Morocco – The Thursday Market

IF the idle visitor at Marrakesh, a little surfeited with its faded charm and its strange mediaevalism, wishes to plunge back for an evening into modern life, he has merely to go to the French suburb of Gueliz. Here a little more than a mile from the main gate of Marrakesh, he may find curious colonial types, interesting drinks, and American jazz music in an indiscreet and somewhat tawdry background. One may skip five hundred years by an easy transition in an archaic hack, driven by an ugly and venomous old Spaniard, whose ruby nose is a precious jewel in the flaming bonfire of his Bardolph face. The town is not a half dozen years old, but neatly planned, laid out in long avenues planted with eucalyptus and palms, among which stand little scattered houses of plain stucco, very white and clean.

We rattle on past unpretentious shops with a scanty display of European hats and boots and soap and finery, all very expensive and quite out of place in the middle of the desert, but of a wonderful fascination for the little Arab boys who peer at these windows of puzzling mysteries. And then there are windows with cheerful rows of bottles, a pleasing sight after interminable participation in tea and mint, with the abstemious Arabs. As the two or three cafés we pass are not very lively, I drive to the edge of town, dismiss my wicked driver after some discussion conducted with the aid of the more pregnant expletives in three languages and two religions, and walk off into the sunset.

The vast plain glows with light from a gorgeous crimson sky that fades upwards into delicate blendings of pale rose and warm green, in which, like a white, holy sanctuary lamp, hangs one great brilliant planet. The hill of Gueliz, behind which the flaming sun has just dropped, stands out black and sharp with its little square fortified kasba; and nearby are two tall silhouetted date palms, lonely and motionless, waiting for the evening wind from the sea. Far off across the plain slowly passes a caravan, a confusion of bobbing necks and twinkling legs, very black and clear-cut against the vivid crimson. The warm air is luminous with ruddy gleams and reflected splendours of a dream world drowned in warm colours and alive with fancies. From these glorious moods of the mysterious desert were born the wild super-realities of Arabian romance, the magic of which seems real in this sunset world.

Down the long road which turns suddenly from behind the little hill come three dark specks, three galloping horsemen, perhaps three kings from Cufa or princes from Ispahan. I am disappointed to find them merely chasseurs d’Afrique, very superior and smart in their brilliant red, yellow, and blue, the dignity of their dark features enhanced by huge brown turbans and neck cloths that flutter as they ride. I turn and follow the retreating horsemen back to the town, now glowing with rosy reflections from white houses among darkened green eucalyptus leaves. At the end of the long avenue that leads to Marrakesh the Koutoubia stands sunset-flushed above the dark palms, and overhead appear more stars in the deepened azure of the evening zenith.

I am still dazed by the sunset; the people in the cafés seem strangely unconscious of this daily miracle of the desert. I choose a café that sometimes has ice for the apératifs, and sit down among these colonials, who have brought over with them the French custom of spending their before dinner hour chatting on the pleasant terrace of a café. They are mostly types from the provinces, rougher in appearance and with much more energy than the folk one sees in the cafés of Tours or Toulouse; more men than women, as one might expect, and among the women a lack of smartness and chic. French officers are gaily chatting at little tables, groups of traders are playing cards over their whiskey and soda, and the proprietors of the neat little shops are enjoying their usual evening’s animated discussion of the shortcomings of the government. One apoplectic little barber is endangering his life through the intense emotion aroused in him by a speech of Lloyd George quoted in a Parisian paper seven days old. Strolling quietly past the café go two graceful young Arabs in clean white djellabas and turbans, holding each other by the hand and not speaking a word.

Presently, my friend Monsieur Louis Lapandéry drops into the café, greets a half dozen acquaintances, and sits down at my table. He is a big manly chap of about forty, with long black moustaches and deep eyes that look straight at you. He has spent ten years in the French colonies, hunting big game in Nigeria, prospecting in Senegal, and trading in Morocco. Last year he was five months alone in the northern slopes of the Atlas mapping the territory for the colonial government. He is of the energetic and adventurous type of colonist that has made the white race dominant in Asia and Africa. A stout royalist, he reads L’Action Franfaùse, and never refers to the present government without sharp irony and a contemptuous twirl of his moustaches.

“Look here, monsieur,” he said in a tone of hurt pride, pointing to an article in his beloved Action, “a French officer is given Le Légion d’Honneur for flying for twenty minutes over the mountain behind Fez, but I, a mere colonial sergeant, am sent to live five months among the wild mountain Berbers and receive not so much as a merci bien! for my work!” Monsieur Lapandéry’s opinions never go half way, and his decisions are quickly formed and resolute.

We talked for two hours in the warm twilight over many glasses of Vermouth, or perhaps I should say that he talked and I listened. Possibly it was because I am a good listener that he invited me to go along with him on an adventure he was just planning. He talked of the rich forbidden country of the Souss, south of the Great Atlas, a region where the Shelluh Berbers for centuries have maintained an independence only nominally under the Sultan’s control. No trading with Europeans has been permitted there since the Portuguese forced their way in in the fifteenth century. In modern times it has been visited by a half dozen travellers and by one or two trading expeditions that came to grief. In 1914, Mr. Holt, formerly American consul at Tangier, wrote of the country as the “Unknown Souss, a region less explored than the very heart of Africa. Since the French have extended the actual Protectorate to the foot of the Atlas, a few prospectors, disguised as Arabs, have ventured over the mountains, but the mysterious plain is still as shut out from the world as it was a hundred years ago.

Monsieur Lapandéry was going into the Souss with the idea of buying up as far as possible this season’s almond crop, or at least of making some trading connections among the Soussi before the French Protectorate formally occupied the region and opened it up to commerce. And there was always the chance of adventure ; there might be no almonds, but there was fascinating native life to see and there were sure to be difficult situations, stubborn, grasping chieftains, and probably bandits. Olives and almonds were nothing to me, but unexplored mountain trails and an unknown country from whose bourn few travellers had returned appealed strongly. I was a little tired of dreaming over palaces and mosques, and during these long afternoons when the thermometer stayed for hours at a hundred and twenty degrees in the shade, the snowy peak of Djebel Mskrin, gleaming through the haze fifty miles away, seemed like the vision of heaven to Dives. Nothing could be more alluring than the thought of a trip into those dream-like mountains. I at once accepted Monsieur Lapandéry’s invitation and we went to his house to dinner.

When we arrived about nine o’clock, his pretty Berber wife had ready a most excellent meal of duck, roasted native fashion with peppers and herbs in a covered earthen dish, and also a salad and a choice melon. Madame Lapandéry was very charming in her gay native costume and innumerable bangles and bracelets. She was Europeanized to the extent of eating with her husband and his friends, but she had the Moslem woman’s modest manner in the presence of the “superior” sex in whose life she is merely a graceful and ornamental recreation. Monsieur’s attempts to make a French woman of his wife were amusing. He blustered and stormed to get her to eat with an unaccustomed fork or to drink a glass of wine, and she quietly smiled and in her soft musical voice, declined, or perhaps, to please him she would take a tiny sip. And the more he bullied, the more she adored him!

His lovely little eight-year-old stepdaughter, Kbira, also ate with us. She was a full-blooded Berber child brought up in a village on the slopes of the Atlas until two years ago, when Monsieur Lapandéry began to train her in European manners. As he soon saw the quickness and adaptability with which she added little western courtesies to her innate oriental charm, the education of this fascinating child became the chief interest of his life. She has an instinctive fineness of manner and a winning childish way, and talks French like a little Parisienne. Her eyes sparkled gleefully over Monsieur Lapandéry’s jokes, and she accepted his blustering reproofs with roguish attempts to be serious.

The Lapandéry household was very numerous; in fact, it was a whole clan. The two-roomed cottage was only large enough for him, his wife, and Kbira and the three dogs, who quarrelled over the bones under the table; but the back yard was thickly populated with relatives. There was Si Lhassen, the silent patriarchal father-in-law, his incredibly old and wrinkled wife, a second rather pretty daughter, and the daughter’s shiftless young husband, who deserted her from time to time and came back when hunger drove him to fidelity and to his brother-in-law’s hospitality. Then there was Lhassen, the younger, a useless young oaf of four-teen, and an amusing brown baby that rolled around naked over the mats and was constantly smothered with noisy kisses by the three women. And finally there was Kino, the horse, and a mule or two. That is all the household I recall.

The plans for the trip were simple. We should merely buy two or three pack mules at next Thursday’s market, stock up with a few provisions, and try to get formal permission from the Bureau de Renseignments. If the Bureau, as was very probable, would not grant us permission, we should slip away without it. As old Si Lhassen was himself a Shelluh Berber from the Souss, he would be our guide and would doubtless be useful in helping us get on with his tribesmen among whom he was held in respect for his great age and for his experience as a far traveller. Little Kbira would go with us as the interpreter and diplomat of the party when we reached the mountains, where Arabic is no better understood than French. Si Lhassen did not know a word of any language but his native Shelluh dialect, except his five daily prayers in Arabic, which he repeated as so many mystic, incomprehensible sounds, and Monsieur Lapandéry was but imperfectly acquainted with Shelluh.

The fearful heat of July and August is, of course, a terrible handicap in exploring Morocco in the summer, but for a journey through the Atlas this is really the best time. In the winter, the snows make the higher mountain passes dangerous, and in the spring, floods make the rivers often unaffordable for weeks. And then the question of food for the animals is important. As the caïds sell all their surplus grain supply shortly after it is harvested, the peasant population have barely enough through the year for their own needs. We were undertaking our journey right in the middle of harvest time, when we could count on supplies along the way.

We discussed all the details of the trip until after midnight, over our coffee and wine, and arranged to meet at the Souk El Khemis early next Thursday morning to buy mules, panniers, and trappings. I hailed a sleepy hack jingling by toward the city, and drove down the moonlit avenues of mysterious shadows back to the hotel. The jazz music and noisy laughter from two or three French cafés jarred with crude incongruity, for I was dreaming of wild Atlas scenery and possible adventure in the strange, remote life of the unknown Souss.

The following Thursday morning, the day of the great market at Marrakesh, I was up with the sun and off for the Bab El Khemis, the extreme northern gate of the city, just outside of which the buyers and sellers of camels, horses, mules, asses, goats, and sheep meet and bargain on market days. Thursday morning is the time to see Marrakesh ; from dawn till hot noon the crooked maze of streets in the heart of the city is thronged with thousands of busy buyers from all central Morocco.

I cross the square of the Djemaa El Fnaa, and plunge into the labyrinth through which I eventually hope to emerge in the region of the Souk El Khemis. These streets are protected from the sun by flimsy roofs of poles, thatched meagrely with dried palm branches which permit the sun-light to stream through in checkered spots, and these sharp lights and shadows, broken by the innumerable faces and garments of the rapidly moving crowds, constantly give the effect of flickering cinema pictures from old scratched films. The throng is closely packed in the narrow ways and I can progress no faster than they wish to move. A camel driver, always shouting, “Bâlek! Balak!” prods two ungainly beasts along toward the market; and asses with panniers bulging with curious long cucumbers, vivid green squashes, and purple egg-plants, squeeze their way doggedly through the throng. Both sides of these streets are lined with thousands of little stalls where the proprietors squat in the midst of their wares, some of them busily plying their craft, others shouting for custom, and others quietly waiting for what business Allah may be pleased to send. The leather workers are surrounded with beautiful soft skins of bright yellow and crimson and green; their stalls are lined with rows of gay little slippers, exquisitely embroidered in gold thread, with cushions of leather carved in intricate designs, and with pouches made to hang from the wearer’s shoulder by long crimson cords. And down in the dirt before these shops, goat skins are spread out to be made soft and supple by the tread of a thousand passing feet. Here are wood-workers making little boxes and Moorish trunks covered with coloured paper, and embroiderers of silk caftans working in semi-darkness, and spinners of cotton surrounded by three or four naked children who hold big skeins of cord.

The grocers have their wares heaped up in baskets ranged in rows sloping up to the back of the stalls, where the shopkeepers sit lazily with their knees drawn up; and when a buyer comes they reach down with long-handled ladles and scoop up a measure of ripe olives, dates, tea, or dried pepafpers, and empty them into his leather pouch. Then there are stalls that display cauldrons of tar, grease, and liquid soap; and butchers’ shops hung about with very uninviting strings of viscera and gory sheeps’ heads with big corkscrew horns. Down one street are rows of blacksmiths shoeing nervous horses or ill-tempered mules with three legs carefully tied to pegs in the ground; and in the black interiors of these sheds the shooting white sparks from the pounded iron light up in flashes the strained faces of two or three wretched boys pumping at primitive bellows. And here and there in the gloom of the shops are lonely white faces of kief smokers, half awake to sad delusion, dumbly yearning for their forgotten dreams.

I stop for a moment to look into a cloth bazaar, a long lofty hall with merchants’ booths all around. They are hung with silk caftans of gorgeous colours and women’s girdles of native silk in crimafson and yellow. In one corner sits a perfume seller with his handful of strange shaped vials of precious exotic scents, attar of roses gathered in pashas’ gardens, amber, incense, and gums brought from beyond the Sahara. Through the crowd rushes’ an old clothes seller holding over his head a magenta and gold caftan, and shouting his price in a voice that can be heard above the hubbub and noise. In one corner a story-teller begins to recite, and bearded merchants drop their affairs and mingle with the listening circle of idlers. Among them are three or four closely veiled women evidently of the better class, who have come to buy finery, and in the front of the circle are several young Berber boys who are fascinated by the story-teller, though they can understand but little of his Arabic tale. He is reciting extracts from the famous epic of Antar, which for eight hundred years has been the delight of the Arabs from Bagdad to Spain. One may hear it today from the children of Cairo and Algiers. When he comes to the lyric passages the story-teller sings in a high chant. Here is a famous place, the complaint of Antar who has been cruelly separated from his beloved Ablla :

Rest has fled from my eyes and tears stream down my cheeks. Ablla has borne away with her all my happiness and my sleep.

My pain is as great as the time was short When I saw her heart shining in her eyes. Alas ! how these farewells lived over and over again, And these endless separations, Tear my very soul. O tribe of Beni-Abess, how I long for thy tents Where my eyes saw her smile, So soon to vanish ! What tears have I vainly shed for the exile of my beloved! To make me live and to die happy I only ask for one fleeting moment, Such as a miser might grant To the eye of a stranger admiring his treasure.

The story-teller ends his episode, collects a few coins from his pleased listeners, and moves off ; the merchants go back to their bargaining.

A little farther on is a marabout’s shrine, within which two or three women, muffled in white, are crouched before a tomb covered with a black pall. They are praying for children, for love, for revenge, for deliverance from all baleful spells of vexing d j inns ; and all around them sounds a complex ticking chorus of votive clocks. The supernatural is always closely interwoven in the texture of this oriental life; its presence is hinted everywhere, in phrases, in gestures, in talismans, and signs, in the very form of the hinges of the great studded doors you pass in the streets. Even while I reflect on this, I hear a low monotonous chant growing louder as it nears. Six thin-faced pilgrims in rusty black garments and dirty turbans come swinging along, staff in hand, chanting a strange song. They have come on foot from some far northern town, across the burning Bled to pray in Marrakesh at her hundred shrines. They seem very happy, and, I fancy, it is not only with the peace of mystic promises in their hearts, but also with the joy of romantic wanderers whom the lure of otherwhere leads on, and the delight of seeing distant cities and strange lands.

And I, joyful as the pilgrims, go on along the winding streets, peering into barbers’ shops, busy grain markets, inn-courtyards full of loaded camels making hideous noises; and then at a turn in the street I come upon a great fountain. It is divided into three arched bays of carved and painted plaster in subtle designs faded and old, and over an arch is written, “Drink and admire!” Groups of veiled women, with round earthenware jugs balanced on their shoulders, stand gossiping by the dark pools, and ragged water-carriers are filling hairy goat-skin bottles, and half a dozen boys are splashing one another and laughing.

This is very charming to look at, but I realise that I have lost my way. I persuade a funny little urchin to take his feet out of the fountain and guide me to the Souk El Khemis. He trots on ahead, and with him go four more little imps in case he should lose his way. In about a half hour I and my tattered retinue reach the northern gate beyond which the market is already assembling.

The red-brown, sun-steeped walls, crumbling and old, shut the city in, and leave a desolate waste without. A few wretched palms grow sparsely at the edge of a dry gully half filled with refuse. Four ghastly beggars, all blind, squat on a mound near the gate. They are a holy confraternity. Their leader, gaunt, long-haired, majestic in his rags, has about him something of the nobility of Job sitting on the ash-heap outside the city of Uz. His seared, sightless face is lifted above the world, and his hollow voice, calling on sacred names, vibrates in the ear like a prophetic warning. His followers sit motionless and dumb, with the supreme resignation of Islam. Over the whole place and over the plain beyond rises a reddish dust from the feet of the moving crowd and the hoofs of a thousand animals. And through this haze, over the city to the far south, looms, dim and half seen, the jagged line of the great Atlas.

In the shade of a huge sycamore beside a muddy little stream, a group of natives are sipping coffee, Here Monsieur Lapandéry is waiting for me. We stand a while and watch the drovers herd hundreds of black goats and thick-fleeced sheep in one part of the market space. Toward another quarter, near the old walls, the traders with asses to sell, drive their patient and sometimes ridiculously stubborn little beasts. From two directions, off across the brown plain, come two very large herds of camels at an ungainly, clumsy trot. They meet in the centre of the market in an awkward confusion of legs and necks, with much beating and angry shouting on the part of the drivers. And in and out of the groups of animals and bargainers ride little knots of Arab horsemen showing off their fine steeds.

They all draw off toward one point, and the crowd divides and leaves a broad lane for these splendidly picturesque cavaliers to pass through, one after another. Down the long lane they charge at top gallop, hands and reins held high over their heads, riding whips stuck in their teeth, shouting wild Bedouin cries. One by one these magnificent children of the desert rush by like meteors, and I catch a fierce glance, a flash of white eye-balls and gleaming teeth; and their long striped burnouses stream and flutter in the wind, and the pounding hoof beats re-echo over the plain. Now a group of riders engage in a loud dispute, and their horses, feeling the excitement, nervously toss their heads and caracole restlessly. To decide the point, two prepare for a race, and draw apart with a third as starter. One Arab rides a finely built iron grey, marked with an enormous ugly brand; the other has a superb white mare that walks as though she loathed touching the ground. At a shout, they start and rush gloriously down toward the goal, yelling barbarically, their faces in a wild fury fitting to a Moslem host charging the infidel. The white mare comes in ahead and the dispute is settled.

Monsieur Lapandéry and I go over to a busy crowd buying and selling mules. We engage the services of a broker to help us select and to do the bargaining for us. Mahommed assures us that he knows this morning’s market thoroughly and that he is a rare bargainer. One glance at his villainous eye, for he has but one, is enough to convince me of the truth of his last statement. Mule after mule comes by, pushed or tugged or otherwise persuaded ; some smart and young but with evil in their hearts, others declining sadly in the vale of years, but most are already in the sere and yellow leaf, and time has dealt ill with them. The owner of each shouts out his price, and occasionally a buyer offers two-thirds of this; then follows a tor-rent of praises, of disparagements, of haggling, until at length a bargain may be struck.

“It is a pearl among mules and can keep pace all day with a horse and eat less than doth a fly!”

“Belike, belike, but he seems to me to go haltingly in his hind legs.”

“No, by Allah! O Prince of Merchants, do but try him.”

So the Prince of Merchants attempts to leap astride the big pack-saddle, but is promptly kicked in the stomach. The bystanders roar and the bargain is off. Another ragged old trader is exclaiming,

“The price is not a tithe of his value, but I am a poor man and Allah has visited me with misfortune and I lack money.”

“But a hundred and thirty douros is a very great price to pay for a mere carcass.” And so they wrangle.

Meanwhile, Monsieur Lapandéry with the aid of Mahommed the broker has bought two pack mules, and the money is paid and the sale duly recorded by the scribe sitting under the sycamore tree. Then after much search among the animals for sale, one is found for me to ride. She is a beautiful creature, verily a pearl among mules; her eyes are deep as the wells of Bou Aza; her mouse-coloured flanks are soft as silk woven by the girls of Fez; and her velvet ears are long and pointed like the leaves of the rose-laurels that bloom in the valleys! As for her disposition, I have owned her five minutes and she has neither bitten nor kicked; so I have named her Aziza, which among the Shelluh Berbers means “ma chérie.” I also buy a crimson saddle such as a pasha may ride, with elegant trap-pings and stirrups inlaid with silver, worthy of the beautiful and, I hope, gentle Aziza. I am very eager to mount my prize and ride grandly away with her, but prudence suggests it were better to wait till there are not so many spectators.