Thursdays Child – A stroll around the Bab el Khemis market.

When painter and writer Danny Moynihan, friend of avant-garde (or simply weird) artist Damien Hirst, and author of Boogie Woogie, a novel that dished the dirt on the New York art world, decided to restore a riad in Marrakech’s medina, he and his wife, actress, film-maker and former showgirl Katrine Boorman – daughter of film director John Boorman – trawled the markets and souks of Marrakesh for fabrics, a well-known dealer for 20th century furniture …. and the Bab el Khemis flea market for “almost everything else”.

Of the twelve gates in the 12 km-long, rose-pink 12th-century wall that wraps around the ancient city, Bab el Khemis is one of the oldest. It takes its name from the Thursday market where once camels, horses, mules and asses were sold, and, at least according to Arthur Leared, who travelled the country in 1872, “On the sale of each animal a guarantee that it has not been stolen, verified by a notary, is required”. How anyone could guarantee the provenance of a rag-tag assembly of worn out critters, (and you could probably use the same term for the dealers), many of which had walked hundreds of kilometres across sand and mountain to end up as camel meat on the tables in the open-air restaurants of the Jmaa el Fnaa, remains a mystery.  Jmaa el Fnaa itself was the scene of the Friday market that sold horned cattle, and near the Souk el Ghezel, slaves from the Sudan and Sus were sold on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays during the hour before sunset. While it’s unlikely that any of the commodities sold at this market would end up on a butcher’s slab, the life of many of them wouldn’t have been a whole lot better than the pack animals auctioned off at the Bab el Khemis.

It’s Thursday, and as the Thursday market has been on my ‘must-do’ list for ages, and I haven’t yet got around to doing it, I saunter off to see what somewhere that has been described as ‘one of world’s greatest mixes of junk and treasures’ has to offer on this fine day. I’m secretly hoping that I might find a decent second-hand Brooks bike saddle at a bargain price, as I do at every flea-market I go to. I haven’t as yet, but it doesn’t stop me secretly hoping.

When I get to the gate I’m slightly disappointed not to see the hordes of hustlers and cascading bric-à-tat that I’d imagined from the various descriptions I’ve read about the Khemis Thursday market. Mainly what I see is a lot of young men selling mobile phones and their accoutrement. Some are as carefully displayed in small glass cases as the sparklers Audrey Hepburn saw in the window of Tiffany’s when she was on her way to breakfast; others are simply tumbled in a ‘pile it high and sell it cheap’ early Tesco fashion, but there’s plenty of action going on. I’m impressed by the chap who has brought a full home gym to sell, and wonder if he brings it every week or simply anchors it to a post until the next Thursday. I hope for the sake of the poor donkeys that he brought it by van, because I’ve got one of them at home, left by a previous tenant and carefully avoid by me, so I know how much they weigh. I tried to move it once so I could decorate the spare bedroom where it lives. I bought a bed-settee for the living room instead. Respect, man.

I was equally intrigued by the detailed inspection a tall gangling chap was giving a dentist’s chair, circa 1950, (the chair, not the chap, although by the look of him it could have been getting its final coat of paint around the same time he was getting his first nappy changed). Excellent piece of kit it was, and in fine condition. In fact there were two of them, so the erstwhile punter would be stuck for choice if he only wanted one. Perhaps he was considering opening his own clinic and was looking to bulk buy, and even a pair of chairs nearing pensionable age were a damned site preferable to most of those you see used by peripatetic ‘dentists’ in the souks, something rescued from the kitchen, where they simply plonk the agonised patient down before delving into the dentures with a pair of ancient pliers.

It turns out I’ve got the wrong gate. I’m not at the Bab Khemis, that’s a much grander entrance around the corner. I’m at a side entrance, but I’ve been sufficiently entertained by what I’ve seen so far that I decide to dive into the souk and come out by the main gate later, to see if I’m missing anything. Needless to say, I get lost in the skinny alleyways and don’t find the right gate until a taxi driver points it out to me a couple of days later.

I stroll in through an archway that draws me into a clattering, banging, screeching, grinding, shower-of-sparks-flying pandemonium. But it’s only pandemonium to my ears and eyes; to everyone else it’s just the daily noise of the metal-workers souk. Whether it’s something that involves metal in its construction – mopeds, bicycles, ancient sewing machines – or it is something that will be made entirely from metal – window grills, decorative arches, tables and chairs – there’s someone here who can fix it or make. Scattered everywhere are large sheets of metal, long strips of steel two fingers wide, pencil-thin rolled rods that are bent and twisted to create intricate designs. Sparks shoot from angle grinders like spinning Catherine wheels as young men with no protection other than a pair of sunglasses and a cloth wrapped around their face – and sometimes neither of those – cut, burnish and smooth. Everything is covered by a fine black powder, but this is Morocco, and the dusty monotone is alleviated by the brightly coloured djellabas of passers-by.

Work stops in one tiny workshop when their machine literally grinds to a halt. The intermittently spinning blade indicates that the carbon brushes that drive the motor are worn out. They are awkward devils to replace at the best of times, but with the make-do-and-mend temperament that you find in most third-world countries, the worker simply strips the case off, packs a bit of cardboard into the spring on the brush housing so that it can’t be forced back, re-assembles the machine, and within a couple of minutes is back at work, the machine still spluttering and kicking, but at least it’s okay for a few more hours yet. It makes me smile; I remember doing the same when I was an antique restorer many years ago in the Lake District; make-do-and-mend was sometimes the only option.

I watch a group of four men working on different parts of an ornate arch, just over two metres high and slightly less wide. The main structure is finished, and a young man draws the curlicue design in chalk on the concrete floor of the workshop that will be created by the thin metal rods at his side. When he is satisfied with the design he measures the first section, a shallow curve, and cuts a piece of the required length from the five-metre rod. With a lump hammer and his cold chisel he slowly curves the metal until it reproduces perfectly the design he has drawn on the concrete. Everything cut, bent, curved and twisted by hand, and each piece slotting perfectly in place. I’m fascinated and could watch him for hours, but I’m dying for a coffee.

Turning away from the street of the metal workers I wander down a cluttered alleyway of wonderful ancient doors, rolls of antique rugs, Lloyd-loom chairs, exquisitely painted tables, worn and patinated with age, a 50s pram, plastic garden recliners – and yes, I do even see the kitchen sink, as well as one for the bathroom, along with its bath, toilet and bidet, all in the chunky cut-corner style of art deco. I also pass men and women squatting on the ground behind a pile of odds and ends that can have no conceivable value other than to someone who has nothing of value at all; a Kodak cartridge camera, a pair of stiletto-heeled shoes with one stiletto, an alarm clock with no hands, odd socks, seven-year old magazines in Spanish – the same detritus you see on every flea-market in the world. It used to sadden me as I walked to work at the Marche aux Puce at Clignancourt in Paris many years ago, to think that this was all these people had, and would pack up at the end of the day exactly what they had laid out at the beginning. It still does.

I hear the Koran being sung, the beautiful a cappella coming from a tinny-sounding loudspeaker hung outside a café at an alley junction bustling with second-hand clothes vendors. Anticipating a hot coffee, the sound draws me towards a table like the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Parking myself in one of those plastic garden chairs that succumb to too much time in the sun and bend when you lean backwards, I wave at a passing waiter and ask for a café au lait. It could well be my accent, or he may not speak French, but he casts a bemused look around the other clients, obviously not having understood any of the three words I’ve just spoken“Mint tea,” a voice says in English, but I’ve no idea which table it came from. Obviously coffee’s off the menu.

“Bien,” I say, and the waiter goes off to get it. He comes back a couple of minutes later with a glass of something that looks as if it has been sitting around for a while, probably at the bottom of a u-bend of a kitchen sink. I reach into my pocket for some money.

“One dirham,” a different voice says.

“One dirham!” Ten centimos, cheap in any currency, about one-tenth what you would pay elsewhere. I hand the coin over – never look a gift glass in the mouth.

A mange,” says the chap with the grey stubble and wool bobble hat at the next table. They may not be big conversationalists, but they all helpfully want to get in on the act.

I suddenly realise that I’m sat at a workers caff, and everyone else is getting stuck-in to bowls of bean soup or something made from bits of innards whose origin I’d really rather not know. But it’s cheap and fortifying and obviously pretty popular. (I try some another day. The stock was good, but I had to close my eyes when I dipped the spoon into the bowl.)

No-one objects that I’m taking up a table with only a cup of mint sludge, so I sit for a while and watch the second-hand clothes salesman hawking their wares. I haunt the ‘pre-used’ clothes stalls at my local Monday market in Valencia, and think I’m pretty well turned out in my two-euro shirts and three-euro jumpers (I once bought a cracking Stasi-style leather jacket for twenty euros, and it’s still going strong), but they are nothing compared to what’s on offer here. If Ryanair weren’t so parsimonious with their baggage allowance, I’d be elbow deep in the piles of check shirts, corduroy trousers (when was the last time you saw corduroy trousers?), sweaters – I’ll pass on the tartan one but I definitely fancy the hooded jacket with the toggle fastenings. I haven’t seen toggle fastenings since my green duffle coat when I was seventeen.

Pulling myself away from kitting out a new wardrobe, I wander into an enclosed part of the furniture makers souk, piled to the ceiling with beds, tables, fat mattresses and, it has to be said, some painfully ugly mogernised pieces, (that’s not a typo, it’s a derogatory word a friend invented to cover all the ugliest aspects of modern design), that are similar in quality design concept to the little gold bear that waves its arm up and down that you see in tatty Chinese shops everywhere. Who could conceivably want one?

One of the things that always amazes me is that in Europe, and most probably in the US and elsewhere, so much of the furniture is made from composites; plywood, block-board, chip-board, MDF – in other words, sawdust, wood shavings and a lot of glue – but in Morocco they make their furniture out of proper wood, the stuff that actually comes direct from the trees. Okay, some of it might look as if it has been rescued from pallets, but it’s still wood.

A stooped ancient lady came toward me, supporting herself by a crutch on her right side, her left hand held out, hoping for a coin to be dropped in it. I put my hand in my pocket, randomly pick a coin drop it in her palm as we pass, one of those automatic actions that neither acknowledge. She’s not a happy bunny, though, and obviously the coin wasn’t of grand enough value, because a few seconds later I hear the tinkling of it hitting the cobbles, and look down to see it skittering past me – she’s thrown it back! A few others hear it and look around, but no-one spots it. I’m tempted to pick it up, but if it’s not enough for her to keep it’s probably not enough for me to shame myself by bending down to pick it up in front of everyone, so I leave it and walk on. Maybe someone will find it who believes in the dictum, ‘see a coin and pick it up and all that day you’ll have good luck’.

As I continue my walk through the furniture souk, I pass a young lad in his teens carving intricate scroll work in the top of a small table. His curved chisels are almost worn to nothing, from generations of grinding and sharpening. He uses a squared-off length of wood with one end roughly round as a handle as he carefully taps the chisel, turning his hand slowly to create a curve in the scroll, all the while chatting to his friend whose busy planeing the sixty degree angle of one of the joints that will form the traditional hexagonal table. Once again, I’m back at my workshop in the Lake District thirty years ago, choosing a length of wood from my scrap box to use as a mallet to carve the finer points of a design, my usual rounded mallet being too weighty for fine work. I’m suddenly brought back to reality when I look further into the workshop and see a large band saw where, beneath as sign that tells you without any subtlety, ATTENZIONE ALLE MANI! – watch your hands in any language – a worker is cutting a fine curve in a piece of wood without any guard on the blade. I shiver at the thought that there’s someone could easily lose one of his mani if he doesn’t pay enough attenzione.

In the wider alleyways you can hear the rattling sounds of mopeds and small vans long enough ahead in time to get out of the way and let them pass. It’s not the same with the donkeys and carts, though. The carts usually have rubber tyres, although nine times out of ten, worn down to the webbing, and the donkeys don’t exactly make the coconut clacking sound of horses galloping, given their docility and sedate pace. The first thing you know that you are stopping someone in pursuance of their livelihood is when you hear someone shouting, “Balec, balec,” which guide books will tell you means, “Make way, make way,” but is usually said in a tone that more realistically says, “Oi, you, shift your arse!” You turn around to see the doleful stare of a donkey looking at the design on your T-shirt, not that it’s really interested in knowing that you ‘heart’ Agadir, but because that’s how tall he is, and frankly, he doesn’t care whether you move or not.

I find myself back at the door I came into the souk by, more by chance than design. I didn’t find my Brooks saddle, but there again, I refrained from being tempted by the toggle jacket. Still, tomorrow’s another day, as they say, or as far as the Bab Khemis flea-market is concerned, next Thursday is.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web site, Derek Workman, and Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.


2 Responses to “Thursdays Child – A stroll around the Bab el Khemis market.”

  1. Maggie Says:

    It is really interesting and beautiful,what you have said and described is just what I am dreaming for,I am happy to see this
    Bab Marrakech Grill

  2. valpaparazzi Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Maggie. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Could you please email me at

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