Friday, September 4, 2009

Take a chance on me (thanks to Paul, with a nod to ABBA)

In a silly sort of way, we had to psyche ourselves up to go back into the souks. We went yesterday. There's just a certain sort of discomfort not knowing what exactly people mean, what exactly their intentions, not wanting to offend but also wanting to move with your own desire as guide, not bob along on the variable current of whatever comes your way. So we were prepared to do what we'd come to do: a friend had given me the address of a rug dealer she knows and our intent was to visit him. We walked from our place—a good 25 minutes along sun-baked and busy mid-morning avenues, stroller navigating around this mound of gravel, that car parked on the tiled sidewalk (all these obstacles that take on, if you let them, a very different aspect only because they're Moroccan, not because they're any different from home), doing our best to make like the Marrakechis and dash among the traffic—and arrived at the walled Medina at a different entrance than we'd done so previously (avoiding completely the yawning maw of the Jemaa El Fna). Through one of the several arched openings we found ourselves exactly where Paul thought the map said we'd be—at Rue Bab Doukala, one of the many narrow points of entry into the craze of narrower streets dizzily knotting themselves together. At the corner where a scooter repair shop buzzes amidst the bustle, all of a sudden there's someone at Paul's elbow asking where we want to go and telling us, Oh no, you want to go that way, that way—and urging, insisting us on down the street, gesturing to the inside curve of the city wall, away from the street we're (pretty?) sure is where (now we think?) we want to go. Hmm. Not wanting to offend, wanting to take his kindly advice, off we go, already veering away from what we thought the trail was going to be. We waive off a second offer of direction and advice, this from a petite mustached man in bright blue, and keep on.

We’ve made our right turn now into the souks, passed the pungent stacks of bundled mint and parsley to right and left, the mounds of zucchinis and green peppers and pyramids of purple-skinned onions, the hanging carcasses of meat and one particularly fresh looking pile of what looked a lot like several hundred lamb chops—plunged into it. Again, out of nowhere (and everywhere?) appears a man in a white polo short, maybe late 50s, walking alongside me, striking up a conversation—how did it begin? Was it Hazel in her stroller? We talk of there being a unity in all of humanity, that Moslem, Christian, Jewish, we are all the same, there is but one god, and before I know it I've fumbled around in my bag for the rug-dealer's address (scrawled on a torn-out college-ruled notebook sheet in my American-school-girl hand—so conscious that my numerals and letters just do not look like the European-influenced hand here), shown it to him, and told this gentleman about our search. Now he's turning us left down an empty street, narrower still, not at all crowded, and we're into a residential quarter of the old city. He's telling me his brother works in the souks and so he knows that this particular rug-dealer has just opened up a larger store, maybe three years ago, that it's just on the other side. Kids play here and there in the streets and doorways and arched entryways of courtyards; we pass even narrower alleyways, and the omnipresent but only occasional scooter zips by but not-so-fast. He's talking politics: about how the riads, these old dwellings in the old city that date back to the 17th century, have been sold to foreigners by the children of the older Marrakechi families—sold to make money, of course—and that the king of Morocco has now forbade such sales to foreigners. I’d just seen a magazine cover picturing Mohammed VI and his son dressed in traditional Moroccan garb above the caption (in French): The Modern Face of Tradition. (Paul found on-line a consortium of Moroccan political blogs that reported several publications had been pulled from Moroccan newsstands for running a story on the King’s popularity rating: 91%. They were pulled because you just don’t rate the king. His popularity is not an issue. He is the king. Period.) We're zigzagging through a maze of cobbled streets, beneath underpasses held aloft high above by smooth-worn beams in the cool gloom, how could I find this same way again? And then we’re out into the blinding sun. Our impromptu guide leaves us at the mouth of the neighborhood, points down a curve of exhaust-choked street, and says, It’s that way, ask anyone, they’ll tell you, and promptly disappears.

When I again pull out the address and ask first one, then another man sitting in front of another shop, one in particular—after poring over my scrawl and also a map that he retrieves from inside, and then checking with his friend—laughs warmly and says, “We are sons of Marrakech and even we haven’t heard of this address!” Foiled again.

Paul notices a bowl. That’s how we stop. “Zwin, zwin,” Paul says to the lean gentleman in the doorway—“Beautiful, beautiful” (then, as I type this, he adds, “one of the few words I know”). Abdellah Kharbibi and his son are in his wood shop, the warmly polished inlaid bowls hang on both sides of his open doorway and he works in the narrow shop’s entrance. Paul is admiring an intricately worked ebony and lemonwood and cedar bowl—and then Abdellah, with a lathe that he powers with his right hand (he uses a bow), braces his work against his naked feet and with his left uses a chisel to make Hazel a small cylindrical oleander-wood pendant that includes a tiny ring wrought from the same piece of wood. He quickly buffs the curved end, uses an awl to work a hole through the other end (he brandishes the awl with a smile and says, “Berber Black & Decker!”), fishes out from a multi-colored tangle a length of henna-brown cord, cuts it with another tool, threads it through the tiny hole, knots it and gently puts it over Hazel’s head—this all in about 45 seconds. “Ca porte du bonheur,” he says—that brings happiness, good luck. His son, maybe 10 or 11, then makes one for me in the same manner and it takes maybe a minute. I’m not sure now how it happened or in what order, but before we’d bought a thing he was inviting us to return at 7:00 and break the fast with him, join him for harira, the soup that during Ramadan you begin the evening’s meals with. “It’s a recipe from my mother, my wife makes it—delicious!” he says. In my hesitating way, I pause and say Oh, Paul starts his work tomorrow, the school year begins, not tonight.

What?!! Why aren’t you just saying yes—immediately—to this incredibly kind and generous offer?!!? Paul looks at me, really? Why don’t we go?

It’s actually been more than a few days since this all transpired—blogging could be a full-time job if you don’t have a 2-year old (and probably is for some who do) and you don’t like to sleep. At any rate, we did go—how could we not?—made sure to get there early, returning exactly the way we’d made our way out of the souks that afternoon. Hazel asleep in the stroller—this time, on the way out, we met for the second time the very same petite mustached man in bright blue; he fell into step with us, then ushered us out of the Medina—though we knew we knew exactly where we were—pointed out the direction of a particular mosque, a well-known fountain, and asked for some money in order to eat, helped us over the broken stone of one of the smaller arched openings in the old city wall, disappeared—then reappeared a moment later (probably once he saw that we were paused on the edge) to help us wade out into the relentless traffic to cross the first street beyond the wall.

We returned to the shop through cooling streets in time to see people hurrying, hurrying to make it to wherever they were going to break the fast, to feel the streets begin to empty, then to watch as shop-workers brought trays of harira to each other, hard-cooked eggs and little papers of salt, fresh-squeezed orange juice, coils of sticky sesame-and-honey confection. We sat in the entrance of Abdellah’s shop, Hazel on a tiny-tiny stool he’d brought out from the back of his shop for her, paused with everyone—at seven o’clock exactly—to listen to the muezzin’s call from a small mosque around the corner, and then began to eat. (The soup was thick, made with tomatoes and chickpeas, onions, rice, ginger and saffron—delicious.) The whole scene—to be of it but also in it, to have been invited to share the evening’s first meal, to watch this man with glasses alternately on his nose and perched on his head sitting outside his shop on the cobbles, having given his seat to Paul, smoking away on his Winstons (in the month of Ramadan you can’t smoke during the day)—the entirety of it was overwhelming. The sky deepened, Hazel pointed out a star, and soon the waxing moon rose above the roof-line opposite the shop. Abdellah asked again, nodding, really you’ll be here the whole year?—and invited us to come back, to meet his family (my wife could do henna for you, he’d said when I showed him my embarrassed hand), and we gave him our address. Time to go—Hazel is the clock. We said our thanks, which seemed exceptionally paltry in exchange for such generosity, said that we’d come again, as he’d insisted we should whenever in the souks, then wheeled Hazel out into the night. It was good to walk the half hour home, to move through the dark and think and wonder about the evening. (Hazel ran most of the way once we left the Medina, incidentally, wound circles around us, literally, weaving among the arcades along Mohammed V.)

In the few days since the evening with Abdellah and in the process of writing, I’ve been thinking a lot about memory—seeing the Medina in all its overwhelming, over-stuffed, over-abundant glory as metaphor, as memory itself: what if you could walk through your own teeming gallery of memories and, leaning out at you, asking you if you need directions, would be your confident ten-year old self, or Teddy Clements who moved off your old street when you were five and have never seen since, or there for sale your favorite plaid skirt from third grade? I’m thinking about relentless time, relentlessly unspooling, each second wedded to his brothers on either side—in contrast to the unhinging and illogical, unkempt and disordered tangle of what has been. Even the writing of it all down just jangles it a particular way, never as clear as the way it must have happened. 

1 comment:

  1. H! So great to read of your many adventures!! Can't wait to come visit. Check your gmail when you have a chance. I've written you a couple o' notes. xo - Mary M