Previously in Atlantic Abroad:
Going to Meet Aleksandrovsky (Tom Haines, Ukraine, August 31, 2000).
Snowed-in in Shangri-La (Mike Meyer, China, August 2, 2000).
India's Road Cool (Mike Youngblood, India, July 7, 2000).
Manhood and Bureaucracy in Ozyory (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, June 1, 2000).
Soccer in the City (Erik Barmack, Italy, May 10, 2000).
This Goat Goes to Market (Joshua Kurlantzick, Oman, March 29, 2000).
Monsoon Time (Rahul Goswami, Dubai, March 1, 2000).
Rank Strangers (Jeff Biggers, Italy, February 9, 2000).
Midnight Express (Akash Kapur, Romania, January 5, 2000).
The Price of Devotion (Jeffrey Tayler, India, December 22, 1999).
Israeli Forms of Identity (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, December 1, 1999).
New Year's and Nothingness (William Tyree, Indonesia, October 27, 1999).
For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad index.
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October 4, 2000
"Psss!" the men hissed conspiratorially, or, "Excuse me! Excuse me!" and "Come see. Only today!"
I threaded my way through alleys clogged with hundreds of tiny markets. Canvas tents like those of Berber nomads shielded them from the sun. At night the souks spilled from the alleys to engulf the Djemaa El Fna and turn the square into the Marrakech Night Market. Most of the hundreds of merchants ignored me as I ignored them, but a few were persistent. "Free today," one man shouted. "Only for American!" When I didn't make eye contact he tried again. "Free today, only for English!" A pause, then a hopeful, "French?"
I laughed in spite of myself, and the emboldened shop owner abandoned his tent to follow me. "Come, my friend, come. Is only today. Only today, my friend."
At last I found what I was looking for, the little tent selling cheap knock-offs of Nike and Adidas apparel. I travel light, and two days earlier in Tangier, I'd washed some of my few clothes only to discover a residue of bleach in the sink that left streaks. The clothing-shop owner was delighted to see me, although he spoke no English or French, and my Arabic was limited to courtesy phrases. So we crouched down and communicated by scratching numbers in the dirt. He started high and rubbed the fabric between his fingers for emphasis, as if showing me the finest imported silk instead of a cotton polo shirt made less than a hundred feet away. I shook my head and scribbled a lower number. After several more exchanges we reached an impasse, settled only when I shrugged and climbed to my feet to leave. Muttering a few words, he grudgingly agreed to my lower price. "Only today," I imagined him saying. "If it was not today, I would not sell so low, my friend."
I wandered further into the souks. Every twenty feet the smells changed, from baking bread to hot sewage, to spices. I found the scent of the spices irresistible and entered a veritable apothecary shop with baskets and bins holding roots and powders and wispy bits of bark. The smells were familiar, but so far removed from the sterile jars of spices I might buy at the supermarket back home that I had no idea what I was looking at.
The owner gave me a lecture about the medicinal properties of his spices. This one would cure a dry scalp, and this one would make me irresistible to women. And, of course, they would contribute to my cooking. He smeared a black powder onto one stained thumb and shoved it up my nose. It burned a hole through my sinuses and left my head tingly.
"Now you can breathe!" the man exulted. He continued with his demonstration.
But what to buy? The little packet of dried roots might flavor my stew or it might get me arrested in Tangier and thrown into a concrete cell where I would waste away while my beard grew to the floor and my family's urgent letters to the American consulate went unanswered. Reluctantly, I left empty-handed.
You can buy any goods or services for a small price and a hassle in Marrakech. Toothache? See the street dentist with pliers and chisel and rows of neatly stacked molars. Twenty dirhams for you, my American friend, and I pull your tooth. Rent a camel? Yes, only today for fifty dirhams.
The whole country existed only for today, it seemed. Was none of this here yesterday? When I left Tangier on the night train, I imagined all of Morocco racing over the desert on camels and old U.S. Army Jeeps to stay just ahead of me. They would build Marrakech while I slept, a red city of baked clay, slung low and tent-like at the foot of the Atlas Mountains, build its minarets and souks, its history and its culture.
Or did Marrakech simply spring forth like Athena from the brow of Zeus, fully formed? Yesterday nothing, tomorrow nothing, but today the fabulous Berber city where the ghosts of dead sultans haunt the Saadian Tombs.
I passed a troupe of snake charmers who begged me to take their picture. The cobras at their feet and the vipers around their necks looked tired and old. The shelf life of these creatures stolen from the desert was not long. They spoiled easily.
"Come and see my beautiful carpets," a voice said. It was cultured, the accent polished. I turned to see a man in an expensive Western suit. His shop was air-conditioned, two stories with several well-dressed and polite staff. There were carpets and brass lamps, silver platters and finely cut crystal. The items had tags, I noticed with surprise, marked with permanent prices.
"Do you see anything you like, sir?" The owner watched me as I browsed, his staff hovering helpfully behind his shoulder. He gestured at everything in the store in a single, wide sweep of the arms. "All of this will only be here today."
But by now I was suspicious. This shop felt so solid, so calculatingly Western in its grasp for my money that I had a hard time believing it would not exist tomorrow. What would they do with all of this? It was too much to cart off to the next city I would visit.
"No, thank you," I said, violating the cardinal rule of speaking to touts and hagglers. That is, don't. Just keep your mouth shut and keep walking, unless you are already interested.
But this man either did not know the rules or chose to ignore them as well. He gave a little nod and saw me to the door, which, improbably, jingled. "Enjoy your stay in Morocco."
I stepped into the street, blinking at the sun that was so much brighter than the artificial light inside the store. "Hello!" a delighted voice cried. A man sat on a motorcycle that looked cobbled together from several different machines. Behind him was a wagon of sorts, with bits of wilted cabbage stuck to the bottom. "I give you ride anywhere in city for twenty dirhams. No, fifteen for you, my friend. Only today!"
Ah yes, this was the real Morocco. I climbed into the wagon and we sped away with a puff of smoke and a whine from the overworked engine.
Michael Carr has written for Transitions Abroad and Military History Magazine.
All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.