We’d made it through Security and Passport Control waving our boarding passes blindly in front of us and attracting surprisingly little attention. It was in the Bridge pub at Stansted, starting as I meant to go on; pint in hand, that we were told where we were going to spend the next few days.
“Wait a minute.” I said, after the initial excitement wore off. “You’re taking us to Morocco?”
“In mid July? During Ramadan?”
“Well, I hope you like sweating, and starving.”
And so it was that I found myself on my way to an Islamic country with three, shall we say “free-thinking” women (one of whom a lesbian) and little chance of a drink on the other side.
Where to Drink Alcohol in Marrakech?
Do they drink alcohol in Morocco?
Drinking alcohol is forbidden by the Qur’an, so Muslims don’t drink. However, Morocco makes a huge portion of its income through tourism, and many young “Marrakchis” like a drink too these days. So if, like I was, you’re wondering ‘can you drink alcohol in Morocco?’, the answer is yes, you can. As I see it, the city is broken down as follows:
|Where?||Huh?||Who?||Can I get a drink?|
|The Medina||The old, walled city||Old Muslims||Doubtful, except in…|
|…Riads, Hotels & Restaurants||Riads are traditional Moroccan houses||Tourists||Sometimes|
|Gueliz & Hivernage||The new town(s)||Young Marrakchis||Probably|
Ramadan further complicates the matter, as nothing can be drunk (or eaten) during daylight. However, since the same places that don’t honour Ramadan are likely to be the same ones that serve alcohol, and since drinking tends to take place after dark anyway, this didn’t present too much of a problem.
According to my friend’s shitty guidebook, “the city is acquiring an Ibiza-like reputation for nightlife.” I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say that, but here’s a list of cafes, bars, live music venues and clubs where drinking goes down:
- Le Comptoir
- Grand Cafe de la Poste (expensive; not recommended)
- African Chic
- Jad Mahal
- Bo et Zin
- La Suite
- So Night Lounge
- Diamant Noir
- Hotel Marmara Le Marrakech
What Alcohol Do They Drink in Morocco?
They drink three main beers in Morocco:
- Flag (Speciale) is the cheap, local brew
- Casablanca has a kinda cool label and
- Heineken…is Heineken
If you’re looking for me to describe the intricacies of each, tell you their pros and cons and recommend the finest one, based on my exceptionally refined knowledge of world beer, you’re out of luck.
Just drink the fucking Flag!
There’s also Mahia, a rare and potent liqueur made from distilled figs – which grow well in this hot climate – and a healthy dose of aniseed. You’ll be sure to get it in Carrefour, the supermarket in the Al Mazar Mall, but that’s a little out of town. You can also try your luck in the Berber spice markets, but it can be a bit of a wild goose chase. Mahia is drunk by the Jews, so they are the best people to get it from, if you can find them. You can procure a bottle for €5 in Marrakech, while it is not uncommon for a single shot to cost €15 in bars elsewhere around the world.
Finally, there’s Chiba or Sheba, which means absinthe in Moroccan Arabic. In winter it is sometimes drunk (by the non-Muslim population of course) with Moroccan mint tea. Just ask for “thé à l’absinthe“.
For the non-alcoholic, there’s lait d’amande (almond milk) (Moroccans put almonds in everything), banana juice, avocado juice, and regular mint tea (made of Moroccan peppermint and Chinese “gunpowder” green tea). You can go to a tea salon. Fun fact. Did you know, Morocco is the world’s biggest importer of Chinese tea? Well, did you?
Don’t drink the tap water.
Three Nights in Marrakech
So we crashed down in the luna-Sahara landscape of amber sunset sand dunes and peach stucco – those crazy Moroccan towers (minarets, apparently) the only things poking up out of the sprawl.
A French pilot who happened to be sitting next to us on the plane told us not to pay the 200 Dirham asked by the taxis directly outside the station but to cross the car park, where you can find one for 50. There are two kinds of cab in Marrakech: big and small. The small ones were 50 but will only take three people though, so I was in the process of haggling (one of my favourite travelling pastimes) and had got a big one down to 70 when the girls reminded me it was only about five quid and bundled me into the cab.
We were sped through the streets of Marrakech, mostly in the oncoming lane it seemed. Honking mopeds came towards us head on and laden to the eyes with sacks and planks and palettes. Heavy-set trucks chugged and belched and blocked our view of the road. Flying buses missed us by a hair’s breadth. Women stepped out into the road with no visible hole for seeing out of.
I’ve seen plenty worse places for driving, from Tirana to Phnom Penh to the mountain roads of Guatemala. It was just odd that they wouldn’t let four people in a small cab, that’s all.
Our riad – Riad Lakhdar – couldn’t have been more opposite from the city outside. The baking 40 degree sun, from which there had been no escape, was replaced by cool dark halls. The constant sounds and smells of the streets were replaced by a reflective, inward calm. Riads are build around a courtyard, and ours had a fountain, a tree or two and the occasional, singing bird that would later come and drink our milk at breakfast when we were done with it.
The style of furniture was like nothing I’ve ever come across (a feeling I get less and less these days) and I couldn’t get enough of these cool, Moroccan door-bolt-locking-system-things:
The rooftop terrace, where we would spend most days, whiling away the hours, chatting, sunbathing, drinking mint tea, Flag beer and playing the cut-throat Backpacker Game. The girls spent half of the time topless. I have voyeuristic photos if anyone wants copies.
After dark, down a network of thin alleys, stooping under arches, past ornate doorways, caves almost, deeper into the labyrinth. Souks in the night. A mysterious stranger took it upon himself to tell us the direction of “La Place” when we hadn’t even asked, and then waited ahead in the shadows every time we stopped until he eventually asked for his fee, which he would never get. From then on I was always wary of picking up “guides”.
We emerged in Jemaa el-Fna, a huge open square in the centre of the Medina, and effectively the centre of Marrakech.
A line of bright lights wavered across the square. Chanting, voices, drumming. A monkey climbed on Ruth’s shoulder. Snakes hissed. Charmers charmed. Tethered vultures stared malignantly across the crowd. Mopeds came straight at us through sudden partings in the crowd; their headlights blinding, engines growling as we dived aside, leaving a trail of petrol fumes in their wake. Women leapt out at us with hypodermic needles (or what we later discovered were syringes of henna). A man grabs us and says “You want good restaurant? Over there! Only Moroccan food. These places, they only have pizza, humbugers, frittes! Bad food!”
“Oooh, Pizza.” I said, and strolled off towards where he’d indicated the “bad” restaurants. Others blocked our way, grabbed at us as we walked. Hassle. Most of the world is like this. You learn to ignore it pretty quick.
One guy shouted, “No diarrhoea here! Two year guarantee!”
We got all the classics: “Hey, fish and chips!” “Spice girls!” “Charlie and his Angels!” (That one’s my favourite.)
I think in the end we went with the “no diarrhoea” guy. We ate tangine, couscous, merguez (spiced sausages), brochettes (not bruschettas but in fact meat on a stick) and a dessert…filled with pigeon.
Every meal comes with bread called khubz. Don’t leave any. It’s supposed to be sacred; a gift from God. If you know my friend Hattie, you’ll know we were lucky to make it out of Morocco alive! Let’s just say the girl likes to leave a lot of food.
I went wandering, looking to buy a pair of those Moroccan white linen pants. Sorry, trousers. No luck.
The main language seems to be French, then a Moroccan variety of Arabic, and then there’s also the Berber languages like Tashelhait and Chleuh. Plus everyone seems to have a bit of English, to varying degrees.
Got back to find a massive cockroach in the other girls’ bathroom. I volunteered to kill it, only to discover another one and so I left them with two on their hands. Sleep came easy.
Breakfast was rghaif (a deliciously greasy layered flatbread) and classic french baguette, with more mint tea.
The girls wanted to go to the Palmeraie. I didn’t fancy walking around in the desert looking for water and something to do so I thought I’d stay and write the beginnings of this post.
“Do you even know where abouts in the Palmeraie you want to go? It’s thousands of acres.”
“It’ll be fine. We’ll just figure it out when we get there.”
Half an hour later, we’re standing in the middle of the desert looking for water or something to do, our cab disappearing into the distance. They dragged me along, on the premise that I could find a nice palm to sit under and write beside a pool. Now they’re looking to me to get them out of this situation.
Don’t ever go to the Palmeraie.
By and by, another taxi pulls up and offers to take us to a place where the girls can ride a camel and I can sit and write and play photographer as they disappear into the desert. The taxi was 20 Dirham (so about 40p each) and we managed to haggle the camel ride to a pretty good price too.
Carly’s camel was called “Madonna”.
Part of me likes the sound of those two or three day camel treks into the Sahara, camping under the stars by night. It’s a romantic idea. But the sad truth is, it’s an illusion. They’ve done the route a million times. It’s probably just around their back yard. You too are going to have to come back to where you started. It’s not your camel. It’s not your life. It’s not even their life. You don’t need to cross the desert by camel. It’s not real travel. It’s pretend.
We’re always trying to recreate gone eras and ways of life, because our own is so empty. This fascination with the past is everywhere in the tourism industry. Think most attractions: churches, temples, castles. What good are they to anyone now? Yet we readily pay entry fees to go in and see them.
Well, you won’t find any history, architecture or any of that crap here. Just bars and drinking.
Our taxi driver gave us a ride back into town for 70 Dihram. He was a good guy, old Yassine Mrabti Fassi, so I said I’d recommend him to anyone going to Marrakech, and that’s exactly what I’m doing now. He charges a good price and doesn’t try to rip you off. I have his number and email if anyone needs it.
We spent the rest of the day by a pool we found in one of the cheaper hotels. We got the radio going with Blurred Lines and had ourselves a little pool party. When it’s 40 degrees, you should never be more than a few feet from a body of water.
Later we’re at an underground club beneath the Hotel Marmara Le Marrakech. Homosexuality in Morocco can get you up to 3 years in jail, so where better to hang out than a spot notorious for being overtly gay. The bar was filled with smoke – tobacco and marijuana. The seats are comfortable. There are all sorts of people here. The kinds of people you don’t see above ground here. Scantily clad girls, gay guys, lesbians, sexy, overly affectionate straight couples, Westerners, Africans, locals. It’s not a gay club as much as just a place where people can be themselves, away from prying eyes. It was hot as hell. We danced our asses off. I sweated through my shirt about a hundred times. The whole place had an air of naivety about it, like a school disco or something. We all – everyone in the club – danced in a circle, not like the cramped, back to back, pushy, faceless meat-markets that are Western clubs. By the end of the night, everybody knew everybody. Like a small village, overnight – perfect strangers had become the best of friends. Exhausted, and the club seeming to have emptied, we decided to call it a night after one last dance. Suddenly all our new friends, sensing this burst of energy came running out of the woodwork and we all hit our second wind. People got on stage, there was a conga line, break dancing, dosey doe-ing. That last dance lasted for hours and turned a mediocre night into one of the best of our lives. We walked home reeking of sweat and smoke and ecstasy. (The emotion, not the drug).
Next night we’re reclining on a rooftop, smoking shisha at four in the morning, thinking, talking away the night. I will miss Morocco in Ramadan, I thought. The way the city comes alive at night. The relaxed craziness. The emphasis on being about for the most beautiful parts of the day; sunrise, sunset, sitting out all night. Sleeping all day suited me just fine. “Under the stars”, I came to find, is a real Morocco cliché, but I now know why.
My friends all got travellers’ diarrhoea and Carly threw up in the middle of the spice market.
Oh and if you’re interested in similar posts about drinking in far-flung Islamic nations, check out my post on where the hell to get a drink in Brunei. It’s becoming quite the series.