The sun would be setting soon and shopkeepers, those whose stores were open during Ramadan, would take leave of their posts to pray and then break their fasts. We would have to hurry if we wanted to find a spice shop that was both open and staffed, before the dark of night changed everything.
As we passed souk after souk stocked with pastries, knickknacks, fruits, shoes, and clothes, I lamented that the sellers no longer felt compelled to organize themselves according to their products. They had gotten wise with time and realized that it’s much easier to get a higher price when your customers can’t readily see what the competition is charging. And so there we were, in a never-ending maze of Moroccan goods, searching for a strand of saffron.
The passageways were beginning to empty. Soon it would be time for the people to pray and then, finally, to nourish themselves. It was getting dark, and despite my single-minded quest, I stopped to gaze at a stall filled with illuminated lampshades, all made of metal intricately patterned. If I were a jinn, I would live here, ensconced in the glow of astral light.
The shopkeeper saw the awe in my eyes and rose from a small table set with his humble meal. I moved on before he could talk me into what I would later regret. Not even a genie could swindle one of those lamps into my already traumatized suitcase. I had room only for spices, and just a few at that.
“One-one-seven will take you to heaven,” said a tall, skinny man who materialized from the shadows. He proffered an oversized sheet of laminated paper that I could barely read. When I recognized it as a dinner menu, and 117 as the address, I shook my head and speed-walked to Chris, now several stalls ahead.
Just as I started to tell of my encounter with the Shadow, another figure, this one bent at the waist, groaned and retched something white and vile into a sewer grate. Could it have been camel’s milk? Cheese? Yogurt? Something from the restaurant I’d just been so eerily invited to? Or was this poor soul experiencing a reaction to something nefarious, like street drugs?
Suddenly I felt acutely aware of my naïveté. After all, what you see is not always what you know. I’d read about the not-so-underground drug culture of Morocco. I knew that people come here from all over the world to smoke kif in the Rif and snort the cocaine that blows in from South America on a big white cloud of profit and misery. It’s the same old game. A few dealers get rich while everyone else gets screwed, one way or another. I felt bad for that kid, whatever he was puking up. Surely it wasn’t the way he’d hoped his evening would go.
As we wandered deeper into the labyrinth of alleyways, I thought about Edith Wharton’s interpretation of the Marrakech bazaars. To her mind, “from all these hundreds of unknown and unknowable people, bound together by secret affinities, or intriguing against each other with secret hate, emanates an atmosphere of mystery and menace more stifling than the smell of camels and spices and black bodies and smoking fry which hangs like a fog under the close roofing of the souks.” What had she witnessed a hundred years ago in these same alleyways? Her words smacked of colonialist superiority to me. But even stereotypes can hold a shred of truth.
As the sun dipped behind the walls of the medina, loudspeakers crackled with the imam’s call to evening prayer in Arabic. The empty passageway we had been following forked, and so we veered to the right, deeper still into the honeycomb of connecting alleyways, where you could feel the very heartbeat of Marrakech.
With each step we overcame our trepidation until, finally, there it was, a spice shop, open against the odds. Baskets of whole spices and herbs overflowed out into the alleyway, and right away the shopkeeper, dressed in jeans and a neon orange T-shirt, sized me up as the interested buyer that I was.
“Ah, madame! What can I help you with this evening?” he asked in perfect English with a Moroccan accent. Before I could answer, the frantic dance of negotiation had begun.
“Look, madame, look. Saffron, star of anise, cinnamon, and, look at this, nature’s very own toothpick! See?” He grabbed a large dried flowerhead, pulled a fishbone sliver from it, and proceeded to demonstrate its treasure-picking capabilities. Next he twisted the flowerhead to release its seeds and popped them into his mouth. “Breath freshener!”
“Yes, that is interesting,” I said. “Isn’t it, honey?” I turned around to see what Chris made of this resourceful use of fennel, but he was gone. Vanished. I should have known. If anyone hates a hard sell, it’s him. But I’d been counting on some good-cop/bad-cop triangulation to get a good price. Now I was on my own to negotiate with a salesman who no doubt came from a long, long line of merchants and camel traders. A veritable artiste of the deal.
“Here, madame, look at this,” he said as he rubbed a red paste from a small earthen pot onto the fat of this palm. Then he rubbed it onto his lips. “Lipstick. See?” That’s when I knew the way things would end. “Here, madame, please, have a cup of tea.”
I took the glass against my better judgment and brought it to my lips slowly; but not slowly enough. A blast of menthol pitched me into a coughing fit I couldn’t stifle. As tears ran down my cheeks and I waved wildly at my face with my free hand, the shopkeeper gleefully encouraged me to continue with my sip. “Drink, drink, it is very good for you. Good for the sinuses, congestion, if you have a cold.”
I took the sip, like the fool I was, and the result was predictable. More coughing, more fanning of the face. More tears. Why was I letting this man kill me in his little souk, deep within the innards of an ancient medina, during prayer time, when not another human being could be spotted anywhere in sight? And where was Chris?
The shopkeeper cheerfully bagged and weighed my goodies: mounds of herbal teas, mixed spices, dead flower picks. “What else, madame? What else?” He stepped around the scales and headed to the back of the store, where apothecary jars lined the walls from floor to ceiling. “Cinnamon sticks? Musk? Sandalwood?”
“No, no more,” I said. “Please. Uncle.”
He looked at me with wide eyes. “Something for your uncle? No problem! How about alum? You know alum? Alum is good for a man’s shave, for deodorant. You can use it for —”
“No, no, please, just tell me how much I owe for what’s already bagged up.”
“Yes, madame, that will be my pleasure,” he said, looking like a cat who’d caught his mouse. “Two hundred dirhams, s’il vous plaît.”
That’s right. Nearly twenty times what a local would have paid. And so another sucker was sucked into a souk in Marrakech. What can I say? I didn’t even get a strand of saffron or a hit of hashish.