Photograph by Ethan Welty, Tandem
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Light beams strike a display of arts and crafts at a market stall in Marrakech, Morocco.

Photograph by Ethan Welty, Tandem

Unearth the Treasures of Marrakech

Morocco's labyrinth of suqs is waiting to be discovered.

Few kids can resist a scavenger hunt. So to explore the suq (the Arab word for a bazaar) in Marrakech, actor and writer Andrew McCarthy turned the experience into a game for his nine-year-old son, Sam. They made their suq tour a search for the best example of a chest Sam had coveted.

“It was the ultimate treasure hunt for him,” says McCarthy. In the marketplace, stall owners will bargain you to your knees and follow you for yards if they think they can close a deal. Much of what’s sold are cheap knockoffs and tourist trinkets. “But the suq is also filled with tons of old, legit artifacts that were of real interest to Sam. Camel bones with ‘contracts’ written on them. Long swords fascinated him. Children seem to have an innate understanding of the authentic in a way we adults underestimate. He was drawn to the culturally legit stuff.”

When you arrive in Marrakech, start your journey in the main square of Djemaa el‑Fna, center of the medieval medina (the old Arab or non-European quarter of a North African town). Here kids will see the monkey man, cobra charmers, acrobats, storytellers, henna vendors, and henna-haired artists. Beware: Attempt to take pictures, no matter how surreptitiously, and you will face a demand for money.

The medina itself is a labyrinth of jewelry, cafés, silverware, furniture, pottery, and spice suqs. The courtyards of riad (traditional Moroccan houses or palaces with interior gardens or courtyards) are filled with redolent jasmine and orange trees, shaded by palms, and tinkling with fountains. From somewhere comes the music of sinters and qarkarbebs—Moroccan versions of guitars and castanets. Food stalls serve kebabs, fried fish, hot bread, couscous, slow-cooked lamb, and harira (chickpea and lentil) soup.

For the next step of your journey, plunge deep into the suq, like the McCarthys.

“Kids are so used to discovering things. Every corner was filled with strange and exotic items. What made sense to him overwhelmed me. Colors, sounds, objects needed explanation. Touching and handling things were encouraged. Every interaction made him question: ‘What’s this drum made of? Goats’ intestines, really? Why is that man buried in a hole up to his waist?’ His curiosity was welcomed. It made interaction with locals easy and playful. I’ve never met people who delight in kids more than Moroccans. They all seem to be half-hustler/half-child themselves. So they were quick to play. My child wasn’t used to exploit me to buy; he was given gifts nearly everywhere we stopped, with nothing expected in return. Everyone asked his name. Kids are treated as stars here.”

The suq is a dizzying bazaar of mazelike passages and cacophonous stalls. It is raw with day-to-day life that most kids born to leafy suburbs will find unfamiliar, but that offers you a chance to discuss cultural differences with your child.

“My son loved people actually creating things—dying fabric different colors, men whittling wood who always gave him small trinkets after they were made,” says McCarthy. “He was fascinated by the side alleys where people lived. He accepted the poverty without judgment. He interacted with kids his age with natural empathy and respect in a way I had never seen or taught him. I marveled at him spreading his wings.”

Eventually, Sam found his treasured chest. “And two years later,” McCarthy reports, “it is still his most valued possession.”

Know Before You Go

Fast Facts:

  • The Dar Cherifa literary café is known as the oldest house in the medina. This UNESCO World Heritage site is thought of as a cultural center.
  • The Menara Gardens has 40 different kinds of olive trees, and at one time was rumored to be a romantic meeting place for sultans.
  • The man-made lake in the Menara Gardens uses hydraulic systems that date back 700 years.
  • Storytellers say that the original creator of the lake in the Menara Gardens buried treasure under the foundation.
  • Saffron is a key spice in Morocco’s traditional meals and is the most expensive spice in the world. It takes 75,000 to 225,000 flowers to yield just one pound.
  • The Chrob ou Chouf Fountain located in Djemaa el‑Fna has an inscription that advises “drink and look.”
  • Yves Saint Laurent’s ashes were scattered among the Majorelle Gardens.

Insider Tip:

Five times a day, there will be a call to prayer from the Koutoubia Mosque. This is an important time for the people of the city. Many drop what they are doing to go pray, so advise your kids to be aware and respectful of their religion.

Excerpt from 100 Places That Can Change Your Child's Life , by Keith Bellows