Souk shopping in Tangier
Published in CM: the Critical Muslim, issue no 9, The Maghreb, Jan-March 2014
It was shopping that first inclined me towards an interest in Islam, though it must be said that the lupine line of hassling touts that in the old days awaited the visitor immediately outside the old Tangier dock gates did their best to keep the secret well-springs of their faith well hidden. Indeed one could be mistaken for imagining that they were waging some small personal war against each and every one of the foreign visitors, determined to revenge the slights afflicted by the Crusaders and Colonists of the past. Their weaponry included a formidable range of languages and the imagination to make the best use of them, by provoking some response, be it laughter, irritation, guilt or mere exasperated anger. But they knew any crack could be opened into some sort of relationship. And above all they had persistence those hassling, touting guides. For time they had a plenty, while the foreign tourists had all the other advantages - the freedom to travel, the passports, the visas and the money. And there was no such thing as a poor traveler coming from the north, however unwashed their skin and distressed their clothes might look, for even the dole translated into a very enviable number of dirhams. They made their money in the time-honoured way of all financial dealings, using their wit to act as a broker on a sliding scale of commissions.
I however seldom suffered from their multilingual offensive, for I was too young to be looking to buy either hashish or carpets, and had no back-pack or suitcase that indicated the pressing need for either a hotel, taxi or train station. I was also often burdened with panniers for buying fruit (the buying of which earned noone any commission) and knew my way towards the food markets of this supposedly wicked, and definitely run-down old town. But most crucial of all, I tended to use the dawn boat, and Tangier being renowned as the city of smugglers, clubbers and night-time fishermen, was unique in Morocco in that no one ever got up early. The beach strip which had once been fringed with hotels was no longer a strath reaching out into romantic wilderness of dunes. Surrounded by a vast new suburb, it had become filthy with wind-blown plastic bags, while the river that ran through the fine length of sand was grey with sewage, but that did at least mean that the beach had been returned from the hotels to the people. In the evening it came alive with dozens of fiercely fought football matches scented by barrows grilling sardines.
I was also not a once in a lifetime visitor to Tangier in search of exoticsm within the first half hour of landing in Africa. I was a neighbour, for my father was serving in the Royal Naval base at Gibraltar, which was then connected to Tangier by a charming but battered old ferry, the Mons Calpe. It did a dawn run once a week that allowed you an enormous cooked breakfast in the galleys, arriving in Tangier’s harbour just as it was getting light. My mission was to buy fruit, in exchange for being given the ferry fare and some loose change for meals by my mother. It was a bizarre errand, most especially as at the bottom of our street in Gibraltar there was an itinerant Moroccan fruit seller who would literally try to press free fruit on my mother. She had intervened in his domestic life in a decisive way, encouraging my father (who had a position of respect) to write a letter encouraging the immigration department to allow the Moroccan fruit vendor’s wife to visit him from Tangier, on the promise of not taking up residency. It had worked, and the man beamed affection at my mother and constantly tried to give her gifts of fruit – which she would refuse. It helped enormously in their ritual duels of politeness that she could protest that she had even fresher fruit in her house, as her son had just returned from Morocco. I loved the trips to Tangier, for as my mother realized the sporting society of colonial Gibraltar in which she excelled, a veritable demon of the tennis club and bridge table, was not a world that her book-loving son had any chance of participating in.
My shopping trips to Tangier opened up a whole new wonderful box of living history and to unravel the mystery of this totally other culture I immersed myself in the stacks of the garrison library of Gibraltar. A diet of Peter Mayne’s A Year in Marrakech, Walter Harris’s Morocco That Was, Hay’s Western Barbary and Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas filled in the many gaps with a bright, vivid, romantic, adventurous and humorous glow. From his own reading of Lady Grove’s Seventy Days Camping in Morocco, my father taught me that it was vital for a young man to learn no Arabic swear words (unlike the British troops he had encountered in Egypt) but fill your mouth with grace. Lady Grove claimed that you could travel the length of Morocco, camping amongst the wildest-looking mountain tribes in complete safety by just using three expressions: Miziam Bezouf ‘very beautiful’, Baraka-Lafik ‘thank you very much/ a blessing upon you’ and Laila Siadaa ‘good night/sweet dreams’. It was also my father who advised me to give the enormous, silent, shaven-headed man who stood beside the gangway steps at Tangier the gift of a 50-pence piece with my passport when I came off the boat. It was alarming the first time, watching your passport disappear into the pocket of a total stranger without so much as a glance, let alone a numbered receipt, but it worked.
So my advice to any shopper first arriving in Morocco is to start with fruit. Maybe even stick to it. But first you must equip yourself with local bags, woven from raffia and sometimes ornamented with a leather handle or twists of coloured wool. The fruit-sellers post up their prices on little black boards, or re-used pieces of cardboard, and weigh everything out before your eyes. To demonstrate my complete trust in their good nature, it was also my habit to hold out a palm full of change and allow them to pick out their price, which seldom failed to enchant them, for it showed that you knew that amongst the shop keepers of Morocco, the fruit sellers were a race apart. As is the fruit in Morocco, picked ripe and sold without refrigeration or air miles. My second tip would be to concentrate on the most characteristic flavors of Morocco: tangerines, oranges, dates, almonds and melons. The Moroccans are often proud of the apples that are grown in the orchards in the high plateau between the Middle and High Atlas mountains, but they lack the crisp bite of English fruit and are priced as a luxury item. This is even more true of their strawberries. Britain can’t boast of much excellence in the fruit line except in our summer red berries. Moroccan melons, especially in summer, are completely irresistible, and sold from great pyramid mounds of green or bright yellow beside the road, right beside the fields. My third tip is not to become a fuss-pot about hygiene, treating everything in Morocco as an object to be immersed in a bucket of potassium-permaganate solution, sprayed with germoline solution or swobbed with a sterile wipe. Instead concentrate on fruit that you can peel, and travel with a bunch of bananas, which alongside a diet of dried toast and white rice is by far the best food for those afflicted with a disturbed stomach.
Having burdened myself with two shopping bags full of fruit, I used to totter off to the Grand Hotel de Villa de France – a wonderfully decayed establishment whose large, sloping garden overlooked the charming arabesque Anglican church – a view painted by Matisse when he lodged here. In exchange for the odd pot of tea served in ancient hotel crockery on the terrace, or the cheapest dish on the lunchtime menu, a vast salad nicoise (which I would consume by the pool) I was free to make this hotel my base for the day. I think it was Norman Lewis who declared that you never meet anyone interesting in a four-star hotel, but fortunately the Grand Hotel had slipped down in the world. Mary Tripp who had done something vital for the British army in the war (and who was given a front row seat at all the Gibraltar military parades) could be found there, as could Alec Waugh, the novelist father of one of my fathers’ best friends in the Navy, and that marionette in the perfect linen suit was the last of Paredes, the Sephardic dynasty of bankers who advanced Nelson the money to buy gunpowder before the Battle of Trafalgar (fought just north-west of Tangier) on nothing more than his word. It has been derelict for decades now but even then its gardens were vast and overgrown, but there was a path that allowed you to slip straight down into the bustle of the main market square through a secretive garden gate. With my central mission of the day accomplished, I was free to explore the dream landscape of the medina, its twisting alleyways lined with booths, its secretive squares, mansions hidden behind great iron-studded doorways, the sky framed by tapering minarets or the crumbling tinted whitewash of a dome.
This street knowledge would later be put to use, as I was volunteered to accompany guests of my parents on little explorations of Morocco to break up their fortnight-long visits to Gibraltar. This ushered in a change of scene and tempo. Humble, slow dawn ferry journeys were now replaced by quick flights across the straits of Gibraltar, the hire of giant Mercedes-Benz taxis and ambitious grown-up plans funded by fatter wallets. “We must picnic at the Roman ruins of Lixus, take our swim in the Diplomatic Forest but leave plenty of time for shopping in Tangier before dinner. Barnaby will show us the best shops.”
And for me it was a liberation to engage with the glittering souks, which I had previously hurried by, too young and too short of cash. But armed with an uncle, a godmother, a holidaying captain or a distant cousin, our little group of well-healed shoppers would be overwhelmed by the practiced charm of the greeter at the door and by offers of mint tea. By now I had learned a lot from the museum collections and my reading, and even at a precociously early age was driven by a quest for authenticity. The bright red fez of Morocco, worn by old gentlemen on their way to the noon-day Friday prayers as well as hotel door-keepers could be acquired – but only if it was the original proper felt article, not the hideous nylon tourist bric-a-brac. The distinctive pointed Moroccan slippers were all to easy to find, for the shopkeepers were pitched together in the same region of the bazaar, so that the gorgeous colors, set off by silver and gilt looked like a Chinese dragon-centipede. But for the men I was strict, we must search out the original product, the whole leather article without a modern rubber sole. The colours should be either grey or white, but preferably yellow, the finished thing still baring a faint whiff of the tanneries and flexible enough to bend in two, with your heel overhanging just a touch at the end.
My advice, starved of real experience, but backed up by months of quiet observation was copious.
“It will be perfect for the office but don’t leave them lying around at home. Our dogs seem to adore the whiff of real Moroccan leather. If you like we can go to the booth that binds books, I am afraid it is more a matter of weeks than of hours, but he also stocks really lovely gold-stamped folders, in all the traditional colours, a warm orange, cardimine and Morocco-red. A couple of doors down there is a stall that stocks thuja wood boxes, perfect for holding loose change or cufflinks. We should really buy them where they are made, down south in Mogador, but that trip is for next year. Yes, the Romans adored them, such a lovely cedar-like whiff from the wood. You might pick out something without a metal hinge, which is always their weak point, though the joinery is excellent.
“A teapot? What an excellent idea, no-one should leave Tangier without a Moroccan teapot. If you are after something quire quirky we could try and find something with a Cohen brothers stamp on the inside lid. Shows that it was made in Manchester, export an import? Yes, designed in the mid-nineteenth century, some described it as a brass Yemeni coffee pot mated with an English earthenware teapot but forged out of tin, though the last time we found one, the lid had come off and the price was pretty steep and to be honest the modern ones will give better use. We might try and pick up some blue and gilt decorated tea glasses to go with it, and now and then you stumble on painted wooden boxes, lined a little-like an old English egg-box, with which they could be carried safely on the back of a mule. That brass box? I believe for holding lumps of sugar, wopped off a sugar loaf with that Viking-looking axe, but I will ask to make sure. Yes, I am sure it could make a very lovely jewelry box.
“No that is not an old ice bucket for champagne, it’s designed to be a sort of beach-like metal bucket for taking squishy soap to the hammam – not that it cant be redirected to a new use. There was an old Tangier myth that champagne turned into milk in the mouth of such a holyman as the Sherif of Wazzan. Yes he had a rather saintly English wife. What a pity I didnt show you her grave! It’s in the churchyard where we went to search out Walter Harris and Caid Mclean’s tombs.
“A carpet? Are you sure? It will be fun but also a bit of a full-on event but we are sure to be offered a whole tray of mint tea whilst at least three dozen carpets are unrolled with gusto. What you want one as well? Well then we must certainly go, but first we must visit this fantastic little scent shop, Madini’s just off the little square where we stopped for a coffee. To be honest, I think most of the carpets are pretty derivative, but now and then you find those rather wild off-white things, quite hairy and criss-crossed with brown lozenges that come from a real indigenous Moroccan tribal tradition.
“Me, gosh No, I haven’t anything like the right amount of money for a carpet and we will have to spend hours getting it down to anything like the right price, which I think should be around £300. Because that’s what it would cost you back home if you wondered off Regent Street into Libertys. But if you buy something, I might be able to throw in one of those killim cushion covers as my commission?
“Its part of the tradition that I get rewarded, rather like a stockbroker or an estate agent back home. But the role of the shopper is very honourable out here. You know there is that story of how one of the earliest Muslim emigrants when he arrived at the oasis of Medina as a penniless refuge refused to accept a gift from his host. Just point out to me the way to the marketplace, for I was a merchant in my hometown of Mecca, so I am sure I will survive. True enough by the end of his first days trading, Abder-Rahman ibn Awf returned baring a goatskin of butter and a cheese which he was able to present to his host. While one of the first four Caliphs, it might even have been Omar, when asked how he would like to die, replied that he would like to be taken by the angel of death whilst out shopping for food for his family in the souk.
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by Barnaby Rogerson