Tina and I walked, lost, through the streets of Marrakech. We were staying in a guest house type mansion (called a riad), Magie d’Orient, where a helpful guy named Aziz helped us feel really at home.
We had left the markets in the main tourist lanes some time ago, and it seemed that this area in the north of the medina was more for the locals.
The rugged beauty of this area was not like the main square. The square seems a painted up harlot compared to the simple yet still very alive streets of the north.
It was along a busy street here, or rather it was busy at the mouth that faced the market road courtyard and less so the further in you go, that I found a tiny little stationary store. Tiny like two closets put together lengthwise. Inside this store sat a short, wily man. Wily in the sense that he was lean, lean like so many of the arabs we had seen. A man with the strength to lift things his life requires with remarkable dexterity, not pretty muscles of the big men one might see at a gym.
It was at this tiny store that I found a notebook. The green binding with its gold-stamped spine stood out amongst the other books. I had wanted a notebook to write my travel experiences in, and meant to buy one as soon as I got to Morocco.
I had no idea if it was good or expensive or if its covers are made of plastic or leather or maybe something in between.
“One hundred twenty,” he replied, the equivalent of 12 Euro.
Aziz had given us a bargaining tutorial when we arrived — ask how much, then offer half. Set a firm spot in between and walk out if you don’t get it, because they just as often as not run after you to accept once this happens.
“Sixty,” I retorted.
The little man begun to, in a little English, a little French and a measure of Arabic, show me the reasons I should buy the book. The binding is nice, the paper is good quality, and so on. He then offered it to me for one hundred dirhams.
“Seventy five,” I countered.
He shook his head and repeated his terms.
As I was taught, I tried to push seventy five but he would not budge. So I put it down and made the usual show of walking away and down the street.
The call to come back never came. And so we wandered on and on, and I regretted not buying the book. We had gotten ourselves hopelessly lost in the north and eastern medina as the sun quickly went down.
We began to worry about where we were. The signs we were following to Jemaa el Fna, the central plaza, seemed more interested in leading us around the city’s soukhs than leading us to our chosen destination.
When we finally found our way back to the plaza, it was in its usual nightly fervour. The snake charmers, diapered monkeys on a leashes and the other daylight regulars were replaced with musicians, storytellers, odd games of chance, endless food carts and, of course, a ton of new people.
We had a quiet dinner at a place Aziz had recommended where I had a coffee.
That night, as I tried to fall asleep, all I could think about was the damned notebook. Maybe it was the coffee, maybe the sore neck I had acquired on the train the previous day, but I could not sleep and all I could think about was the regret of walking away from the store.
We had planned to go to the Moroccan Arts Museum the next day, and I consoled myself that there would be a gift shop and I could buy a thousand notebooks there if I so desired. That, for some reason, did not give me any comfort.
The next day we wandered around the medina walls, the palaces and all the other things tourists are supposed to go and wander through.
When, tired and hot, we came back to our riad and decided to rest for a bit, I had other things on my mind. When we went up to the terrace to smell the pre-dusk air I looked at the sky.
I knew we were leaving for the desert the next day — early. And the one thing I felt like I regretted was not buying the book.
I brought the idea up to Tina as the transformation of the sun was just beginning to go from the bright gold to the bronze of the evening.
She, of course, had no idea where the store was or how to get there through the winding streets of Marrakech’s medina, but I felt like I did and was compelled to go.
Like any foreigner here, I never knew for sure how to really get anywhere, especially if its a little off the beaten path, like my little book shop was.
So at about half past six we went out. Dusk was rapidly approaching and I wasn’t even sure I knew where to go. I did know that it was near a small mosque in the northwest area of the medina and the shop was close to there.
We walked to retrace our steps back to where we were lost the previous day, a task a lot harder than it seems. It’s a funny thing, trying to find where it was that you didn’t know you were yesterday, kind of like an ignorant person trying to explain something they feigned knowledge in and how, when faced with a question, must fumble to put together a sensical answer.
It is at this nondescript crossroads along such a path that we got lost again, this time in a different street. The modestly familiar became the same as the eyes of strangers we passed — uncharted territory.
Tina had found a store that sold scarves, possibly the one hundredth of its kind. I felt like, without an actual ordered way, the soukhs seemed to know how far you have wandered before another of its kind sprung up to try to entice you again.
After a short session to buy some scarves for our mothers, we moved on, returning to the quest at hand. Tina’s attempt to do the walkaway worked this time, saving us one hundred dirham.
It was now seven o’clock. Dusk was falling quickly, and I promised Tina, who had become slightly anxious, that at 7:15 we would go back if we found no sign of the little store.
At this point, we were walking down an unfamiliar path and I thought the quest for the book had ended in failure. I was disappointed.
At 7:12, we wandered past the mosque I remembered. We picked a street to go down where a boy of about 20 ran up behind us, asking where we were going. In the cities of Morocco a lot of boys make small change guiding lost tourists. Its not hard for them to find new targets, travellers tend to blend in with the subtlety of an erupting volcano.
I waved him away as I had done with a dozen others, but he was persistent. Finally he said, “not allowed this way.”
I turned to him wanting an explanation. He told us, with a note of agitation at our ignorance, that the street we were walking on was for Muslims only after a certain hour.
Of course, this wasn’t recorded anywhere, but his tone, along with a cold “I not even want your money [sic]” made me believe him. We thanked him and retreated back along the street to the mosque.
I was sure that was the street, but of course it was not. And so we went along yet another tangled street. At 7:14 at a small bend in the road, we found the store.
By now it was twilight. The store’s windows were drooped in shadows. We had found it, but it was closed!
And then, a light inside flipped on. The wily man must turn the light off to conserve electricity.
I went inside, grabbed the book and prepared to face the man who had refused to play my game yesterday. I could tell in his eyes he remembered me from before. One night ago I imagined there would be a smirk on his face, but there was only an obsequious fog covering the wear and tear of the day. As we looked at each other, I know there was nothing left to say. We did not need to speak about it, merely conclude our business now that I had my try to play at bargaining.
“One hundred?” I asked, wearily resigned to pay him his original one twenty if he so requested.
But he was not that kind of store owner. A honest, direct man in a sea of engorged margins. I could see now why my tactics did not work before. He was a real merchant that ran a real store, not a tourist attraction. He was the real soukh.
He nodded, and I eagerly handed him the money.
“Merci, au revoir,” I said to him with a nod and a smile. He nodded back.
This was the last time I would see the man, but I still have the book to remember what I learned.
I was humbled by my return from the store. Sometimes I wonder now how his life unfolded, who he is and what his story was. A family man perhaps? Maybe he owned the store through an inheritance, maybe he opened it himself. All I know is that this book may as well have been the only thing I purchased in Morocco.