Din and Joy in Morocco's Markets

THERE are so many things that can be said about Morocco. You can speak of it as one of the first countries to recognize the new American republic. You can mention the fascinating mix of conservative Islamic traditions with the more liberal French ones, and comment on the amazing language skill of the hundreds of blue- or brown-eyed street urchins, who greet you in English, French, Arabic, or even a little Japanese. Of course, you can talk about Rick's nonexistent Caf'e Americain in the Kasbah of Casablanca made famous by the great Humphrey Bogart. And, if you can, you can describe the impossibly deep-blue skies, set off by towering mountains and bright yellow lemon trees.

But most of all, you have to talk about the souks of Morocco, those fabled, crowded, overpowering outdoor marketplaces with names that seem to come from the movies - Marrakech, F'es, Mekn'es, Tanger, and my favorite, the Berber mountain marketplace of Chechaouen. There I watched with fascinated parental horror as my daughter submitted to the embrace of a python, while an ancient snake charmer serenaded the serpent into submission.

A souk is an absolutely crazy series of twisting streets crowded with stalls and linked together by corrugated tin or straw roofs or tent tops, beneath which everything imaginable can be sold, from camels to spices and herbs, to finely wrought gold ornaments and dazzling colored carpets.

Up on the rickety second floor of a building around an outdoor courtyard, weavers are hard at work making the famous Moroccan jalaabas, or loosely woven tunics.

The weaving rooms are very small and cramped with four or more weavers. A few words of shouted greeting in French, Arabic, and English soon dissolve the initial suspicion and tension.

``Salam allaykum,'' I called out, ``wa allaykum as salam,'' was the answer. ``Peace be upon you,'' and ``Upon you, peace.''

That seemed to do it. The weavers took me into their stalls.

The sounds of the loom are accompanied by music to relieve the tedium of the work as the weavers ply a trade handed down through generations. The wool is brought here by the Berber mountain dwellers with their tall conical straw hats, multicolored skirts and, in many cases, faces and hands marked by the distinctive Berber tattoos. Muhammad, a friend and guide, explains that the men make the jalaabas and the women, the carpets. It takes about two days to make a jalaaba, and a week or so for a carpet.

There's as much art involved in arriving at the price as there is in making jaalabas. They cost as much as you are willing to pay, but also as little as $16.00.

Along the winding cobblestone streets repairmen are tapping, tapping individual stones in place as they probably have done for hundreds of years. The only concession to modern technology here is an ancient wheelbarrow.

In one shop there is another kind of tapping: Craftsmen are creating designs on pure bronze plates that scatter sunbeams around the dust-filled room. The master of this particular shop designed ornaments for the royal palace in F'ez and teaches the art to about 25 young men of the village. The plates are cleaned by a time-honored practice of squeezing lemon juice into the cracks and crevices.

The craftsmen strike the plates with a wooden mallet, a technique used to tell the difference between pure bronze and brass. The sound is wonderful, a deep resonant ``gong'' that vibrates in the head long after the sound has stopped. The master pronounces the verdict: This plate is 100 percent bronze.

A soft, red glow from several small shops is accompanied by the rich smell of bread baking on open stone fires. These round, warm, moist loaves of Moroccan bread cost about six cents each, and oranges from a stall literally overflowing with the fresh fruit costs about 25 cents for nearly two pounds. As tinmakers give way to the meat cutters, and donkey carts whiz by filled with squawking chickens, one particular sight dazzles the eye: the spice sellers' stalls.

You have to take a deep breath here, first just to let the mind catch up with the eye, but also to smell. To smell and see the 40 or 50 burlap bags filled with red, green, yellow, and ochre spices laid out on a royal blue cloth. Spices whose exotic names and dazzling colors probably can't be expressed in the English language. The spice sellers dig deep into the bag, their hands and elbows dyed red with paprika and brown with henna.

I'm not the only one overwhelmed. A French visitor tries to take it all in, but can't. For him, as he laughingly puts it, ``It's all too much, too much. Not at all like France.''

Later, one particular sight stopped me in my tracks. Cascading in front of me were mounds of olives. Not just the common, often shriveled, supermarket variety, but a rainbow of olives - black, green, red, and yellow. Some were stuffed with bright red peppers while others had a sheen of deep purple. All were surrounded by brilliant yellow lemons and arranged with the practiced eye of an expert.

It takes more than one visit, of course, to capture all of the confusion, excitement, and mystery of the souks of Morocco. When you are tired you can eat meat dishes prepared with pepper, ginger, cumin, saffron, butter, and oil. You can drink sweet mint tea, and enjoy honey-drenched dates, melons, grapes, apricots, plums - all this for pennies. You can watch the hard-working merchants take a few minutes from their work to go and pray in simple rooms used as a mosques, a touching and inspiring sight.

You can rejoin the seemingly endless stream of humanity that is the souks of Morocco ... or you can pass out of the din and joy, and carry away the sight and sounds of a lifetime.

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