Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Moroccan Memories Revisited

Sitting on the F train last night, without conscious outside stimulus, I suddenly remembered a funny little episode that happened while I was in Morocco. Let's kick it:

I had befriended a young guy in Fez named Tarik. The story of how I met him is a long one that maybe I'll write another time (I walked up to a group of young men sitting around in a dark alley with a vaulted ceiling and started talking to them-- there). Tarik took me to his "uncle"'s carpet shop. No, this isn't the opening to the next Hostle movie (nor the first "Matty Does Morocco").

Tarik and his uncle brought me into this private back room to show me their wares. The room was a giant cube with a concrete floor, high ceilings, and wall to wall shelves stuffed to capacity with carpets of every color shape and style. I was brought over to a simple cloth couch, made to sit, and Uncle then came out with a pot of mint tea for all of us. I have to be honest and relate that I was in a high state of alert, as there is not a small chance that this could be a setup and I am about to be blindfolded, beaten, stripped, and shipped to a Tunisian prison. To combat this, I spent my entire visit kind of on edge, ready to lash out with a well placed jab to the throat at a moment's notice, a la Jason Bourne. But I hid this pretty well, I must say.

So there I sat, drinking sweet mint tea, while Tarik and Uncle brought out dozens and dozens of carpets for me to judge. And I was to judge-- but I had to do it in Arabic, which I found curious. It went like this: Tarik would show me a carpet, give a little explanation about its significance and why it was so friggin' expensive, and I was to respond "la" ("no") if I didn't like it, or "wa'ha" ("yes") if I liked it. For some reason, Tarik sort of whispered those instructions to me in an aside when the Uncle was in the other room (good carpet, bad cop?). I guess Uncle is a stickler for tradition.

I distinctly remember lounging on the couch with regal posture, drinking my tea, and given the circumstances and my somewhat eccentric imagination and penchant for the theatrical-- I assumed a dictatorial sultanic air. When I saw carpets I didn't like or that offended my refined sense of style that I had honed over the past 10 minutes, I would frown an abhorrent frown, crinkle my face with a pained expression, dismissively wave my manicured hand, and, with an air of disgust mixed with a dash of Victorian insult, I would steadfastly declare "La... la" while shaking my head in completely appalled disapproval. Tarik and Uncle would respond enthusiastically and, like a pair of Jawas, repeat my admonition to themselves ("Oh-- la, la") and hurriedly fold up the scorned drapery.

After I settled on a pair of exquisite carpets, the bargaining began. It took about 20 minutes. Back and forth, offer and counter-offer, interspersed with moments of silence to drink our tea and re-assess our strategy. Finally, I made an offer for both carpets that was acceptable to Tarik. Now, remember, it was Uncle's carpet shop, so Tarik had to convince him that my offer was satisfactory. Uncle came in from the other room (I don't know why he left in the first place). He whispered my offer to Uncle in Arabic, made a few empathetic gestures, and exchanged a couple of glances with me, as if to say, "I don't know if he'll take it. You might have to raise your offer." This could have all been simple pagentry, but it made for a good show. Dramatically, Tarik backed away and Uncle approached me. He stared at me for a few moments in silence, sizing me up, and then, with a smile, extended his hand. We shook hands, exchanged currency, and just when I thought I could walk away, I learned that I had to tip the guy who wrapped up the carpets in brown paper. We all gotta make a buck.

Walking outside, Tarik, being a hospitable host, brought me out to eat at a local food stall. And the best way to describe this place was as a "stall". This place was the size of a handicapped toilet, and run by a pudgy Moroccan with a viciously lazy left eye. Undeterred by the minuscule size nor the drifting eyes, Tarik and I squeezed into the stall and found two stools to sit on. And bunched in there, shoulder to shoulder with strangers (well, I guess the entire country was filled with strangers to me), the proprietor put a bowl of soup and a hunk of doughy bread in front of me. It was a well-spiced white bean soup in a thick, oily red stew. My lower duodenum let out a preemptive moan. And just when I prostrated myself in humble supplication to the gods of Inevitable Diarrhea, I realized I didn't have a spoon. Odd. Tarik informed me that they don't use spoons-- they rip off the bread and use it to scoop up the soup to their mouth, sort of in the Ethiopian "pinch with bread and eat" manner. I try. I fail. Tarik laughs and asks the proprietor for a spoon.

My ears perked up-- as did the hair on my neck.


One of the most repeated mantras in the Moroccan guide books is to never use silverware at food stalls. Cleanliness and sanitation are not exactly Moroccan buzzwords.

The stall worker searches for a spoon, succeeds, and gives it a rinse in tap water.

Fucking great. Not only is this spoon dirty-- he just washed it in tap water. Bowel wrenching, gut twisting, stomach turning, intestinal curdling, tap water. Then he hands it to me. I take the spoon, hold it at arms length, staring at it like it was a salamander that I don't want to touch. I dip the spoon in the soup, fish out a couple of white beans, and, like I was sipping hemlock from a chalice, take a deep breath and raise the liquid to my lips.

I'm already up Shit's creek, so why not go for a swim?

I eat all the soup, all the bread (in the vain hope that the bread will absorb some of the intestinal detritus) and sit back, ready for my bowels to explode at a moment's notice. Tarik seems pleased. Stall worker seems pleased-- but I'm not sure if he was looking at me. I let out a pathetic "Lamakla baneena!" ("The food is delicious!"). Lazy Eye gives me a puzzled stare. I, in desperation, repeat my butchered Arabic "lamakla baneena!". LE sort of smiles, probably not understanding a single word I just said. Breaking the tension, Tarik puts a glass in front of me. It contains a purple liquid and judging by the viscosity and little bubbles of agitation around the perimeter of the glass, it is probably a juice of some sort. Tarik doesn't know what it is either. He just tells me "it is good".

And it was.

And I never had an ounce of diarrhea. A not-so-small victory.

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