The Water Sellers

We have all seen them, in the flesh or in postcards, standing in the central square in Marrakech, bright costumes, ear to ear smiles, furry goatskins full of cool 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 in their own right, known throughout the kingdom and far beyond. But something has gone awry. These symbols of the exotic, slakers of the desert thirst, have moved on to a new realm. So extremely famous have they become that they no longer need to sell water at all. Most of the time they make money — and plenty of it — by posing for tourists in Marrakech and elsewhere. They’re mannequins for a zillion digital shots.

     In my travels I have become preoccupied by tourism and the effect it has on countries and on fragile facets of culture. Most of the time, and you know where I am heading with this, I’m not a big fan. 

     And Marrakech is the quintessential example of a city in the middle of nowhere landing the big fish — a full on tourist bonanza that’s rolled up out of the blue.

     An Imperial Moroccan city, it was once many days journey from the anywhere, locked away in the desert. While, these days, it’s so unnecessarily accessible. And for me that’s the point. It’s too easy, far too easy, to get to Marrakech. In my opinion you should have to sweat blood to get there.

     Talk to me about Marrakech and I do tend to 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 broken by the cold hard tourist cash.

     Just up the hill from Dar Khalifa, where we live, there’s a traffic light. I spend a lot of time stopped there, staring out the car window. There’s usually an old water seller standing right there at the light. He’s ragged, his costume a far cry from his well-heeled kin in Marrakech. But he’s the real thing — a man who hasn’t sold out his tradition.

     And what irony there is in that. You have to come to Casablanca, the seemingly most European city in Morocco, to find the untainted vestiges of ancient culture.


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