In the Souk

Although European Gibraltar and Moroccan Tangier are a mere eight kilometres and a short ferry ride apart, Islamic culture, albeit tempered by centuries of French rule, still comes as a culture shock to first-time visitors from North America. Our rotund and flamboyant guide Samir, fluent in three languages, and resplendent in dark sunglasses, white fez, and long, flowing robe, kept up his amusing tourist patter as the bus nosed its way towards the souk, first providing us with a panoramic view of Tangier sparkling in the sun from a high ridge on which perched the palatial summer homes of King Mohamed VI and the Emir of Kuwait, before plunging into the city traffic below. Hejab-clad mothers, two abreast, their backs to us, pushed strollers along the road itself, occasionally dodging cars and trucks pulling away from the curb. A woman in a black niqab like a bandit begged from drivers stopped at traffic lights. Most women wore headscarves, but some, clearly influenced by Western dress, went provocatively uncovered. Was this haram (forbidden)? I asked Samir cautiously. “Faith is in the heart, not in the head-covering,” he replied emphatically. He had evidently rehearsed his answer.

Sailing confidently ahead of us, robe billowing in the breeze, Samir led us to the labyrinth that was Tangier’s souk, the crowd parting magically in front of him, a crocodile of foreign infidels at his heels. Entering the souk beyond the farmers’ market, full of rich, exotic, appetizing, and curiously familiar smells, we were suddenly set upon by a plague of peddlers waving bracelets, scarves, T-shirts, and watches. One had bracelets up the full length of both arms. Samir had disappeared. We were in a narrow alleyway into which the sunlight could not fully penetrate. We were not at first afraid; this was clearly a ritual inflicted on tourists, and provided one kept one’s head and declined to bargain, one could proceed unimpeded. But as Louise said at the time, salesmen back home granted us the personal space that was denied us here. Their persistence soon became annoying, as they swarmed around us, pushing cheap merchandise into our faces. “Rolex watch?” said one, holding up a glittering timepiece. “Only 45 euros!” I countered, “It’s hundreds if not thousands of euros in a jewellery store.” His face fell. “Yes,” he conceded, “but this is imitation!” Indignantly, I replied, “Why would I want a fake watch? Do you think I am that dumb?” This did not deter him; he became shrilly defensive. “I did not say you are dumb. I do not think you are dumb. What do you think of me?” His honour had been impugned. I walked on, determined not to prolong a character analysis, and his querulous voice eventually merged into the surrounding din. We had arrived at a sunnier shop front.

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In the Souk

Peter was born in England, spent his childhood there and in South America, and taught English for 33 years in Ottawa, Canada. Now retired, he reads and writes voraciously, and travels occasionally with his wife Louise.
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