Thursday, May 29, 2008

from Marrakech: how to do a souk

There was once organization and order to this madness. Vendors were grouped according to their wares. The metal souks (the term refers to the passageways with the stores) were together, the dyers of wool and fabrics were in another area, the tanners and leather goods sellers were elsewhere. Even the slipper vendors were off in their own corner.

Now, the boundaries are fluid. You can pick up slippers just about anywhere in Marrakech. And leather good. And silver tea pots.

And yet, there are groupings. And there roughly drawn maps telling you where to find what. And they’re almost worthless because inevitably you’re going to get lost. Or, I’m going to get lost. It’s my specialty.

This day we were to probe the souks. And I was to come to a decision about canary yellow slippers. (It’s the color of choice here.)

This is a challenge, especially if you’re not otherwise in the buying mode and you carry a camera. Here’s what can happen:

If you make eye contact, you’re going to get pestered to come inside a stall. Just to look. And it will be impossible to leave.

If you pick up your camera menacingly, as if to take a photo, you’re going to be told not to take a photo.

If you approach, say a pair of canary yellow slippers to admire them, you will be hassled to buy them.

If you approach a vendor and offer them a coin to take a picture, they will say yes and take the coin. Or, they will say ok to the photo and thank you for asking and assure you that you can do it for free. And then you will take your photos and leave. Or you will take your photos and then be hassled to buy. In any case, the vendor will not be in the photo. He will always hide his face. Respecting modesty is important, but it's a balance. Morocco would be a faceless canvas if you always ask permission.

If you get too close to a vendor, just to save your life or the life of your child (the motor scooters are a constant stream of trouble; that the vendors don’t all die from lung disease alone from exposure to the pollution, has to be a testament to their strong genes and perhaps all that mint tea that they are constantly drinking), you’ll fall into the arms, so to speak, of a vendor.

If you take a photo surreptitiously, if you’re quick, your photo will be awful. If you take care, you will inevitably be seen by someone and most likely be told something in Arabic. It will sound angry. Maybe it’s praise for your ingenuity, but I doubt it.

So souks are a challenge. The best way to handle an exploration is to wear dark sunglasses, walk straight ahead, pretend you are not interested in anything, accept direction from no one when you get lost (because all directions cost a coin and they inevitably lead to someone’s store), look like you hate your camera, respond to no one who wishes you a good day and leave.

Of course, I did none of the above. What you see below is a compellation of mistakes outlined above. But, in the end, we did begin to get a sense for the vibrant, hectic, hugely fascinating and endlessly colorful souk life.

The dyers and weavers and cloth sellers:

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The tanners and leather goods sellers:

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Books and photos of old Morocco:

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Women selling, women buying:

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Rare quiet moments:

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Less quiet: plunging into chaos:

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Less quiet: celebrating the boy's third year (note canary yellow slippers):

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Afterwards, we collapse on the roof of the riad. You want perfect respite, just a step from the center of the Medina? An artsy place with the most ingeniously renovated spaces? You cannot do better than the Riad El Fenn.

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Except for the occasional French children who play “un, deux, trios, soleil!” and of course, the bird song, the chirpy, boisterous birdsong, it is absolutely calm on the roof. The sun is strong in the Moroccon way (warm in its rays, cool in its shadow), the air is crisp and by evening, we are made whole again.

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There is then the matter of dinner. Our riad hosts tell us – try Le Foundouk. It’s on the other side of the Medina. Take a taxi.

Ah yes. The taxi is another challenge here, but remember, I had recovered on the roof of the riad among all those flowers and chirping birds. I am ready.

You see, it goes like this: You hail a cab. That’s the easy part. The cab is usually heading in the wrong direction and you have to cross and dodge traffic to get to it, but assume you did and you are inside safely and you communicate where you are going and the driver understands. Meaning, he knows that you are about to blow $100 or more on dinner for two and he wants to share in that wealth that you have displayed by announcing where you are heading; explanations that you are a state employee with a flat salary don’t work, mainly because he doesn’t believe you are from America.

No one here ever guesses we are American. No surprise there, I’ve not seen Americans in Morocco. No, truly -- not a single one. British – hugely so. They're so pale, they stand out. French – quite a few. But not many from the States. At least not now. So rare is our kind, that one souk seller asked me where I was from and I dodged the question and concentrated on the item I was admiring in his stall (what a mistake, I know) and when he heard me speak to my daughter he said – well, you are not from an English speaking country because I can hear that your English is not very good.

Back to the cab. We are inside, the destination is revealed and the haggling begins. It should cost you pennies to get there. It will not. Why? Oh come on! Where’s your bargaining power? You are in the cab and squawking – that’s too much, that’s too much, and he’s outlining all the special circumstances – it’s far, it’s evening, that’s life, etc. So you finally settle for the equivalent of $7 instead of the $2 you should be paying and you’re happy that it’s not more.

I have to say that the very best cab ride ever in Morocco (apart from the one in Casablanca, where the driver admitted to having a meter – all other cabbies hide it and pretend it doesn’t exist, and this one ran it and the tab was a dollar) was on the way back from dinner this evening. The driver was a Medina man, and he decided to go through the heart of the old city. It was an unbelievable ride! Crowds are out and about, children are playing, scooters are darting, cyclists are zipping along and he plows through at some ungodly speed, honking them all to the side and we killed no one! In the middle of the ride, he put on Moroccan music and swayed to its rhythm and we were flying through the narrow streets with all those people and he was so happy and we were happy with him and it was all quite surreal.

But let me not neglect the dinner in between the cab rides. We are dropped off in the middle of a crowded square. I can go no further -- he tells us in French. You take the second street, and continue for a little bit and then you will notice and alley…

I am about to change my mind about eating out. There is no hope that we will find anything in this chaos of alleys and people and scooters. But, magically, a man in a long brown robe and a red hat appears. The cab driver tells us – go with him. Ah. We’ve done this before. We follow. It’s the “men in long robes and red hats” relay. The robed leader takes us to another man in a brown robe and red hat. They chat for a minute, we wait, then he waves us on and leaves. The second man takes us down a dark alley.

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We follow. We know there will be a massive door and that a secret knock will cause it to swing open and inside there will be magic.

We dine on the roof. The wind has kicked up a bit, but the cool breeze only makes you savor the richness of the meats and vegetables, sizzling in your clay pot. Moroccan rosé wine works beautifully with most everything placed us.

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The stars are out. Moroccan magic has settled in. Or maybe it’s that I really like rooftops.


  1. Loving all of this. I occasionally read the beautiful blog "My Marrakesh" written by Maryam Montague, an American woman who is opening a guest house there. She seems not to notice the more irritating aspects of Marrakesh life that you capture and describe so well. Maybe if you are living there you learn how to avoid the chaos?

  2. -- may you meet the Moroccan equal of Pépé Le Moko (with happier ending). It's in your soul.


  3. Your last entry and the pictures made me so emotional. It's exciting and beautiful and I am nervous and thrilled for you on this trip.


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