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Shopping and Sleeping in Morocco
Grand Trunk / Amanews (syndicated)


Just before Christmas I needed to update my guidebook to Morocco. The basic spade work had been done, a near inaccessible 60km-long Saharan beach had been swum at, an 11th century mountain-top fortress had been walked to and the remains of a 16th-century Sugar refinery had been explored. What was needed now was to focus a bit more tightly on the holiday aspects of Morocco.

To do this I had arranged to spend a long weekend with three friends in Marrakech. They were not a thoroughly representative sample of womankind (one screenplay writer/violinist/mother of three, an architectural historian and a televison producer/mother of three) except that they all led incredibly busy lives and needed a break. I wanted their company to try out some new bars and restaurants, but even more I needed them to show me what a real holiday in Morocco should consist of.

We were not short on opinions. In fact on some things we were not compatible. We were the usual travel-agents nightmare of last minute decision takers. In the end, all four of us ended up on different airlines and stayed in different quarters of the city. Far from being an organisational headache it turned out to be the most brilliant solution for four strident individualists. There was absolutely no pressure to smile a greeting by the pool let alone talk over croissants. We slept, luxuriated in a totally silent breakfast, slept, read some and slept some more. Everyday we had just one plan, to meet at noon at the Café Argana on the edge of Marrakech's main square and then shop in the covered souk. On that one issue, we were as one. We shopped, and shopped but never dropped.

Carpets were not a big issue. I have two airing cupboards full of spare Moroccan rugs. Still I consider it unlucky not to pay a first call at Marrakech's magic market, the Rahba Kedima, to buy some raffia shopping bags from the veiled ladies who squat amongst piles of knitting in the centre. From there you duck under the draped awnings of killims that both advertise and mask the entrance to the Criée Berbere. The shops that line this cramped dark square (which used to serve as the old slave market) have as good a stock of traditional Berber and Arab rugs as any in the country. They are too small for the tourist groups so the prices can be reasonable - especially if you can name-drop some known textile-dealers over a glass of mint tea. I enjoyed watching my habitual stall keeper trying to mask his smile as husbands, called up on the mobile, were being made to measure the width of a London hall for runners woven by the Zemmour. On the back of these expected sales I hoped to add to my collection of shawls woven by the women of the High Atlas tribes.

I love the way shopper is talked into buying in his own language. I am a sucker for any dealer who can dismissively wave away 99% of his stock and starts conspiratorially whispering about "Museum quality" over the one piece that has caught your eye. We went back on a later day but the hallways kept changing size.

On the otherside of the magic market a small alleyway leads into the Souk Larzal, by day a picturesque auction yard for wool, which is turned into a packed display of secondhand kaftans just before dusk. You need a bit of Arabic to buy here, and though most of it is Oxfam quality, there are some stunning pieces of embroidery to be found. Inevitably most of the best bits get picked up by the handful of adjacent shopkeepers who can add three noughts to the local price - and get it. I haggled for days over a formal indigo blue outfit from Mali and a stupendously heavy gilt embroidered kaftan that would have looked big on a 7 foot drag queen. Alas, the latter never came within reach of my purse.

My friends shared my taste for fine needlework but not for the secondhand. Here we had to shop really hard. For though Marrakech boasts hundreds of brilliant, badly paid tailors, it is hard to find good quality clothe. We eventually settled in to visiting just two shops on a daily basis. We were all travellers enough to respect the one great law of communal shopping. She who spies first, bargains first. No-one else is allowed to allude to this item until you have finished your deal. There is a further sub-clause which establishes a mild form of copyright over the item, which your friends should not buy a version of (therefore reducing its exceptional one-off like quality) unless they beg you. I preferred the local atmosphere and prices at Heritiers Hmamsi on the corner of Rue Ksour and Souk Semmarine, though for its selection and Milanese-like aura of quality, the boutique Beldi run by the Baroudi brothers at the beginnning of Rue Mousassin at 9-11 Souk la Ksour (telephone 441076) won hands down.

Slippers were another great passion and one that could be fed on a twice-daily basis. By my count none of my friends left with less than a dozen pairs, though to camouflage their insatiable appetites I noticed they began to talk loosely about buying for the office, or for sisters, though I also noticed that these "others" all had identical sized feet. At first we bought the lavish gold embroidered velvet and brushed suede slippers that make the Souk des Babouchiers quarter on Rue Souk Semmarine such a bewitching, sparkling cavern. The first prices were high but as we moved towards wholesale quantities we concentrated our attention on a little known caravanserai, Foundok Chidmi, whose entranceway can be found halfway down the Rue des Ksours.

I cannot have enough of the iron workers of Souk el Haddadine. The mixture of oiley blue overalls, mud, rusty iron and the dark workshops lit by the glare of welding is better than any movie. The cacophony of hammer blows and the relentless energy of the workers makes my heart sore with thoughts of the industrial renaissance of the Arab world. On a more down to earth level, the two storey showroom of Abdelhakim Abou el Aibada, at the entrance to the souk from Rue Semmarine (tel 441282) has the best stock of iron lanterns. Rest assured that there are things here you can't even find at the Sunday morning flower market in Columbia Road. His prices are business-like and he can also organise shipment by Air Maroc. Abdelhakim was as good as his word, in fact slightly better, getting half a dozen enormous lanterns out to a garden in Little Venice in just a week.

Our other great foible was hunting down British metalware imported into Morocco at the turn of the century. You usually have to be Jewish, or at least a Mancunian, to take great delight in this. The lids of ancient copper kettles have to be inspected for the stamp of the Cohen brothers or the base of old teapots checked for the combined Arabic and English inscription of Richard Wright of Manchester. This is seriously obsessive stuff best pursued in the junk market courtyards found just behind the Café Argana. It is a delightful quirk in the history of design that the metal-masters of Manchester first invented the ubiquitous Moroccan teapot, now virtually a national symbol, by their free adaption of the ancient coffeepots of the Yemen and Andalucia.

On our last day an interior decorator took us off to have tea with Bridget Perkins. This wonderful woman has set up a weaving factory in a 17th-century fondouk whose rooftop looks over one of Marrakech's few surviving 14th-century Merenid mosques. Amongst cobwebs, old sugar sacks, carved plaster, cedar columns, the rattle of five looms and one spinning wheel illuminated by a bolt of sunlight, the most gorgeous silks were being woven. In her immaculate display room Bridget showered us with her extraordinary creations, each apparently a one-off. All were destined for a trade fair in the South of France and none could be sold. It seemed impossibly brash to inquire about prices, but we begged her to take our orders and she promised that if any more were woven we would be allowed to buy them. It was a class A shopping fix. We sank back, filled with a deep internal glow and sipped our mint tea.

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