Thursday, August 27, 2009

We go it alone

OK. So it happened again. The being had. Please witness photo (to right) as evidence of the Mark of the Tourist. I only found out later from the 6th generation Berber Herbalist that the "henna" the woman used was not henna at all but chemicals and lord knows what else. He showed me a box of black hair dye in contrast to the natural henna product and explained that tourists wanted something darker than the soft brown of the natural henna tattoos, something that would last, something closer to the "real" tattoos of home. So the hawkers on Place Jemaa El Fna (and elsewhere, presumably) started using this black stuff that's probably not unlike L'Oréal No. 389, Black Beauty. Anyway. There is the lovely smudge on my right hand for however many months to come, marking me out as the idiot tourist who in a moment both maternal and inattentive picked up her 2-year old and ruined not only said 2-year old's lovely flutter-cap-sleeved white shirt but also the henna-job.

So this is how it happened. We wanted to go into the Medina, the old walled city and the warren of souks, the shops selling all sorts of goods—arranged, for the most part, by trade, and laid out for the most part in the shade. We took our petit taxi for not-very-much all the way up Mohammed V, one of the main arteries of the city ("Oh, les filles!" cried the driver as a slow-moving sedan, driven by a woman, inched its way across our path), getting out beneath La Koutoubia (as I've mentioned, the landmark of Marrakech, the 11th century mosque built by the Almohads to mark their defeat of the Almoravids). The plaza, awash in morning sun and enormous in its expanse, was relatively empty in comparison to the packed feel of the teeming crowds swirling beneath the night sky last week. I dropped a couple post cards into one of the yellow post boxes arranged by twos in front of the packed post office, classic tourist move, then we turned to make our way, without Moustafa, toward the entrance to the souks along Rue Souk Smarine on the far side of the plaza. And before you could say Jack Robinson (as my mother would say), they were upon us—the snake charmer, wrapping a snake around my neck (we, the snake and I, locked eyes for a fleeting moment, six inches from each other's snouts) and rubbing the body of the snake on my arm for good luck, the man with the blond-furred monkey in his arms, pushing Paul to take a picture of Hazel and me and the monkey, and then the woman with a long syringe pulling at my hand and squirting the beginning loops and dots and curls of her design onto the back of my trapped hand. I'm looking at Paul, Hazel is with him, I have the stroller, but not my wits. 

I get caught in these moments where I want, dutifully, to do what people expect of me, to agree or nod or affirm in some way—impulses borne of years of being taught not only to get along but to connect with people, to be kind by default, to make others feel at home or ok. However. It's hard to do this when you don't really speak the language, can't expertly navigate the intricacies of human interaction, let alone traverse the trickier passages of culture—and want to exit tactfully and without offense. So the various pliers of this and that fell away (I was falling all over myself, turning to right and left saying "Non, merci. Merci quand meme. Desolee. Pas aujourd'hui") with the single and persistent exception of the woman speaking to me from beneath the black flutter of veil that covered the lower half of her face. She had me by the hand and was not letting go, had already made her mark and was going to see some money for having done so. Which is only natural. Paul had read the guidebooks (or was taught from a young age to be mean, he just said), and was standing well outside the forcefield looking in at me. In my flustered state I fished around first in my wallet, then in Paul's change purse and gave the woman what amounted to $0.75—"Bonne chance, madame," she said in what sounded a lot like disgust and was turning away before I could say—what? "A vous, aussie"? What do you say? Ach. Only the satisfaction of writing it all down (and taking a picture).

Then into the souks, all that you imagine but alive (this time we saw 15-foot hammered double brass doors, mountain ranges of sticky honeyed sweets, inlaid wooden trays and octagonal tables by the dozens and dozens)—and amidst the overwhelming abundance, found a pair of orange leather sequined slippers for Hazel, for which I paid way too much. Again, the learning curve of the person trained to be kind is steep here. Rashid, the proprietor or at least the frontman for the leather goods shop, has a brother who's an herbalist, and the family also has a silver-shop—come, let me show you, just around the corner. So we did go, but only to see the herbalist, leaving behind promises to come back again (we live here! and though I bear the mark of the idiot, we aren't like that!).

The herbalist was something else altogether—his shop, just around the corner in fact, a wonder of meticulously arranged heaps of clove, stacks of bundled cinnamon, jars and bottles and packets full of substances of every hue. It really felt like you imagine a film set might feel—things set at just this or that precise angle, colors a little brighter and sharper, the wooden painted sign outside almost from the props department of one of the Harry Potter films. (This is my point of reference.) At any rate, the herbalist (he seemed so young—was he owner or engine or what exactly?) made clear the difference between a pharmacie and his own shop—nothing chemical, tout naturel. He went through an entire spiel (that sounds pretty trite, he was warm, gracious, good at his job and good at making us feel welcome), assisted by a young woman in headscarf, expounding the wonders of argan oil (have you heard of this? an interesting substance, a magic elixir and cure-all, it would seem, only from Morocco I think, or at least the Sahara), dotting each of our arms in turn with first orange-oil, then rose-oil, demonstrating the proper technique for testing saffron, giving both Paul and me a good strong snuff of nigella seeds he'd rubbed warm (like Viks VapoRub, but packed with a much different and organically sharp pungent kick), and on and on about as long as Hazel could last. He also kindly explained the black gook on my hand, smiling ruefully (as it seemed to me). We bought some of the most intensely cinnamon-y cinnamon I've ever encountered and a couple other packets of spices—fenugreek and a typically Moroccan blend, said our thanks (received Hazel's gift of a curious tube of green lipstick than when applied turns pink—a big hit), returned by way of Rashid (paused to converse), then had Hazel asleep on my shoulder before we'd left the shade of the souks.  

[Footnote to an earlier post—the brass dog has disappeared, and it's not because I've shopped early for Hazel's Christmas stocking.]

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