the spring air smells intoxicatingly of orange blossoms, and both orange and rose flower oils and waters are cosmetic and culinary staples of the souk.
There is henna to condition hair and to pattern the hands of single women, and both hands and feet of married women. Adhesive hand-shaped stencils to simplify the application of the henna patterns are also sold.
There is kohl to beautify women’s eyes and lip color concocted of powdered poppy flowers and olive oil. Buffers crafted of terra cotta are sold for foot care, and walnut twigs for cleaning teeth.
Market tables are heaped with aromatic cooking spices, and huge hand-woven baskets brim with things such as dates, chickpeas or fresh mint sprigs. Stall after stall offer a great variety of delicious olives and a variety of other staples of the Moroccan kitchen, such as lemons preserved in salt.
Further along the lanes, aphrodisiacs await lovers, while assorted incenses and sundry animal parts are on offer for the still popular casting of black magic spells.
Would-be guides, often aggressive and persistent, hang about the souk entrances, hoping to earn not only a guiding fee from tourists, but also shop commissions on the goods they might purchase.
The air is filled with a lively din, as buyers and sellers enthusiastically go about their business—proffering, cajoling, inspecting, choosing. And finally, bargaining. For in Morocco’s souks, bargaining is the greatest fun and a challenge of high art.