As we shoved through the narrow alleys that make up the medina of Marrakech, everything was for sale—lamps, shoes, knives, spices, picture frames made of tires, yes. But most of all, spices. Shopkeepers had eight-foot tall mounds of spices outside their shops. The height made me doubt the veracity of the mounds. I imagined a large cardboard cone underneath the colored powders. I had a strong urge to karate chop one to find out. I wanted to either a.) spread a colored cloud throughout the market or b.) knock one cardboard cone into another for a domino effect and spread a many-colored cloud. My strict self-control held out in the end, as it always does, and chaos did not ensue.
Every vendor wanted to know, “You know what is this?” I would say, “No, thank you,” trying to be polite the way my parents taught me, but knowing full well that I was answering the question nonsensically. (My answer to “How’s it going?” is invariably, “Not much.”) I would turn my head quickly, as if I had tried to make eye contact, but the shopkeeper had failed to meet me halfway. I’ve found that eye contact leads to talking, conversation to looking, and looking to buying. And buying was not what I wanted, because I am a miser.
After a day and a half of getting by without it, though, I finally made eye contact. I think the merchant who broke me knew my type. I tried to keep walking, but knowing I was caught, he smiled, his mustache like a thatched roof above his mouth. “Come in, come in. Look!” He waved us in to the space around his store, shelves loaded with jars stuffed with strong smelling powders, crystals, and woods. I had acquiesced. And why? He met my eyes and seemed nice. I could not refuse what looked to me like goodwill. Of every jar, he said, “You know what is this?” He told us the bark was sandalwood. “You know what is this?” I took a guess: sugar? The giant clear crystal wasn’t sugar, but alum, used for shaving cuts. “You know Jesus?” The amber droplets of resin were frankincense.
After our lesson, he gave us presents: the women in the group got lipstick; the men got pumice stones. Asking nothing in return, it seemed like an unreliable business plan. Although perhaps he knew my guilt better than I did—I would have to buy something. I sought the cheapest thing in the shop and found sandalwood at four-dirham per gram.
Grams, the once-abstract concept from long-faded math classes, had now become very real. The bark weighed sixty grams. With an exchange rate of eight dirhams to a dollar, I walked away with thirty bucks worth of sandalwood.
My friends and I were on a four-day tour from Marrakech to Fes via the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara. In the past, touring had made me uncomfortable. Am I invading? Does my camera automatically make me obnoxious? And this tour did not pretend to be something it wasn’t. We floated through Morocco as if we were watching television—everything was clean and sterilized, every restaurant we visited had been tried out on hundreds of tourists before us, every site had been chosen for its photogenics. We were not off the beaten path.
But everyone was friendly. We never got lost. The food agreed with our stomachs, and, it seemed to us authentic enough. If we knew that maybe it wasn’t authentic, we didn’t preoccupy ourselves. We allowed ourselves this minor breach. And, Abdul was a wonderful guide—he knew everyone, and the warm introductions he made for us wherever we went helped us feel like a part of Morocco.
Our third night, we arrived in Toudra Gorge. Abdul dropped us off so we could walk across the bottom of the 1,000-foot rift. We walked until we’d shaken the car trip out of our legs and then we made our way to our guest house. We settled in our rooms and drank on the balcony, watching goats march up and down the desert hills. Their shadows, stretched in the sun, made the hill look like a set of golden venetian blinds, opening and closing sporadically.
The next day we toured a Berber rug cooperative. Our guide here, Razouk, was a man of about forty, with a turban that I admired. A turban is just a long cloth wrapped around the head, but no matter how many times I tried to wrap one for myself, I always had to have a Moroccan help. But Razouk, man, he had a nice sausage of cloth, protecting his brow from the sun. It was glamorous. Even when someone else did mine I looked like some sort of sad, dyed mummy walking to houses on Halloween.
He led us from the hotel, past the river made greener by the shades of brown—the hills, the houses—that surround it, to the valley floor. We walked through the fields. Townswomen were tending the crops. The women wore hijabs and work trousers. Each plot served a single family. Every field was vegetable green, with a fleck or two of bright red—poppies mixed in to aid pollination. We walked on single-file tracks along the dirt ridges.
Eventually we crossed a ten-foot-wide creek. Women were washing the laundry in the water, the chore that came after farming. On the other side of the creek, the single-file track through the greenery gave way to narrow alleys between the buildings, and at last, we reached our destination. We climbed into Razouk’s home and showroom, where we sat down.
I sat barefoot against the wall on a Berber carpet, watching the sun push dust through the air, as comfortable as a fly in a warm silk cocoon. Across the room, two women prepared wool next to a loom that took up an entire wall. Our presence barely seemed to register. I had the feeling they’d had this experience before. Razouk had left us alone. We exchanged polite smiles with the women, and then they continued to ignore us. One teased the wool with two harsh-looking flat metal brushes. The process, I would learn after getting home at the end of the trip, is called carding. The other was handspinning white wool into yarn.
Razouk returned with mint tea, a gesture of hospitality. We sipped shyly and sought cues for how to comport ourselves. Razouk described his family’s operation. He explained how his family was helping the area nomads by purchasing their wool. He described a small-scale economy of pragmatic yet familial interdependence, one rife with lessons about how cooperation prevailed over the free market. The women teased and spun the wool while Razouk talked. We sipped tea politely. When we were finished, he took our mugs and asked if we wished to see the rugs. Of course we did. Gone was my defensive posturing from my walk through the spice market. I had become complicit with Razouk’s salesmanship when I became complicit with the comfort and convenience of this tour through TV Morocco.
Razouk unfurled his family’s work. He showed us the symbols and what they meant. He showed us the different yarns and how they were dyed. Saffron is used to make yellow, and saffron is expensive, so yellow rugs cost more. Layers upon layers of color built up on the floor as Razouk explained the techniques of Berber weaving. My defensive posturing had evaporated, but still, the pressure to buy something arose inside me. But this wasn’t such a charged pressure. I didn’t feel as if I’d been marked and beaten by cagey spice salesmen. With Razouk, it was more of a joint venture, and he bundled my rug and wrapped it in a roll of clear-plastic, 3M packing tape so that the carpet could fit inside my carry-on.
We walked outside, Abdul picked us up, and we headed off towards the Sahara. He asked if we were hungry, and called ahead to place an order for a Berber pizza. The clouds grew dark around us and we arrived at the pizza place, where a husky guy with an indigo turban, Babou, was waiting for us. His warehouse was full of everything. There were Zippo lighters, ancient lock-and-key sets, knives, lengths of cloth for turbans, and piles and piles of rugs.
Babou tore a few rugs down and spread them across the floor. We sat to eat our Berber pizza. We talked to Babou. He talked about his past caravans through the desert, his former home in Mali, and the stoicism of the Tuareg people.
When we were finished with our pizza, he asked if we would look at his rugs. Again, I felt as if we should at least take a look. He laid the rugs out. He asked us to point at the ones we liked. But now, after buying one expensive rug already, my miserliness had gathered conviction. It won, at least this time, its constant battle with my guilt—I issued a firm no. Babou remained polite, but his smile dimmed. He left his rugs to be folded by his lackey and quickly disappeared with a wave I didn’t realize was goodbye. Abdul led us out to the car, and we drove into a sandstorm, and on into the Sahara.
Bick McSwiney is a teacher in Nigeria.