“He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.”
― Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
I spent days in North Africa completely lost.
Blissfully, hopelessly lost on unmarked mountain roads littered with fallen rock, dusty highways disappearing in the shifting sands, and village roads that narrowed until the only way out was to reverse and back down amidst children swarming the car and peering in the windows.
Some begged a handout and others implored me to buy whatever they had in their hands, a trinket, a blanket, a pair of sandals, or a small bag of “kif,” the ubiquitous mixture of tobacco and hashish widely smoked in water pipes by men sitting in the shade, sipping fresh mint tea, and sometimes playing drums, reed flutes, or an endless variety of bowed and stringed instruments of various shapes and timbre.
Berber and North African music sounds very different to the Western ear – mystical, trance-like. The scales can be double harmonic, quarter tone, odd numbers of equal intervals, Locrian, Aeolian, or a mixture of any of these. The songs are mostly without beginning, without end – a circular story repeated over centuries with minor variations. Though I could not understand the words, I often felt I understood the narrative. It’s fine if you don’t believe that. I’m not sure I do.
Click the photo below to listen to Moroccan singer Oum.
To become truly lost in North Africa, follow the music and step through the timeless portal of the medina or souk – the old market – in any city in Morocco. These centuries-old inner cities are most often the center of the ancient kasbah or medina, built with high, windowless walls to protect the inhabitants.
A few steps inside, streets rapidly narrow to walkways under the overhanging buildings that seem to almost touch when you glance skyward. Within 100 meters, you can no longer see where you entered as alleys and passageways branch off in all directions. You can’t get your bearing or direction from the sky because the souk is built purposefully to protect you from the sun’s midday heat. Paul Bowles wrote in The Sheltering Sky:
“How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast dark universe, and we’re just so small.”
Stone-paved passages twist and turn, obscuring both the direction you’ve come and the direction you’re going, with partially hidden walkways snaking off at bizarre angles, sometimes leading into a secret courtyard, sometimes pulling you into a building then out again the other side, sometimes leaving you at a complete dead end.
There are more and more people around you as you go further in; women in kaftans sweep by, creating a scented breeze in their wake, and men in traditional coarse woolen djellabas peer out from under pointed hoods. You blend in to their pace, your walk taking on the side-to-side direction of the traffic flow, like cells splitting and multiplying, randomly, chaotically. You begin to pick destinations a few feet away so that you can keep what’s left of your sense of orientation. You choose distractions that allow you stand for a moment, often in wonder.
Hungry? How about fresh cakes, pastries and biscuits fired in stone ovens. Feeling daring? Sit down on the carpet in front of the man deftly handling the cobra. He speaks 10 languages. Perfectly safe, he says. Stop and listen to musicians playing Berber folk music, popular Chaabi, mystical Gnawa, or classical Malhun. Need to cast a spell? Talk to the woman in the muti (African magic) shop about purchasing phials of ground animal bones to deal with someone who has maligned you. A large vat of roasting nuts juts into the narrow and crowded passage – careful, those pans are hot!
If you can dream it, you can find it at the souk: rug merchants, artisans, tailors, bakers, spice merchants, weavers, dancing boys, jugglers, storytellers, acrobats, fortune tellers, snake charmers, drummers, and more.
As you walk, shopkeepers will plead with you to enter their store, have some tea and see what they have to sell. Accept their offer! Take respite from the smoldering cacophony on the street to rest and breathe. You are now a guest, as well as a potential customer; you will be treated very well, with fresh mint tea brewed in front of you. Sit with the merchant on a rug in the back of the store sipping your tea while he patiently explains why you would be foolish to go anywhere else to buy exquisite carpets, hand-worked brass and jewelry, beautiful hand-sewn clothing, or high quality hand-dyed leather goods from camels, goats and sheep.
Should you find that gorgeous kaftan that you simply must have, go slowly. The starting price is just that: a start. The time-honored process is that you will negotiate. You’d be foolish not to, and the merchant will think you’re crazy if you don’t. It’s also fine to tell the merchant that you want to look around a little more. He will complain and reluctantly offer you an even lower price as you walk out the door. If you don’t find something you like better, he will welcome you back later like a long-lost friend and give you an even better price. “For you, madam, 400 dirham. Last price.”
For that is the reason the medina, the market, and the souk have existed since the beginning of time: commerce. Everything is for sale. Everything has a last price at the market. Everything must be sold.
If you get lost, which you hopefully will, you will also always find your way out. Eventually.
3 thoughts on “North Africa Diary – Lost in the Medina”
Another wonderful essay, Steve – I am enjoying these very much. Off to Paris tomorrow for two weeks of immersing myself in the shops of the Quartier Montorgeuil – it’s white asparagus and spring lamb season! Will be doing a lot of cooking in the same apartment we rented three years ago. Keep up the good work!
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Thanks, Christina! I’m very much enjoying sitting down to write again. Jealous of your trip to Paris. Enjoy!