Sunday, October 4, 2009

Three-towel world

I’ve been stuck on that phrase—“living in a three-towel world.” Hardly. We live a really comfortable life here. We eat well, we don’t worry about money or rent or how to clothe Hazel, we have many more things, and a lot more security than so many in this city—and elsewhere. Luxury abounds. I have time to write. “A full stomach and the head can sing,” Abdellah reminded me a little over a week ago when Hazel and I went to visit him in his shop. He had first said this when we went back that evening during Ramadan to break the fast—sitting on the floor of his shop drawing comfortably on his cigarette after the meal, his long thin hands gesturing to fit his words. And as Hazel and I sat again in his small shop-front, it came back to me that I didn’t remember exactly what he’d said: “Encore une fois, quelle est la connection entre l’estomac et la tête?” I asked. “L’estomac plein fait chanter la tête,” he replied, his own, I thought then, no longer empty during daylight. Paul was saying the other day that there is nothing comparable in our own culture, nothing so totally daily-life-altering built into the arc of a year, whether religious or secular. What social imperative in the States demands that we remind ourselves that so many others survive on so much less? That there are other things to contemplate besides the crush of the immediate and the incessant of the every-day? I found myself wondering what the homeless do during Ramadan (they are everywhere here, and I see the same people on the same streets again and again, day after day, night after night)—what structures are in place to attend to people in need? The Koran requires that all good Muslims give to charity (and mandates too that all people must have access to clean water), and Ramadan specifically demands that people give to the poor, the hungry, those who otherwise could not afford to buy new clothes for their children on the occasion of Eid el-Fitr. In another trip to the souks this week, Hazel and I had stopped to talk to a rug dealer (he sat in a comfortable chair in the shade in front of a large shop overlooking the tiny plaza that is the spice souk)—during the course of our ten-minute conversation, several people came up, not saying much, and from a sack beside him he would take out a round loaf of bread and hand it out. “I give to the poor,” he said.

We met a friend of our friends back in the States last Sunday, and we spoke together in his tiny rug shop amidst the smell of wool and the tea things on the floor—round tray, well-used tea pot (filled with both mint and rosemary—a new combination for us), several clear glasses. This time we found him. Though the self-professed “sons of Marrakech” from a month ago (Take a Chance on Me, September 4) couldn’t tell us where to find this particular address and claimed never to have heard of it, all we needed to do was go to the rug souk and ask someone. Which we finally did. The guy we asked (the same one Hazel and I spoke to again this week, with the sack of bread) took me alone first to make sure it was the right man he was thinking of. “Beard, right?” air-stroking his chin with one hand. “Glasses? OK. Follow me.” He lead me through a narrow opening between several rugs hanging in the sun into the deep shade of a covered street, went this way and then that. And the friend's shop was empty. “Wait just a minute—I’ll be back.” How did he know where to look if he didn’t even know the man in the first place? Here is where (again, the refrain), if I spoke Arabic I am certain there would be delightful clarity instead of general mystification, or at least I could ask in a way that’s different from the French. (He was watching a football game—soccer, that is.) The guy who’d escorted me now returned with the very friend our friends back home had urged us to find; introductions all around  (“I’ll come back with my husband and daughter—two minutes!”). Back I came with Paul and Hazel—almost didn’t make that last dog-leg jog to the left to find the shop tucked away along a narrow side-street off the main covered rug souk. We spent the rest of the afternoon and into the evening in Abderrahman Bidda's shop, La Petite Boutique du Tapis.

Incidentally, the entrance to the carpet souk is off a small plaza where even into the twentieth century slaves were auctioned. It’s a revelation to pass out of the maze and press and crush of covered streets, shop after crowded shop, and find yourself looking out across an open space that feels human in scale, not nearly the overwhelming and grand sweep that is Jemaa El Fna, and up at the refreshing bowl of sky. This place feels intimate. In the middle of the plaza the sellers of baskets and woven hats sit facing the foot traffic; they’re surrounded by a café, spice-shops lined up one after the other (turtles and other reptiles stacked in cages out front), the odd spill-over rug shop.

I keep thinking about the slip of sky that you see from Abderrahman's shop, sitting with your back against the southwest wall and looking out through the wide gap between the roof-line of the jewelry shop opposite and the covering that reaches back across the narrow street, how that space is like a stretch of carpet itself, shifting in color as the light changes. Twice now we’ve gone in in the full heat and brass-bright of the afternoon and come out into the dusk, into the dark—having watched (sporadically) that slice of sky shift from blue or cloud-drifted, to lavender, to mauve, to no-more-discernable-sun. The color-quality reminds me of certain flavors of Necco wafers (those confectioners’ sugar-dusted discs of chalk-like sweet that come in a wax-paper roll)—the lavender, the chocolate, the black licorice.

For the moment, I’m going to skip the most interesting part of the weekend (a trip with Abderrahman and his daughter to Asni, almost due-south of Marrakech, to the Saturday Berber market there), and briefly recount the acquisition of a rug. Saturday had been a long day (so many rows of severed goat heads arranged on the ground, their eyes open, dozens of undersea-looking sponge-like flaccid structures lying limp in piles on the edges of tables—just now Paul tells me they were stomachs, turned inside out, the people and people and people doing what they do every week)—and after the trip we'd been invited back to the rug shop for tea, a relaxing end to the adventure. So despite the day and the waning light it seemed like a good moment to buy a rug for our echoing home (“Our apartment is like a cave,” Paul said). In a moment the shop  filled up with unfolded rugs, one kilim after the next. Riotous profusion—red and darker red, saffron, orange, threads of green, the geometry of each one different from the last.  An ecstasy of rugs: Hazel was leaping and rolling in the color like a girl possessed—we tossed her at one point like you see people do, each of us holding a corner of the carpet. The colors exploded off the shelves—the same synesthete thing as the taste of Hazel’s strawberry gelato later that evening as we strolled home, leaping at me in a full-on assault of pink tang-zap sweet. Impossible to choose, but we do, head home.

There’s part of me that can’t stop thinking about the tetrus-like arrangement of all our things back in the Oakland attic: books and books and books, Christmas decorations, napkins and tablecloths and backpacks flattened to fit into huge plastic tubs, clothes and more clothes, crates of Ikea organizers and wooden hangers, Hazel’s heavy box of toys, the two shallow plastic tubs—heavier than you’d think—full of sheets, and those last half-dozen boxes of crap that marry the glom of fridge magnets with the Guatemalan basket of desk-detritus with the masking tape and the dust bin and the final tangle of extension cords and the last three sharpie markers that marked all the endless boxes including the one they’re now inside. So I’m thinking of our own abundance in contrast to the self-professed lifestyle curates in Marrakech—there are plenty of people here who advertise that they’ll be your personal shopper, people who amass beautiful things and help you do the same. Are we so different?

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