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The Madness and Joy of the Souks of Morocco

The Souks of Morocco

“Play it for me, Sam. For old time’s sake. Play it again, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”


What a cast of characters they were, those bigger than life heroes from the movie classic, Casablanca.

Well, even if you can’t find Rick’s Cafe Amercain, you’ll be glad you went to Morocco anyway.

The Arabic for the country is Al Maghrib, or “the furthest west, the place where the sun sets,” and the destination is a fascinating mix of conservative Islamic traditions and the more liberal French ones.
Because it’s so close to Europe (Spain is a ferry ride away), Morocco enjoys a looseness, a “live and let live” spirit not characteristic of other Arab countries.

And although the sky in Moroccan is an astonishing cerulean blue set off by dramatic mountains and shiny yellow lemon trees, its soul lies in its cat’s cradle of complex streets.

That’s where the Souks are, those haphazard stalls spilling over the narrow walkways, and linked by corrugated tin roofs, straw or flapping tent tops.
Everything conceivable is sold and bought here.

There are camels and sheep; spices, herbs and fine wrought gold ornaments. And mounds of olives next to graceful tapestries and intricate rugs.
The cacophony of street sounds borders on madness.
Tinkers yelling, selling their wares.
Donkey carts whizzing by loaded with protesting chickens.
Snake charmers bob their heads in rhythm with their decorated flutes and their snakes’ sinuous weaves.
French and Arabic exhortations to “Come, see! Buy, now, here. The very best, and just for you!
Walla (by God), I promise you, never in your life have you seen such a _______ (fill in the blank).”

Travelers are inevitably surrounded by blue-or brown-eyed street kids who instantly puzzle out the language you’re speaking then address you in English, French, Arabic and even a little Japanese.
They’re everywhere, and if you tire of their persistence, you’ll admire their ingenuity and the quickness of their smiles.

Reports to the contrary, they don’t have nimble fingers; only nimble minds and language skills. And it’s smart to hire one of them, who’ll act as a faithful protector, warding off his competitors.
Every city has its Souk, and while the one in Marrakech is arguably the most exotic and surreal, my favorite is the Berber mountain market Souk of Chechaouen (chef-show-wan), not far from Tangiers.

The Souks (Arabic for “markets”) may be the forerunners of our modern supermarkets, but there’s no comparison to our sterile and sanitized stores that have none of the wonder or vibrancy of these earthy Moroccan bazaars.

Leather may be the country’s prime product, but up on the rickety second floor of the outdoor courtyard in Chechaouen, weavers are hard at work making the famous jalaabas, or loosely woven tunics.
The weaving rooms are very small and cramped with four or more workers crowded together.

A few words of shouted greetings is all it takes for smiles to break out.
“Salammu allaykum.”
“Wa allaykum wa sallam,” came the answer.
Peace be upon you, and upon you, peace.
“Bon Jour,” worked just as well in this former French colony of North Africa.

We were gestured into the stall.

The sound of the loom is an ancient one, a rhythmic thump, thump, thump, thump.
A radio perched on a ledge blares forth decidedly non-traditional tinny music, but it helps relieve the tedium as the weavers ply a trade handed down through generations.

The Berber mountain dwellers in the Riff Mountains bring the wool to the weavers. Deep, rich colors that reflect the bright, tall, conical straw hats and multicolored skirts of the Berbers, their faces and hands colored with henna and covered with tattoos.
One woman explains that it takes about two days to make a jalaaba and several weeks or so to make a typical Moroccan carpet.
How much does it cost?
You can pay as little as $20.00, but you’ll pit your bargaining skills against theirs.
They’re better at it, of course, but they need the money. So bargain with dignity.

It wasn’t long before we needed a bit of sanity.
We ducked into a small café tucked away at the edge of the market, and ordered savory meat dishes cooked in cumin, ginger, pepper, saffron and olive oil.
Then they brought us dates still dripping with honey; plump grapes, fresh apricots and juicy plums.
A couple of cups of sweet mint tea later, we paid our tab, about six bucks.

A flock of birds is startled by the sudden call to prayer from the Muezzin in the nearby minaret.
The sound spreads from the Mosque like a mist over the neighborhoods, and settles gently on the Souks of Morocco.
It’s a sound that unites Muslims everywhere.
And it creates a stillness, however briefly.

The merchants file into a simple room used as a Mosque for the late afternoon prayer, or asr.
There are prostrations to Allah, praises to God, juxtaposed against the impossible swirls of color, and the sights and sounds of a lifetime.

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About Kaleel

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