Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Marrakech, Part III: The Souqs

In warren of Marrakech souqs (small shops), which begins to the north of Djemaa el-Fna, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of stalls line the streets. Some are wood-lined, with elaborate doorways and luxurious interiors, but most are makeshift, little more than alcoves carved into rock. The narrow streets between them, some paved, some dirt, are covered in places by a haphazard “roof” made from tarps and sticks. Real Moroccan life is conducted in the souqs, which sell all the essentials of daily living: conical mounds of spices and herbs; jars and bins of apothecary supplies; all manner of dried foods, preserved fruits, and olives; tray after tray of Moroccan pastries, buzzing with bees and flies; bushels of fresh mint; freshly butchered meat; soon-to-be butchered meat. Pomegranates, fresh figs, onions, carrots, peppers, zucchini, and eggplant are piled in every available corner, sometimes sold by old women hunched over small blankets on the ground.

Besides foods, the souqs also sell all manner of Moroccan home furnishings, clothing, and leather goods. Elaborately painted pottery is piled floor to ceiling in some stalls, while others have traditional robes, scarves, and fabrics slung from the ceiling and hanging on the walls. Handbags, briefcases, large valises, wallets, and embroidered ottomans fill the leather stalls; other stalls sell nothing but leather slippers; still others are mysteriously lit by hundreds of glass-and-metal lanterns.

The “streets” of the souqs aren’t named or marked in any way, and each time we entered the souqs, we were lost completely after one or two turns. Andrew is usually excellent with navigation, but a normally good sense of direction is useless in the souqs—even superfluous, since the real pleasure is just wandering and looking. At times, however, we did need to find a museum or simply find our way out—and there is virtually no way to find your way out of the souqs once you’ve gotten turned around and have drifted deeper and deeper into them. But without fail, whenever we found ourselves hopelessly lost, staring pointlessly at our map, someone would appear at our elbow, offering (for a few dirhams, of course) to guide us where we needed to go. It was always a welcome solution, a simple, common, and friendly exchange that benefited everyone involved.

Andrew and I spent a lot of time in the souqs, but we went to absorb the intensity and take it all in rather than do any serious shopping. It wasn’t for lack of trying on the vendors’ part: they called to us, greeted us in several languages to find out what we spoke, sometimes grabbed our arms, sometimes followed us—and always promised us a good price. “What will you pay?” was their first question whenever we showed a hint of interest in something. Then they reacted with dramatic shock and disbelief at the price we named, pointing out the quality of the leather, the craftsmanship, the time involved. We did come away with a few purchases: a camel-bone mirror, a square leather ottoman, and (I can never resist at least one small souvenir for my Christmas tree) a tiny leather camel.

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