In the Souk

Samir awaited us at the doorway of what he called “the Co-op”—its exact nature and function remained unclear. Here we were shown impressive, beautiful carpets, colourful, intricately patterned, and purportedly hand-made, one after another, rolled out for us on the floor with practiced ease and flourish. “The carpet will fly home by itself,” said the salesman. We were subjected to a series of harangues from salesmen on each of the floors as we descended to ground level, where leather coats, belts, and jackets were displayed. “Only $2500, delivered, door to door, in Canada,” said one. I forgot what he was trying to sell. “What offer can you make, gentle sir?” asked another deferentially. “Sir,” said a manager emerging unexpectedly from behind a curtain, “Will you do me the honour of naming a price for this suit?” The tone was more respectful here, even obsequious, but no less persistent than that of the peddlers outside.

And then we were among them again. Out into the blinding sunlight, surrounded once more by hucksters and hawkers. Prices quoted were always in euros, never in the local currency. Foreigners have lots of money. We want to relieve them of it. It must be such a burden to have to carry around so much cash. Louise, bowing to the inevitable, successfully bargained a seller of T-shirts down from eight euros for one to two for five, one for each grandchild, after he had pursued her some hundred paces down a side street. And that was probably overpriced. We left the souk just as the amplified voice of a muezzin called the faithful to afternoon prayer from a minaret near the coach park. We climbed gratefully into the waiting bus, souvenir junk in hand, perhaps a small price to pay for a privileged glimpse into a very different world.

Reflecting on our visit a week later beside the local outdoor pool at home, I was rudely interrupted by the sound of a shrill hectoring voice on the lifeguards’ radio:

“Our annual clearout is now on. All vehicles on the lot MUST go! New models at un-be-lie-va-ble prices! Come-in-and-make-a-deal-now! You WON’T regret it! We are giving you the very shirt off our back! This is a SACRIFICE sale! It will NOT be repeated!”

“Want your own island? How about a luxury cruise? Buy that dream home you’ve always wanted! Give mom and dad that trip they always said they couldn’t afford…”

“Dare to dream! Tonight’s lottery draw has a million-dollar jackpot…”

“Here’s what people say about our un-be-lie-va-ble prices and a-ma-zing service…!”

Were we really so different after all? I had always assumed so. I reached for my noise-cancelling headphones and returned to my book, thanking Providence I had not had to become a huckster in order to earn my living.

 

This story is all about the narrator's shock of encountering another culture, before the explicit dawn of the realization that his and theirs are not so dissimilar.

In the Souk

author
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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