Marrakesh: A Character Study

“Do you know why you are so sexy?” Nourrdem asked as he twisted a two-toned scarf around my head. I quivered a little bit, but couldn’t hold in my giggles when he said, “Is the hair on your arms. It makes you to be seeeeexy!”
We were in his shop (or his cousin’s, or someone’s) at the edge of the souk by way of an invitation to mint tea. At first hesitant, I remembered a high school’s friend’s insistence that Moroccan people are friendly by nature, and that we probably weren’t risking kidnapping, robbery or the like.
We sat on pillows on the floor, next to a spread of metal and silver jewelry. Nourrdem´s cousin or friend or slave brought over an ornate silver tea kettle and six glasses and got to work preparing mint tea as Nourrdem shared his origins: Berber and Tourag, which you could tell from his ever-present blue scarf, which he changed from head to neck and back as much as he opened his mouth to talk. While we enjoyed tea, he painted my face with kol and gave us flower nicknames.

Nourrdem got us into his shop by the way that most shopkeepers in the souks of Marrakesh do: calling out ridiculous words that will entice you in. Lauren, with her dark complexion and jet-black hair, was called beautiful in Portuguese, fish and chips was common, an invitation in French for Bri and “Cuantos Camellos, María José?” for me. I don’t look Spanish in the least, but it made me laugh. There were also choruses of “Goodbye, fat girl! You’re ugly!” when we passed yet another lantern or mirror shop.

But his invitation was not denied, and the four of us enjoyed tea for an hour before dinner. Before leaving, Nourrdem invited us for lunch on the rooftop of the store the following day. “Come between 12 p.m. and 2:30. I will wait, then we eat, then we all pay the cost.”

We obliged his invitation after visiting the gardens of a mosque and, after picking up a sick Lauren, ascended the rooftop, where the blankets were spread on a stark terrace. The view of the souks were a bit alarming: what we though were indoor malls were actually streets covered with wood planks and bamboo that looked ready to cave in with any sign out precipitation or heavy wind.
The slave, whose name was also Nourrdem, ran up and down the stairs bringing us bottles of water, two salads, vegetable couscous and a tanjine of rabbit meat, potatoes, lemon rinds, onions and olives. We ate using round, flat pieces of bread for silverware and using our scarves to heal ourselves from the sun.
Nourrdem was more than willing to answer the questions we had about Morocco and Islam. Among the most interesting answer was, “I have been engaged three times to four different women, and if you’re wondering, I can have as many as four wives by law.” I think each one of us girls took a scoot back from the spread.

I also asked him about taking pictures of people and why every time I reached for my camera, the people in souks or in the markets started to shake their fingers at me. He told us about the time a man was sneakily taking pictures of him. “I don’t mind,” he said, “but just ask! I work with tourists everyday, is ok!

Man, Lucia told me that it was because they believe you’re stealing their soul through some voodoo-Lecia lens magic. That actually became a running joke on the trip.

Following lunch, we had more tea, the glasses loaded with mint leaves. The next time we encountered them would be at the tanneries a short time later, when they were stuffed up our noses to protect us from the rank smell of animals skins being defluffed and dyed.
King Muss
In almost everyone’s pictures of Morocco, food is more prominently immortalized than Mudejar arches or street souks. I take tons of pictures of food, even in my base of Sevilla, just because the presentation, texture and even the taste can be felt through the photo.
I took pictures of honey sweets, fluffy couscous and the 20 dirham snail stalls in the main square, Djeema al-F’na, or Assembly of the dead. By day, the large expanse is interspersed with carts peddling fresh orange juice, squat, leathery fortune tellers in headscarves, snake charmers and eve monkeys on leashes wearing what resembled track suits. But by night, it becomes a large, open-air market, with foldable stands and endless options.
The man who sold Lauren her spice rack thingy to contain the 15 euros she bought in spices suggested we look for stand 120-something. The numbers start at the lower right hand corner when you face the souk. Easy to find the 120-something stall, right? Wrong. Not only were the numbers out of order, but eager, seven-languages-speaking young dudes, menu in hand, grab at you to try and lure you into the eatery with a surprisingly varied vocabulary. “Wassup, homie, you like some food? Couscous? Kebab? It’s finger-lickin’ good!” Yes, the city’s KFC is right across from the square.
The food options were more of less the same – salads, rices, round wheels of bread, tanjines of whatever you could think of and skewers of meat. Some stalls were packed to the brim, with patrons dining on white plastic sheets draped over the picnic tables, while others lifeless. Sam pointed out where he and Brad had eaten – no one in sight. So onward we pressed.
And stall 120-something? With salivating mouths, we came upon…a large jumble of motorbikes and hand carts in the middle of two lit ones. One peddled lentils, a garbanzo-based stew and something that looked and smelled like a dead goat.
Faced with no other options, we found the most crowded stall in the vicinity to eat at (they say the uninhabited ones have bad food and exorbitant prices). Number 75. We were welcomed by a young boy who was quite confused by his age. 24? 19? It wasn’t until we inspected his ID card, which looked like a library card that had gone through the wash, that we discovered his birthday was the same week as mine, one year later, making him 23.

The six of us straddled a thin table right in front of the display of food. A piece of bread was delivered to each, along with two saucers of spicy tomato sauces. Next came beef skewers, lamb couscous so tender it hung off the bones, a sweet cinnamon and chicken pastry, tomatoes, a tomato-y soup made with beans and long grain rice that cost 50 cents, vegetable couscous and a liter of water. We paid 200 dirhams, less than five euros between the four of us girls. And we ate to the gills.
While the waiters hovered over us, trying to sell more food, and beggar children tried selling us tissues and puffy almond cookies, we enjoyed our new friend, whose slacked curls glowed from the spit next to the table and the harsh bulb light, told us how he learned English in the plaza and shocked us with his recounting of English phrases. He became my brother from another mother. We called him King Muss, from his given name of Mustafa.
The following night, following pancakes from the street doused in honey, lunch with Nourrdem and a lot of walking around, I tried sautéed snails while the other sought a place for dinner. Stall number 1, at the very edge, got us. Not only was it more expensive, the food was shit. I mean, it could have literally been shit. The benches were lopsided, the waiters rude (and sneaky! We were over charged about 50 dirham, not including the  bread they charged us for!) and the whole experience negative.
We went to an old favorite. Some soup, pastilles and even more bread later, we found ourselves once again with King Muss. He had found a funny Dutch girl to help him sell to tourists, who donned his white cap and white apron. We told him about our nasty food and he offered us free tea. He even offered to get me the garbazo soup from another stand, telling me that they all share profits, and he was just working for fun anyway. We promised to come back for our last meal together in Morocco, and we did.
We were all King Muss that last night – touting their low prices and tasty offerings to the other guests in the hostel, people on the street, and even the beggar kids who we snuck small samples of leftover food to. We lingered after finishing our meal, even though we were all exhausted from the day’s excursion.
“You are my sister from another mister, honey,” Muss told me. “Gimme five, homie!”
Nourrdem, you remember, with all the cousins and slaves and friends from everywhere in the world, called up his taxi-driving friend. “Yes, tomorrow at nine, meet me at the shop. We will take you to meet the Berbers.”
So, we showed up, Spanish-style, at a few minutes past the appointed hour. Out in the main square, we hugged close to the newspaper stand while Nourrdem, who has replaced the celestial blue scarf that Brad bought off of him the day before, nervously smoked cigarettes and gabbed on his cell phone.
Finally, a taxi came for us. The driver, Nourrdem and Sam sat up front with the four of us squished in back. Outside of the city limits, the towns are sparse, the vegetation even more sparse, and the people out working. The men, that is.
At the foothills, next to a stream, we stopped for a tea, which Nourrdem poured in and out of the tea kettle before serving it. The place had no doors or windows, just a roof and an army of tanjines cooking next to the bar. A group of Moroccans from the north played tambourines and Sam went to go ride one of the half-dozen camels near the stream. We were soon on the road again, passing into the hills and valleys, breezing past small towns and Richard Branson’s Moroccan retreat.
When we pulled into the small town of Imlil, I thought we’d reached our destination. It looked like a base camp in the Himalayas – ruddy-cheeked inhabitants, bright colored flags in different covers. After enjoying the view from the terrace of Nourrdem’s OTHER cousin’s restaurant, we were informed that we still had a 10-minute uphill trek to make with Sam’s blisters and Lauren’s bum foot.
Bri and I followed Nourrdem closely, taking pictures of the towns nestled into the mountains and the searing snow-covered peaks of the Atlas. Midway up, Nourrdem stopped a group of four men with mules and negotiated a deal with them. “70 dirhmas (7E, $5) for one hour!” Sold.
One of the men shouted across the valley to the closest town, and within a few minutes, a brand new mule was pulling up in front of us. I got ontop of Assergut, an older, dirty white one with kind eyes. Kinda like an old dog. She treated me well, though, minus the one incident where she nearly took me down the cliff while my feet were securely fastened into her stirrups, which was a blanket with some interesting pockets anyway.
The man leading Assergut was missing a few teeth, but therefore had a perfect Andalu accent when he spoke. He told me that the cluster of towns across the valley had a cumulative sum of 500 people. Assergut shook her head and twitched. Yeah, small towns do that to you.
After an hour zig-zagging up the cumin-colored hill surround on both sides by white-capped peaks, the five men leading the mules took us into the first town. The mules waded through a small stream, goats scurrying out of their paths as they ascended the vertical path. There were ruddy-looking children playing with sticks in the narrow streets next to mud houses. The mosque rang out for midday prayer as we dismounted the mules and went to the home of my mule-handler.
“Now to eat!” said Nourrdem. “What do you want? He make everything!” We settled on a goat meat omelette with onions and peppers with salad, wine and a lot of bread. Following tea, we sat on the balcony overlooking the valley. I could see Assergut and her friends grazing below.
We took the scenic route down – through other poor Berber villages where the blue-eyed children saluted us in French. Il-y-a des bonbons? They all asked. Jenna’s half pack of gum resulted in chaos for the dozen or so children who crowded around her and nearly pushed her off the edge of the cliff. The climb down took about an hour, winding through three or four more villages on often slippery terrain.
At the bottom we all agreed, the mules were a better option.
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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


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