Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Saturday trip to Asni

The road to Asni leaves Marrakech directly south via an explosion of tourist-construction—water-parks, hotels, golf courses—the sort of thing built with government money that the locals can’t afford. Abderrahman confirms this. He picks us up at 8:30 sharp, his smiling daughter Safia in the back seat; we pause briefly around the corner for patisseries and then we’re off, the mountains ahead of us. Once we’re safely past the stretches of billboard proclaiming the pleasures to come, grazing goats and sheep take over, (once two Holsteins), and around the next corner at rest in the shade near a large dark brown tent two saddled camels, their jaws working, long-lashed eyes slowly blinking. Tiny pockets of habitation here and there zip past in a flash—old walls which look like they’re made from a mixture of mud and straw and crushed limestone called pisé, all the building-materials the same shade of ochre that most of Marrakech wears. This is the plain between Marrakech and the Atlas.

Because I’m in the backseat, I only see later why we’re pulled over. Two blue-capped policemen now stand beside the car with a speed-gun. Abderrahman leans over to the glovebox, pulls out his papers, gets out and then talks amicably with the two men for what seems like quite a while—long enough that we can hear the radar beeping and discreetly keening as one of the policemen continues to zap the oncoming traffic. Safia takes down the back windshield’s sunscreen so she can get a good look at her dad in his negotiations. When he finally gets back in, Abderrahman reports how he pleaded his case. “I have friends on the plainclothes force who have specifically told me that you can travel at 10% over the speed limit without a problem—66kph, for example. These guys were telling me, Oh, no—not true, only 63, 64.” However the moment resolves itself, no ticket (as far as I could tell).

The morning is hazy and so the mountains are only indistinctly south—we’re in them before you can tell exactly what’s happened. Always impossible to both see where you are and claim any perspective on the bigger picture. The road narrows as we climb—we pass really close to a serious cyclist on a real road bike, not serious enough to wear a helmet, just the little old-school cap favored by the spindly 1940s Tour de France riders. Sheer pinkish walls of vegetation-less rock climb to our right while down to our left the river meanders across its wide rocky bed. Drivers are not shy about hugging bumpers here, and one does—Paul (who was in the front seat) reminds me that it was a tiny Coke truck (“tiny” by American standards) who rode right on our backside a good ways up into the mountains before the guy swung perilously out into oncoming traffic, around us and back into our lane. We stop once at a bend in the river to get out and stretch—a small town (I think it must have been Moulay Brahim) snuggling up to the cliff-face on one side, looking out at the river on the other. Saddled horses, mules and several camels drink below in the shallows. Another thirty minutes of climbing, valleys every now and again offering up views of far-away minarets lifting out of the rock and green, and we’re into the 10AM bustle of Asni on its only market day of the week.

As we pull into town a guy with a huge freshly butchered haunch resting easily on his shoulder (goat? sheep? something bigger I’m sure) crosses in front of us. We pull into a narrow spot right off the road, avoiding people to left and right, and we’re into the dusty day. First stop, across the way and through the arched opening in the wall for tea and talk with a long-time friend of Abderrahman’s. He greets two men who are sitting behind a table and ground-cloth laden with teapots and trays and necklaces for sale—these things look old, but I haven’t been in Morocco long enough to know without asking the probable provenance of such items, or their age. We take off our shoes and take seats on several rugs spread out on a tarp beyond the table. We cozy into the shade of more rugs hung on a line to one side. “The same place I took our friends!” Abderrahman smiles and gestures. He’s shown us pictures of our friends from back home sitting in this very spot, in the very same bright light. Hazel right away asks for tea, is giddy at the prospect, delighted when it arrives. She promptly spills some onto the tarp and it runs downhill toward the seated gentleman who’s poured it—I find myself awkwardly not mopping up almost under his ankles and toward his seat. These miniscule moments of gendered awareness. The talk is all in Arabic—Abderrahman and his friend of twenty-five years are catching up, and again, though Paul catches more and more of it, it’s like our trips to Germany where language is my precluding factor. Hazel finishes her tea and sets about putting on Safia’s shoes. Safia, for her part, gamely entertains, though they share no common language. Tea over, Hazel wandering further and further off the tarp and rugs, it’s time for a tour of the market.

Amidst the canopied fruit and vegetable stands and in the shade of the (non-native) eucalyptus trees, the mounds of onion and potato, carrot, tomato, eggplant, the mountains of yellow melons and piles of grapes, olives, socks are for sale and car radios, plastic toys (what exactly?), shoes and shoes, school notebooks lined in the French graph-paper style, kaftans and djellabas—everything people need for the week, Abderrahman says. A donkey goes trotting by and Abderrahman lifts Safia onto its back for several paces through the crowd, then Hazel. Though in the moment she looks uncertainly back at me after only a couple trots and says, “I want mama!” her little brow deeply furrowed, that night when she’s in her crib and we are talking in the semi-darkness about the day, she scrunches up her nose, eyes smiling, kicks her feet, draws her hands to her mouth and says as best she can through all that movement, “Donkey!” and laughs. Then with a nod at Paul, Abderrahman says to me, “Tell him I’m going to show him the Mercedes parking lot!”

Before we get there, we’re waylaid by our own inability to say no—that and the persuasive salesmanship of the practiced. I think initially we thought that Abderrahman knew the guys selling djellabahs and scarves, babouches (leather slippers) jewelry and silver boxes. Not so. We pay too much (“I didn’t think you wanted to buy anything!” Abderrahman says later—“We didn’t, but we just always get…”) and my explanation is swept away in the general momentum, the heat, the desire for more tea—and probably my not finding le mot juste in French.

“Look at all these restaurants!” Abderrahman says with a smile—his manner both wry and affectionate all at once. He’s pointing down a long row of low buildings that borders the market on one side, each one with a single window and door, all of them selling food out the front, all of them offering seating beyond, dimly, inside. He chooses one and gives the cook at the front the mint and sugar he’s just bought. (See the sugar in my hand somewhere to the right—sold in white blocks—the seller breaks off however much you want; Paul reminds me that he used a bicycle crank to do so. Hazel was happy to taste. Another side note: diabetes is rampant here, sugar intake pretty fierce. It’s not only the tiny Coca-Cola truck’s cargo that’s to blame.)

The two light sources inside the low-ceilinged room are the open shop-front and the single barred window at the back. The space is maybe 13 feet wide and 30 feet deep. We take off our shoes at the edge of a checkerboard of woven mats at the back, and sit near an older man already seated at a low table with his back to the window. “There’s the Mercedes parking lot!” Abderrahman says with a wide grin. “Look out the window.” Below the barred window standing on the river’s flat shoulders, dozens of donkeys with feedbags munch in the sun, tethered and waiting. Moments later an insistent braying floats up from outside (isn’t it ridiculous that my point of reference for this sound is the actor playing Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream?! “Oh, how lifelike those actors have been!” I’m thinking to myself. Wow. OK. Culture-girl has day at country market and is beset by reality.)—so there’s the braying and Paul turns to Abderrahman, gesturing out the window, “The cars are warming up right now!”

Lentils arrive and bread, and we all share across the low table. Then tea (Hazel squeals with delight as it’s delivered: see picture above, sugar-fiend in full pleasure) then we’re back outside, headed down the lane with open-air food stalls on one side and the restaurant-fronts on the other. Fish sizzles in hot oil at several of the stalls, while at one window Abderrahman asks permission to lift the lid off one of a row of tagines set atop braziers on the window-ledge—so Paul can see and smell what’s inside. We had only snacked—next time, lunch. Around the corner of the long low-slung length of eateries, we’re walking downhill along a narrow mud-filled alley to the parking lot—to see what turns out to be not just dozens but maybe hundreds of burrows, all talking and laughing with one another. It’s their only day of rest, says Abderrahman, the only day they’re not at work in the fields. From this vantage point we can see the piles of apples that have been dumped in the river. Orchards hug the riverbanks—apple and pomegranate, apricot, peach. And looking back now, we can see the restaurants from behind—see that we ate on the second story. Abderrahman had said the river crests in flood time at a wall where some of the burrows munch—the wall, though a good twenty yards off the back end of the buildings, looks to me (worrier) like it may not always do the job.

We loop back into the market via the humming donkey-shoe stalls (“Changing the tires!” jokes Abderrahman) and then he asks us if we want to see the meat market. I don’t think I expected anything else, but still, we are so protected in the States from the realities of butchering, the industry by design so cloistered. Here, I’m sure a US Health Inspector would have had a field day, or been properly schooled. Goat heads all looking in the same direction (necks bloody) cover a ground-cloth, lined up one after the other, perhaps three rows of ten each, eyes fixed but with a live look. I’m embarrassed to recall that I asked Abderrahman, “What do people use the goat heads for?” Eating! silly Shakespeare girl. Odd to think how vibrantly aware he would have been of life in this way, the son of a glove-maker—animal life in his time of course used in all of its multitudinous indispensable ways, the reality of which you’d be hard-pressed to escape. Several nearby stalls had already sold part of their stock, only a few goat heads left on the ground looking less ordered and more like scattered carnage. Huge pale haunches are slung over tables or hang from stalls, dark red and white ribbed slabs wait to be sectioned, piles of stomachs (sheep? goat?) turned inside out lie in pale crenellated stacks on the central tables, the entire market arranged in a horseshoe-shaped path of choices to left and right. It will all be sold by the end of the day, says Abderrahman.

The obligatory bag of olives is bought to quiet a tired Hazel while Abderrahman buys fruit and vegetables. (Why didn’t we do the same? I guess because we buy all of our green groceries from the stand across the street from our apartment—even so, thinking about it now, we were apart.) And then we’re back into the car for the quicker trip home. Safia falls asleep curled on the backseat, Hazel naps wakefully on my shoulder. (She’s inherited my sleep-gene, not Paul’s.) Abderrahman invites us back for tea at his shop later in the afternoon and we happily accept—lovely post-script.

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