MOROCCO PART 1: The Souk

– Part 1 –

“A man’s feet must be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world.” – George Santayana

There is the anticipation of travel before the trip begins: the excitement and fear about what will be different, what will change within me, how I might possibly impact the new place. I love being shook up and rearranged, and staying true to the things that matter most, that make me me. When I travel now, I seem to need less sleep, not nearly as much as I do back home, though my days are even more active and physically demanding. My mind and heart pull in so much information visually and otherwise to help keep me oriented, to help me lose my way. I love the rush of the new, even when it’s uncomfortable, as it often is. In a place so drastically different, how can one ever remain the same?

Morocco. I have always wanted to visit there, or at least much of my adult life. I have been drawn to Moorish architecture and design, and what happens at the line where different cultures have coincided, co-mingled and influenced each other for generations, and yet kept their identities strong.

Morocco Market

What I imagined would be windy ancient streets filled with shops and open air markets and squares in Marrakech– lively, colorful, and ripe with scents– turned out to be exactly that…

Moroccan Marketplace Collage
Funny how in just a few days one can so easily slip into a new rhythm, way, place, even one so different. In the Medina, or old quarter, the narrow streets and Jmaa el-Fnaa (the main square) bustle with life. Tiny stalls are sandwiched in among each other. There are the merchants who quietly do their work, barely looking up at the passersby to stay focused instead on their task at hand: cutting leather, making a pouf, bag or belt, whittling wood, meticulously painting furniture with a geometric precision and detail that left me awestruck. Shoes emerge before your eyes, intricate puzzles out of wood for children, exquisitely carved chess pieces and boards, complex boxes with magical, secret mechanisms made with sheer ingenuity and without the use of plastic or metal hinges. I felt like a little kid, trying to understand how so many people had such extraordinary capability for crafts so artfully, skillfully made. And the RUGS!

Moroccan Rugs

Marrakech Rug Collage

Hand loomed, each carries complex stories in what appears to be merely designs. These intricate rugs are most often created by women, who, in spite of national efforts to improve the rather heartbreaking reality, are illiterate. Recent surveys from GenderAcrossBorders.com estimated the country’s illiteracy rate to be approximately 55% of all women and 90% of rural women in Morocco. The rugs are these women’s storytelling medium, their dreams, secretly conveyed and cloaked in symbols, a unique history suspended. Even in that patriarchal world, this practical female art form is deeply respected. Morocco is a place of symbols. They are everywhere: richly, exquisitely expressed in the architecture, furniture, textiles, in the jewelry, and especially the carpets. I long to know what these hidden messages reveal. They are potent and beautiful, timeless and even universal, but sadly, I am the illiterate one here, not able to decipher their woven tales.

Moroccan LanternsJust beyond the textiles are metal smiths who tinker amongst cascades of shiny or dull metal pendants and sconces, some with hand cut monochrome, others with colorful glass. Boxes and bottles line shelves with beautifully hammered metal details. Unusual brass knockers, faucets, and sinks abound. There are a multitude of jewelry shops where the handiwork of disparate cultures convene in glass display cases, telling of their long journeys from elsewhere in Africa as well as Asia and beyond.

Morocco is certainly a place of many cultural influences- North & West African, Arabic, Berber, Spanish and French -and all their varied spiritual paths- collide here. And then there are the tourists, whom I encountered from all over Europe, Asia, North America and Canada.

While Arabic is the main tongue in Marrakech, many also speak French more often than English, unless they are just unabashed polyglots. And many are. Before I arrived, I thought that speaking French passably would help me feel less vulnerable and taken advantage of, and it often did. So in the markets I communicated in that language, which seemed easier for most of the vendors, and helped alleviate the cultural divide.

Since the merchants, restaurant servers, and city guides breathe tourism year round, those who can make the most impact and communicate well with their myriad international customers seem to thrive best. And then there are the ethnic languages, like the traditional Berber dialects that the majority of the population speaks as well, alongside Darija and Hebrew. Their obvious facility with languages is deeply impressive. So many I met seem to move effortlessly between all these languages and then some, like Spanish, German and even Japanese. It’s incredible! And they don’t merely speak; they banter, barter, and joke.

One shop owner I met named Rachid played with rhymes, pulling idiomatic expressions and little ditties out of thin air in English and German as if they were his langue maternelle, and yet he had never stepped a foot outside Morocco! He seemed to acquire languages as if by osmosis, withouMoroccan Storet any formal studying at all. Part of his ability came from his genuine interest in people and their stories, not to mention his lack of inhibition in being totally ridiculous with original wordplay and silly puns. He loves to have fun and entices others to do the same. Visitors to that shop were not simply purchasing merchandise; they were having an experience,unforgettable and fully entertaining. Sure, one had to be initially snared by the quality of the goods in and of themselves, and he and his quieter partner Issan did have lovely hand painted pottery, Berber silver jewelry, hand loomed rugs, and textiles. But so did the stall next to them, and the one after. When there is so much competition and so many vendors selling such similar merchandise, one must find a way to stand out, and Rachid was clearly the front man. Though his Arabic accent was thick in any language, his grammar was nearly faultless (in English and French, at least), and his charm and showmanship were unmatched. On any given day in their tiny shop, both men have the opportunity to hear and interact with people from quite literally everywhere. Rachid serves them “Berber Whiskey” with a wry smile (virginal fresh mint tea, hot and delicious) and funny stories peppered with riotous laughter, while beautiful Issan, tall and sincere, shakes his turbaned head in quiet disbelief at his friend’s antics with an inescapable smile. Needless to say, I left their little shop with the impression that by comparison I have a VERY slow brain and should be more diligent about studying languages…

Male Shopkeepers in Marrakesh Morocco

In the States, though we are the ubiquitous Melting Pot, what chance (or inspiration) do most of us have to practice other languages, unless we leave? Most here speak only English, and not even that with extraordinary eloquence or grammatical precision. Even so, as newly immigrated Americans, we often silence our mother tongues along with our cultural identities. Soon too, though we have travelled to get here, we seem to also release our vital, overt interest in first hand experiences in the world beyond what we come to know as home, traded for a homogenized American persona no longer firmly defined by the silent places we carry tucked in our ancestry. We do this in the hopes that it will help us acclimate and succeed here. Because, we rationalize, we should save money for more practical things. But at what cost?

Moroccan BraceletsMorocco, like most other countries beyond the US, is a bartering culture, and most thrive at this game, which everyone seems to know how to play really well. Pretty much anything can be bought here. And regretfully so- there are nine foot python snake skins dangling off one shop keeper’s sign, and I was told those of genuine zebra and leopard off another. According toMoroccoWorldNews.com, heroine is known to have flooded Moroccan markets at dangerously low prices, causing huge numbers of addicts. Even prostitution pervades. Still, it is the artisans and legitimate shopkeepers that have the overt presence in the Medina, and it is in these stalls where men flash charisma and a friendly invitation to explore their wares: “Just looking. Please. Good price. Free.” A lot of vendors use this taunt, though of course nothing is free. They have the good sense to know if they manage to get your attention though, that if you tally and are curious, they have already set themselves apart. And with just a tiny snare they will most probably make a sale, even if they take a big hit on the price. Therefore, they start high, and depending on your gullibility or smarts, what you end up paying can be vastly different from the next visitor, or the one before. With all my experience bartering and shopping in markets around the world, I have to admit that I’m not nearly as much of a shark as many. Or my sassy travelling companion Dominique especially. She jokes that I shouldn’t get an inferiority complex about this; that it is my sensitivity for the merchant’s plight that renders me less (cough) shameless about such abysmally low counter offers.

As in: the bloke selling that silver Berber ring I wanted for my eldest son offered it for 400 dirhams or equivalent to just under $40 USD. I knew the man’s price was not far off from what I thought it was worth, even so far from home, but more than fair for an import, and a sterling one to boot. And since I wasn’t planning on getting a volume discount in that shop, and I didn’t want to sell the ring anyhow, I figured I would come down to about 300 dirham and would walk away with what I wanted for about 350.

In stepped Dominique. “200, take it or leave it,” she said unabashedly in French.

“I’m sorry, I can’t,” the merchant said, seeming sincere. “It’s worth more. It’s an antique. And there is beautiful enamel work, you see? It’s unusual.”

“Ok, well, see you later!” she answered, smiling, wordlessly hooking my arm for the street. But I really wanted that ring and she knew it. “You are a shark,” I whispered. “That’s too low.”

“It’s a game,” she said. “They love to play it. Act disinterested, casual, like you can let it go, that you can find another one anywhere. Watch.” Within seconds the man had circled around us, counter offering, starting much lower. After a few more passes back and forth we settled on 225, and I sheepishly put my new purchase in my bag. Still, the man seemed pleased when he counted his money, no apparent resentment or remorse.

Sometimes Dominique ended up with items for much less than half the first price offered by a merchant and I watched, mouth agape, as my confident friend paid less than I ever thought possible. Her Haitian roots at the markets there seemed to prep her for such moments wherever she travelled, and she gloated in her triumph, making us laugh and laugh.

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