Archive for June, 2008
While still in Marrakech, my parents and I spent several hours going through the main Souk (Arabic market). We started off in the town square (or what I think was the town square) which comes alive around 6pm every night. The square itself was congested with people selling stuff. There were snake charmers, henna artists, junk dealers, pastry makers, penny whistle musicians—you name it. And although I loved being immersed in the frenetic energy created by so many people, I was happy to enter the more organized part of the market.
I still haven’t figured out if this part of the market was part of a building or just had a tarp for a roof but merchants offered their wares from booths. Each booth was probably no more than 10 feet wide and 15 feet long so accommodations were cramped. It seemed that each vendor specialized in one product or variations on a product. One gentleman was selling dates and raisins and dried figs –apparently, there are many varieties of dates and thus many different “price points”. I’m not a big fan of dates so I wasn’t overcome with emotion at the sight of them. However, when we came upon a booth selling Arabic pastries. I sensed a quiver of excitement emanate from my father. He had discovered a booth selling a rich selection of pastries (mostly fried, light dough, sweetened with honey) similar to the ones he used to eat as a little boy while living in Constantine, Algeria.
Between the two of us, I think we picked out one of each kind! What makes these pastries so unique is that they are made with no preservatives and sweetened only with honey. Some of them have nuts, others just fried dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. A lot of them have sesame seed paste or marzipan fillings. (My mouth is watering as I write this.) Typical of my father, he carefully doled these confections out over the next several days, not wanting them to disappear at the hands of others.
OK, so we finally made it through the Souk (not before we were given a half hour rug presentation by Mohammed, a master salesman) and found ourselves outside once again. Suddenly, we all hear this wonderful upbeat music coming from behind us accompanied by a lot of singing and clapping. We turned around to find a processional of musicians followed by a man and little boy on top of a horse that had been all decked out in equestrian finery. My mother asked our guide what was all the fuss about and Anas explained that this was a post-circumcision celebration for the little boy astride the horse. The man was his father and one of the woman on the ground was his mother. Apparently, the little boy (probably 3 years old) had been circumcised that morning and as was tradition, given his own little parade as the sun went down. Ouch.
Although I didn’t expect our side trip to Morocco to be life-changing, I think it was and I am anxious to go back to this beautiful country. My parents and I flew to Casablanca (or Cazablanca as it is said in Arabic) and drove from there to Marrakech.
Our days in Marrakech were very nice, but our time spent in the high Atlas mountains proved to be absolutely unique.
We stayed at a lovely hotel nestled into a hill just above the river that runs through Asni valley. Hanging out at the hotel our entire visit would have been fine. But on my last day there, I was escorted around the valley by an employee of the hotel, a Berber-born and raised gentleman named Mohamed. He offered to escort us to the Saturday market down in Asni Central – an opportunity to experience an Berber market first hand.
Saturday morning, Mohamed showed up at the hotel, having hitched a ride on a local taxi. From there, the four of us headed down the mountain to the market. On the way there, we passed by his home so he invited us in for a snack and mint tea. After the brief repast (and an opportunity to meet some family members), we continued on to the market. The market experience deserves its own essay so I will be brief here. There were so many unique things to see and smell and touch in the market including a typical “Berber parking lot” (a hundred tethered donkeys waiting for their owners to fill their packs and head home).
We must have looked every bit the tourists, as we were approached by several men intent on talking us out of some of our dirham. In the market, Mohamed helped me buy a 2 kilo cone of sugar (which I hauled back to America just because I wanted to), an authentic tagine (traditional Moroccan cooking vessel) and a suitcase (!) for my parents.
When we finished exploring the market, my parents headed back up the mountain in a taxi. It was my plan to walk back. Mohamed took me aside and asked if I would go to an internet café because he wanted to show me a website. After we spent time looking at websites (I helped translate some of the English), I thought surely I would head home. Nothin’ doin’. He said he wanted me to have my hands henna-ed and would I go up the mountain (in another direction) with him?
So we crammed ourselves into one of the many van/taxi buses that regularly run a route among all of the little villages and headed up the hill. Our destination (which at the time I didn’t know) was the village of Moulay Ibrahim. Please understand that a Berber taxi can be anything from an old Mercedes to a rusty Volkswagen to a mini bus. Taxi drivers don’t have a meter—you just barter the price ahead of time based on where you are going. I noticed that Mohamed had a concerned look on his face—maybe he was worried about putting me on one of those buses, sandwiched between complete strangers in a strange country with strange customs but I kept smiling because for me it was just part of the adventure. Once we arrived, we walked up these very old steps and came across several women who were offering henna services. He sat me down, had a rapid discussion in Arabic with the woman (I’m assuming over price) and then he left me while she went to work. He arrived shortly before she was finished (I had thick ink on both sides of both of my hands by now) and asked me if I would like to see more of the village. From there, we wandered around Moulay Ibrahim.
Mohamed wanted me to have something to remind me of him and my Berber day so he bought me a beautiful Hand of Fatima wall ornament from one of the many merchants in the Soukup (poor translation for market). It now goes everywhere with me! It was in this same outdoor market that I noticed goat carcasses hanging in a butcher’s window—I could handle that because the carcasses had been cleaned and were ready for cooking. What did bother me was when I noticed the heads of these same goats lying on the ground next to the display case. I know my mother would not have been happy!
From there, we headed back down the steep hill. Instead of taking the road, Mohamed suggested we take a “shortcut.” This wasn’t your average shortcut. Very steep and rocky—much better suited for a mule or donkey than a human. But I loved every minute of it. As we clambered downward, Mohamed and I talked about so many things that were important to our lives—a very humbling experience for me.
Mohamed would frequently ask me if I was hungry or wanted something to drink. I finally agreed to have mint tea at a café we found at the bottom of this craggy hill. Like the rest of the gallons of mint tea I had consumed, this was delicious. Of all the wonderful things I had to eat and drink during my trip, I think I miss the mint tea the most.
Now I could go on, but I won’t bore you with the walk, taxi, scooter and motorcycle ride that we took just to get back to the hotel. As our day together was coming to an end, I realized that I was taken with this gentleman. He escorted a complete stranger around on his day off, spent his hard-earned money on her (he wouldn’t let me pay for anything) and demonstrated a genuine kindness and generosity that I found refreshing and almost unsettling.
As I said earlier, I want to return to the area. Perhaps I could bring Piano-in-Tow with me?