Marrakech: border line anarchy

We took a taxi from the airport to the winding mesh of the medina and began to look for cafe. Only after a while we realise where you have to look – up. The cafes are on the rooftops.

Spiralling up and out onto a fourth floor terrace, a rose shaded cubist rhythm of rooftops stretches toward the High Atlas mountains, stepped African crenelations serrate the skyline. Dufy-esque palm trees shade the crows nest cafes, while flocks of tiny birds folded the November sun into barely audible soft peaks. We look down onto the emerald green tiles of the 11th century Ben Youssef  mosque; ordered mint tea and pastillas – chicken wrapped in filo pastry, dusted with icing sugar just as the mountains across the plain are dusted with snow.

Only then are we fortified enough to discuss the amazing thing we had just experienced in Marrakech – the queue at the airport. Even as the bus delivered us from the plane to the terminal we could see a roiling body of people thronging a low hall. Only when you got in did you realised the scale – a crazed mass of people pushing toward passport control booths that have disappeared behind the curve of the earth.  We join the crush.

After 15 minutes of queuing we realised that concealed within the tumult was a reminder of civility – the snaking Tensabarrier familiar from airports across the world.  We obeyed, and allowed ourselves to be guided perpendicular to our destination. We got deeper in. The temperature rose. Waves of jeering and whistles – a celebrity arrival? The president? Was that the reason for the delay? Nope – instead it was spontaneous outbursts of protest from the front of the queue, presaging what was to come. As the density increased I found myself toppled over other peoples’ luggage, only prevented from falling by the absence of enough space to do so. Someone begins to cry.

A very tall man that’s been behind us is now somehow far in front. We reach a Tensabarrier hairpin only to discover that the frustrated crowd has begun to duck under it – this is the point of where we begin a strange journey. Not to passport to control, but toward the dissolution of the old system, the social norms we arrived with. In its stead we formed a society based on a new morality – the morality of the Marrakech airport queue.

Someone unclips the barrier and we surge forward into space that isn’t there. An English couple we cut past protest – “we’ve been here an hour!”. “So have we…”. Very tall man is behind us now. Couples cling to each other. Progress ceases, every gap is squeezed from the crowd. We begin to forge a new social contract – we realise that obeying the symbols of the past is no longer rational. The barriers don’t mean anything, those who obey them are punished, those who do not are rewarded. Just as the Bible says of Armageddon, when it comes to entering the Kingdom of Morocco “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first”.

Egalitarian mob justice erupts. We collectively condemn the young and able bodied who push forward, while rallying round to support the frail. We crowd surf water to a French woman who has passed out, and attempt to summon the authorities – all without losing our places. Eventually a man in full scrubs – presumably straight from operating on another casualty – drags the woman from the crowd.

We heard wails, shouts and scuffling break out in the parallel ‘fast track’ queuing system hidden behind a temporary barrier – I believe a different, and darker, culture emerged there.

Two hours in we are crushed against the final hurdle, the immovable metal barrier that separates us from a row of passport control booths. Very tall man is ahead.  Not long ago we poured scorn on those who jumped the barriers, now we saw it as the only way. We chanted “Do it!” at old believers who could not adjust to the new ways. One reluctant Chinese man demurred and gestured at his elderly parents. Moments later – and I swear by our newly minted gods this is absolutely true – he stood elevated astride the barrier and shouted “There are no rules any more!”. He looked back at his parents as though across the Berlin wall.

Finally, we were piled against a booth, 30 faces pressed against the perspex like children at an aquarium. Almost there. We watched as the official idly hunt-and-pecked the details of each passport into the computer, queried the minutia of hotel addresses and fastidiously stamped unique numbers into every passport.

We left the airport certain our pre-booked taxi would have have left hours ago, but a man wilted over the arrivals railing held a sign bearing the name of our hotel. We decompressed in the arrivals lounge, a luxurious architectural gesture, apparently intended to welcome travellers to country that sees tourism as its future.

We told him about our ordeal – had he ever heard of such a thing?

“Oh, yes – this happens every Saturday”