Indigo In Marrakech - Part 4
The bus ride back towards Marrakech is an uneventful as the journey out. It takes another half hour of jaw-jarring bumpy roads just to hit the outskirts of town. We then proceed to meander through various outlying districts, all of which are in the more modern French half of the city. Not one of them catches my eye.
The first glimmer of interest is a series of road signs at a major intersection, another twenty minutes in. Fes is a former capital of Morocco, as is Marrakech itself. The current capital is the port city of Rabat, which took over the honour from Marrakech in the 1950s, a shift of some 50 miles.
This is like the capital of England being moved from London to Oxford. Having spent time in both London and Oxford, I rather like the idea.
And at the foot of the bill, I see a city name that makes me smile.
Humphrey Bogart would be proud of me. Actually, come to think, maybe he wouldn't; I remember that I've never actually seen Casablanca. As a film lover, this seems a bit of an omission. I've never been that bothered by it, I suppose? But I did see the Maltese Falcon, and can imagine Bogey looking me over with disdain as he utters a line from that classic.
People lose teeth talking like that. If you want to hang around, you'll be polite.
The sign for the Royal Palace catches my eye. This is marked on the map as a point of interest. We head off in that direction, and I quickly see a building that is impressive enough to be a palace.
But no. This is far too new and shiny, and the architecture's wrong. The guide tells us it's the municipal theatre, and encourages us to go see a show, though he doesn't mention what kind of productions they put on. I wonder what Sheakespeare would be like in Arabic? Ah well, as I'm here for just a day more, I'm unlikely to find out.
A few minutes later, we reach the actual Royal Palace, and I am so unimpressed by it, I don't reach for my camera. However, directly opposite the palace is something far more remarkable. Quite beautiful, in fact.
This is Bab Agnaou, the Royal Gate into the legendary Kasbah district of town. The Kasbah? The same Kasbah that The Clash sang about? The guidebook doesn't say anything about that*, but I'm off the bus in a flash and across the street, imagining something pretty special on the other side.
[* with good reason; it's nothing to do with it.]
Passing through the gate, I find... nothing. Just an alleyway extending in both directions. I take a right turn and find myself at the public gate to the Kasbah in about thirty metres.
This arrangement seems daft, so I check the guidebook. Apparently, a former King wanted his own gate to the Kasbah, which he could see from the palace opposite. So he had Bab Agnaou built, an impressive but largely pointless landmark.
I wonder idly if the folks who designed and placed the Millennium Dome in London's Greenwich Peninsular were similarly inspired.
I wander down the first main street and find another enclosure facing me, with another mosque and another gate. A city within a city, or so it seems. I linger for a moment, wondering what to do, where to go.
I really should have known better.
Like a rocket, a vendor come emerges from his shop and does the German?/English/French dance with me, much as the opportunist young beggars did as I left my riad earlier in the day. Perhaps I should have taken a warning from this, but in a moment, I find myself in a shop that is selling attractive local pottery and other less noteworthy trinkets.
The chap is friendly, and happy to dumb his French down a bit for this humble tourist. And some of his wares really are rather impressive - the enormous pieces of intricately glazed pottery especially - though I have no way of getting them home in one piece. Too big for hand luggage. And Cargo? Break-o! Smithereen-o, in all likelihood. So I gently steer him away from the pottery, and ask about hats.
He leaps into action and shows me a fez or two. Nice, but not what I want. I rather liked the cloth hats the musicians were wearing earlier in the day. A cross between a skullcap and a truncated cloth cylinder, probably a traditional arabic/moslem hat, with stuff sewn onto them and designs emroidered into them. I struggle to explain this. My workmanlike French did not include mathematics or the creative arts; the French for embroidery* eludes me.
[* Broderie, as in Broderie Anglaise. How could I forget?]
The penny seems to drop, and though he explains he doesn't have one, he gleefully explains that he knows exactly where to find one. I say it's no bother, I'll look elsewhere, but he insists on helping me, in a charming friendly manner that somehow doesn't rub me up the wrong way. He calls over another fella, perhaps a younger family member or general gopher, and despatches him into the Kasbah market round the corner to locate the hats.
He then offers me some mint tea. I decline politely, expecting to be there a few minutes only, but he says it is the very best mint tea and that it will help cool me down, again gently insisting. I shrug and smile my acceptance, feeling somewhat trapped by this man's earnest attempts to keep me in his shop. He chats to me constantly as I check his shop over again, while he brews the tea on the counter. It all feels rather surreal.
When the tea is ready, he brings me a very comfortable chair, and we sit and drink the incredibly sweet tea together, making polite chit chat in broken French. He tells me all about his family and the weather, using verbs and vocabulary I can remember clearly from school. I share a little about my family, and my trip to Tunisia, and somehow we start talking about dogs. We end up laughing about big dumb mutts, which it turns out we both have a fondness for.
Minutes pass pleasantly, but turn into a quarter of an hour rather quicker than the shopkeeper would like. Slightly embarrassed, he assures me that his colleague is searching for the very best hats, and that I will be delighted with the result. He then offers to show me how to tie a ceremonial head-scarf. Bemused, I accept his offer, and he quickly wraps a long strip of blue cloth onto my head. Standing back, he snaps a photo* with my camera to record the moment.
[* Yes, I have the photo. No, I'm not showing you. Seventy pounds heavier than I am now, I resemble the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.]
More time passes. Sharing his embarrassment now, I accept more tea, and we lurch onto the subject of football, which is less comfortable territory. I hope the gopher will return soon, and for this pleasant-but-awkward ordeal to end.
And return he does. Empty handed. There is a flurry of angry Arabic and the lackey is despatched with his tail between his djellaba. The vendor smiles broadly and apologises smoothly for his colleague's failure. As a consolation, he offers me a very good deal on a magnificent fez.
Actually, it's not a great deal at all; he's probably looking to recoup his time, effort and tea. I attempt to haggle with the man, coming in at half his initial offer.
This is a mistake. He looks genuinely offended. Not the street pantomime of vendors all over Tunisia, immortalised in Monty Python's Life of Brian, but a look of unpleasant surprise. He simply says Non, repeats the price slowly, perhaps wondering if my language skills have failed me? I get the message; this is the price. It's really not a good deal, but I've enjoyed some pleasant tea and conversation (yeah yeah, sucker) and I pay what he asks for.
He gives me my fez and without a word of farewell he ushers me unceremoniously from the shop.
Back in the street, the sun has passed its zenith and is racing west. I have no idea how long I was in there, but it must have been over half an hour. And I'm confused by the final act; I thought haggling over price was how things worked in North Africa?
A bad assumption, it seems.
I pause to get my bearings again, but manage to avoid any more shopkeepers.
The Kasbah Mosque, a squat younger brother to the magnificent mosque I saw earlier in the day, looks down on me disapprovingly in the light of late afternoon, as if to say:
Thou shalt not haggle in Morocco
That's twice today I've been told off by imaginary things.
I think the sun is getting to me.
Concluded in Part 5 - Oiling The Wheels Of Chance
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