Common Ground in the Kasbah


Common Ground in the Kasbah
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

An attempt to buy a funny political souvenir in the medina of Marrakesh results in a heap of cross-cultural animosity.

Morocco travel

My first reaction at seeing the train was one of those nervous, split second laughs that come from deep inside of their own volition. It stopped the conversation of four vendors who were sharing a morning's cup of tea from a communal samovar. When I picked the item up with a polite smile to infer that I wanted to buy it, their eyes turned as one, fixing me with a stare of utter contempt; a stare so vicious it carried as much physical weight as a slap. They were hard men, men of the desert used to settling disputes at the point of a knife and whose faces carried scars that spoke to that fact.

The smallest of the four men, his head wrapped in a dirty kufiya, with that perpetual look of always needing a shave, stepped forward to snatch the package from my hands, spitting out an Arabic invective along with his saliva. He was livid, glaring so intensely I could taste the hatred. I had unknowingly crossed a line.

Marrakesh is the heart of Morocco, but the medina—its center—is an Arabic word that simply means "town," and it is the soul that beats the heart.

snake charmer

Marrakesh is a Berber word that translates roughly to "Land of God." It was founded by the Almoravid dynasty in 1072 and was so powerful a city that until the 20th century all of Morocco was known as the Kingdom of Marrakesh. The Jamaa El Fna Square , in the medina, is a churning cauldron of humanity that only stops long enough each night to catch its breath for the next day.

The corner table on the patio of the Argana café in the Marrakesh medina was a perfect place to watch the busiest public square in Africa come to life under a blinding sunrise. Merchants and vendors flow in like a slowly creeping tide; umbrellas and awnings sprouting like mushrooms and all appearing like spirits through the blinding light. Snake charmers, rock stars of the square, claim their ground with cheap carpets on which they deposit numerous rubber reptiles to give volume to the handful of living ones they actually possess. Next, they bring out puff adders with lips sewn shut, fierce looking but now benign, followed by cobras so tranquilized they cannot strike, while good ol' American style de-fanged rattlesnakes round out the menagerie.

The presence of such exotic and normally lethal creatures always draws a paying crowd. More than any other attraction it is the snake handlers in their pointy yellow shoes, playing their flutes, while a supposedly mesmerized cobra sways to its melody, that defines the medina in my mind.

snake charmer

Leashed monkeys are trained to take money (and occasionally cameras) from tourists, while red-suited water vendors in their bright red hats hung with multi-colored dingle balls, costumes unchanged in centuries, offer brass cups of water, a tradition left from ancient caravan days. Jugglers and fire breathers supply diversions for the pickpockets whose nimble fingers daily relieve distracted tourists of their wallets. Galibayas (long traditional robe) and kufiyas (flowing checkered cloth held in place by a black forehead band) outnumber baseball hats and sunglasses here.

As I sip my chocolate coffee I notice a woman with henna dyed hands looking my way through the slit of her burka, her stylish high heeled shoes clicking on the ancient ground while she sips a fruit smoothie through a straw under her veil. For the men, especially the elderly, beards long and flowing as their robes are the order of the day.

By mid-morning it is a nonstop, no rules sea of humanity, where anything can be had if you know the right person and a few extra dirham might bring forth a hidden treasure from under a vendor table. If you don't have a connection, money takes its place. It is the romance of the Kasbah meets Barnum & Bailey; where Alice's rabbit hole has come to life. People watching in Marrakesh makes Times Square seem lifeless.

In the afternoons I would take a wide, meandering stroll through the maze of vendor's stalls. I followed my nose to burlap sacks full of saffron and Turmeric offered by toothless old women smoking hand rolled cigarettes and avoided eye contact with the young boys decked out in hennaed eyes that suggested unthinkable acts.

If you can dream it you can buy it in the medina, and so, it was in this cornucopia of the bizarre that I spotted the train.


Cultural Warfare in a Toy

It was an ingenious little toy. A white turbaned Osama Bin Laden sat on a skateboard on a circular red and blue plastic track no larger than a hand towel. Behind him, George W. Bush, clad in military fatigues and sitting astride a double barreled gun pursued him in an armored vehicle straight out of a Mad Max movie. Both figures were about an inch tall. George's "tank" held a single AA battery that drives the tank and a magnet on each vehicle repels the other as Bush chases Bin Laden in a never ending circle; the epitome of tourist kitsch imitating life. It was so tackily cool, so current, so..... MARAKESH! As soon as I saw it I knew I had to have it.

When the vendor snatched it from my hand though, his message was clear; no infidel was going to buy his plastic Bin Laden.

With a polite nod I turned to walk away but the little man came after me, waving his arms and announcing my evil deed to all within earshot. My momentary lapse of cultural sensitivity began to snowball. The bottom line was that I had done nothing intentionally wrong. I was simply a westerner and the toy train raised a touchy subject at that time and place; still, I should have tread more lightly.

The little man continued to follow me, yelling and gesturing like an Italian traffic cop, and he was beginning to attract a crowd. I picked up my pace, hoping to lose him in the general crush of people. I passed several other toy trains for sale but did not stop for any of them. It was time to get out of Dodge.

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