June 26, 2008 Posted by Tahir in Travel

The Water Seller

We have all seen them, in the flesh or postcards of them, standing in the central square in Marrakech, bright costumes, ear to ear smiles, furry goatskins full of water dangling at their waists. Think Morocco and you think of the inimitable purveyors of water. Their costumes are red, wide Berber hats providing shade, shallow brass cups polished so brightly you can see your face in them, their shoes as shiny as a soldier’s on parade.

The water sellers are so famous, so celebrated, that they’ve become icons, known throughout the kingdom and far beyond. But something has gone awry. These symbols of the exotic, satiaters of the desert thirst, have evolved. They are now so extremely famous that they no longer really sell water at all. Most of the time they make money — and loads of it — by posing for tourists in Marrakech and elsewhere. Mannequins for digital shots.
In my travels I have become obsessed by tourism and the effect it has on countries and on their cultures. Most of the time, and you know where I am heading with this, I’m not a big fan. Although sometimes a city in the middle of nowhere gets charged up with a tourist bonanza. If anyone reading this knows Nazca in Peru, you will know what I am talking about.
And Marrakech is another example. But in this case, a fine Imperial Moroccan city which was once many days journey into the desert, is now so ridiculously accessible. And for me that’s the major point. It’s too easy, far too easy, to get to Marrakech. In my opinion you should sweat blood to get there, and now you don’t have to. Indeed, there’s a Club Med just off the main square. There are other ultra-easy-to-get-to tourist destinations throughout the world, and I think there’s always a sense of wrongness about them.
Talk to me about Marrakech and I do sometimes get hot under the collar. I’m sorry, but I do. And in the grand scale of things it’s the water sellers who have both been made and been destroyed by the invasion of tourist bucks. They are richer than just about anyone else selling anything to the tourists (well, almost, slight hyperbole). But at the same time they have sold out, lost their heritage lock stock and barrel.
Just up the hill from Dar Khalifa there’s a traffic light. I spend a lot of time stopped there, staring out the car window. There’s usually an old water seler standing right there at the light. He’s ragged, his costume a far cry from his kin in Marrakech. But he’s the real thing — a man who hasn’t sold out his tradition.
What irony there is in that. You have to come to Casablanca, the seemingly most European city in Morocco, to find the most realistic vestiges of the culture. Because tourism has eroded it elsewhere, changed for natural form.
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