by Will Sanders on February 13th, 2013

The window was open and the birds were singing. I was still too tired to get up, but remembered we had asked the big guy in the front for a 7 am wake up call, so why was the sun up and the birds singing? I got up slowly to check and it was 8, we had to get up and go fast, Michel was already waiting downstairs. He was very polite and very charming, very magnanimous about being made to wait even though this was his business and only the early bird got good deals. We were once again back in his black sedan with the middle eastern fiddle techno pumping, this time on our way to the ancient medina.

I wasn’t sure what the understanding here was. The night before it had been decided that he would pick us up bright and early and take us to the Medina. I thought it might be cool to watch him work and check out the arts and crafts bizarre before a day of wandering, though I wasn’t sure what he had in mind in bringing us.

The Medina in Fes is a warren of ancient alleyways that bends and crosses itself in a labyrinth for miles in each direction. Main arteries of tourist shops and traffic intertwine and tangle with networks of dark corridors that twist like bramble thickets. At 8:30 the shops and doors were all still shut tight and the space was empty and quiet. Michel lead us through the subterranean maze at just shy of a jog, turning with precision, never coming close to getting lost. The shops were all closed, everything was empty and dimly lit. We came to one smallish shop window in one of the narrower alleys where we were treated to sweet almond milk and bread that reminded me of pound cake. Michel impatiently paced while we wolfed it down. After no more than three minutes we were power walking steadily, rapidly through the dizzying ancient and dusty passageways.

We turned a corner and were suddenly in a massive room with 100 foot ceiling wall to wall covered in hand made Moroccan rugs, and man each one was more amazing than the last. These were beautiful things, some reversible, one side for winter and the other for summer. They must have taken years to make each, they were stunning. The man who ran the place knew the guy Latoya and I would be interning for, as it happened. It also turned out that the new taxes of the New Year hadn’t been implemented so everything was 70% off the sticker value. He whispered in my ear that we would be rich. He started whispering to me which ones to buy, the first he showed me on his phone would only cost $850 with the 70% off. So, I don’t have anything near that to drop, and I can see that it would be a great investment and maybe not a bad idea, but if you don’t have the money than it is pointless. He seemed suddenly very insistent that I was there to buy rugs, and maybe I wasn’t clear with him the night before or maybe he assumed that I wanted him to do me a big favor, but I really had understood that we would sort of hang out with him while he did his thing. I also felt strange making a huge profit on the hard work of the widows who were surely getting a fraction of the marked down price for their labor. It seems like someone should figure a way to have the widows fly out to these high faluting art auctions to make that profit themselves, then they could spend their lives flying around the world the way Michel did. He had told me the night before that the salesmen all thought he was a collector of art, someone sympathetic to the widows. He said they believed he would send the stuff to his family, and that if they had known what he was really up to the prices would have jumped, or maybe the shit wouldn’t even be for sale. The salesmen were also thinking I wanted carpets and kept rolling them out for us, each one splendid. I was really into the art and work that had gone into each one, but not even remotely interested in buying one. One of them was an antique that was around a hundred years old. Michel whispered to me softly that this was a great buy at $5000. He said he could get at least ten grand for it in an auction. His eyebrows were raised, everything froze, everyone was watching to see me make my move.

I kept politely saying, ‘hey that’s nice, but really you should talk to this guy here. He’s the carpet guy.’ The carpets started to unroll at a faster gate, the salesmen now graduating from pushy to full on in my face. I waved my hands in the air to protect myself from the onslaught of sales pitches. I began wondering how I could get out of this. I just wanted everyone to stop yelling at me about rugs. I didn’t want a rug, I didn’t want to tell them no anymore, I wanted them to leave me alone. It was clear I had to put my foot down.

‘I am for sure not buying a carpet today.’ Michel and the lead carpet man exchanged a look. These men were less than pleased. The room fell silent. A man in the corner started rolling up his wares quietly. Clearly, my not dropping all the money I had in the world for a rug was a real bummer.

I don’t think I misrepresented myself in anyway. Michel had offered to take us with him as he shopped for carpets, I thought it sounded interesting. I am pretty sure I had said that I would just go and watch him work, sounded like fun. Never had I made any claim or expressed any inclination to buy a rug, especially not if they were starting at $800. Apparently Michel had mistaken me for an apprentice in the rug auction biz and was now only sort of hiding his annoyance. I guess it was a misunderstanding on both our parts. I should have been smarter too, even though it wasn’t said I should have put it together that he wasn’t just offering to take us around out of kindness. I feel bad for having wasted the guys time. But not too bad because again, the damn things start at $800, and the end goal is to make a shit load of money more than the Berber widows who spend years of their lives working on these things. I say we start an NGO that flies those widows to the Christies auction in New York and see to it that when it is all over even their grandchildren will be able to afford blue jeans and cable tv. Who wants in? Who wants to know where to buy a really good carpet, while we’re at it? Let’s make it happen.

He announced he would return in an hour and we should follow him and was out the door before Latoya and I could say ok. Now at a huffing pace I tried to make small talk which he politely responded to in very short and curt phrases.

Now we were in a large leather shop that seemed to go up for several floors, ottomans, purses, sandals and so forth. Michel introduced us to a man who started to take us in another direction, then he was gone. As Michel was running out the door he ordered us to wait there, he’d be back. I assumed he was heading downstairs to corner the market in leather satchels. The leather man took Latoya and I up several flights of stairs to a terrace which overlooked the rooftops of the Medina. We could now see it in it’s enormity, off to the horizon the rooftops stretched, easily the size of the downtown district of a city. The man directed us to the edge of the balcony, we looked down on ancient stone vats where leather was cured and dyed. There must have been between 50 and 100 vats each the shape of a bathtub, each filled with a different bright colored dye. Animal skins stacked in gruesome piles and men with poles walked cat-like along the edges of the vats. In the corner was a massive wooden water wheel that churned slowly. I suppose they have been doing it that way for a thousand years, this being the oldest tannery in Africa, one of the oldest in the world. We hung around getting a load of this for a while even though the whole place stank to hell like rot.

We went back down the stairs eventually. Back in the main store room I found myself buying a nice pair of leather shoes, they are sort of like slippers but still shoes and I really like them. I tried to haggle but found myself hopelessly outmatched and gave in.

Latoya and I waited around, not really sure what to expect next. I was worried that Michel would return with more carpets. After a while a new man showed up and explained he had been sent by Michel to show us around the medina. He explained that Michel was too busy and had to work. We never saw him again.

Everything above was written the night or the day after it happened which was weeks ago, almost a month now. What happened was a few days later we both started teaching and I forgot all about this blog, until my professor Elizabeth reminded me. So rather than scrap the whole thing I think I will sum things up from memory.

After the carpet episode we spent the day wandering the medina. The whole morning we twisted and turned through quiet backwater districts all on our lonesome. Eventually we started to hear a clanging noise in the distance. We followed the sound until it became a chorus of hammering and banging in an area of metal workers. We turned a corner and were plunged without warning into a raging river of tourists. We had not seen a single non Moroccan until that point, now shoulder to shoulder and wall to wall were couples and families young and old, all with cameras and guidebooks just like us. Now the locals started calling to us, well they had being doing all morning but now it was getting serious. We were swept up in the current and traveled the main artery for much of the rest of the day.

We found the ancient mosque which also housed the regions oldest university. We weren’t allowed in but we were treated to another view from a roof along with another great panorama of the endless medina. Latoya wanted one of those full body cloaks with a hood that the locals sport for her uncle. She was in mid-sentence about it when a helpful young man intercepted us and asked us to follow him to his shop. I was apprehensive, but he seemed like a nice enough young man so we followed. He must have led us around for twenty to thirty minutes. When we got there it turned out to be a two story affair with wooden looms on the side with guys pumping the wood to make the fabric, medieval style. They were very pleased to see us too. Once they sold Latoya her cloak the old woman of the place all decided she was a perfect model for all their traditional dresses. I don’t know if it was part of a sales scheme or what but they never asked us to buy anything. The vibe was friendly and Latoya seemed to be having fun too, the old woman chuckled to each other in Arabic. I bought a black scarf that A) was hand made on the loom and B) makes me look just like a rock star from the late 70’s. They convinced me to buy it after wrapping it around my head with only my eyes showing like an Arab. Ok, ok so the pitch worked. It’s a cool scarf though.

We wandered, we wandered, oh and we wandered.

We went to a really swanky spot for lunch. It wound up being a bit pricey but well worth it. It was situated in a beautiful riad that opened in the middle with a fountain. The walls were all tile mosaics and we sat on pillows at a low table. Our mistake was that we both ordered different dishes. Each of our orders turned out to be intended for at least four people. It was all so good that I think I hurt myself trying to do such a meal justice but still left enough for a fair sized party.

Oh, and I bought a fez. I sort of felt like I had to.

The next day a bunch of guys hassled me until I bought a blanket. It wasn’t that much money and I got a cool mask along with it, but I was sort of angry at myself for caving in. They had gotten me in a corner and basically surrounded me hollering prices until, in my defense, the price got to where it was fairly good. I got a great deal, even Moroccans say so. I just hate being that much of a mark, but having lived in China I still enjoy a good haggle session. An old woman in Beijing once told me I was the same as a Chinese person after I had dickered in mandarin for ten minutes over a comb. So that wound up being ok, even though I was a bit sore about getting hassled at the time. Then, we wandered around the ancient Jewish section for a while with this dude who had decided he was our self-appointed guide. I asked him to just leave us be and let us walk but he wouldn’t budge. Finally I got to where I sort of liked the guy and in the end gave him a little money. Not much, but he’s got to make a living too. We all wound up having tea together. The whole time he followed us he told us about his handicapped child. After I gave him a little money he announced that he had no children and wasn’t married and could he ask Latoya for her facebook page.

On top of the mountain were ruins, that was amazing beautiful.

Hmmm, other highlights. It’s my birthday today. At 36 I feel stuck somewhere between being too old to be a credible rock star and too young to be an elderly statesman. If I live to 72 than I am half way there now, which I suppose would be depressing if I had any feeling like I had wasted it or if I was in a bad place that I had settled for. And yeah sure my 20’s were a bust, but my 30s has taken me from China to Indonesia and now here I sit writing to tell you guys about being in Morocco. A lot more adventures on the horizon. So I feel pretty good now. Here’s to getting older.

I just had an amazing birthday breakfast, my friends here cut out pictures from heavy metal magazines and gave the metal heads googlie eyes. My favorite is googlie eye Rob Halford, which may well be the most unsettling yet amazing thing imaginable. They went and got me nice shirts and new ties! That is another sign of age, I am really excited about my new button up shirts and ties. Tonight we are going to go to a place where I can drink beer! Everyone said it was ok since it was my birthday, as long as we sit outside and not inside the bar all my Muslim friends have agreed that it’s cool. It is a sign of tolerance and that they must like me. My new friends are so cool.

So we went to Casablanca a while ago. First, we went to a huge mall that had an aquarium tank in the middle with sharks and scuba divers. I am a certified diver and became so in the deep reefs of Indonesia and therefor a huge dive snob, but I still think diving in a shopping mall would be kind of cool. Next, we went to a massive mosque. It was so beautiful, it was so large it made you feel off scale, like little Nemo in Dreamland when they become tiny. We tried to take the tour inside but it was prayer time which meant no entrance for anyone but the faithful. We walked around a corner and a guy offered to take us into the basement when nobody was looking. We snuck into the area with all the fountains for washing the feet and hands. It was completely empty and the water was off, I don’t know how the Mosques work but I guess it wasn’t fountain time. It was amazing and special and so peaceful in there, so calm.

Then we went to the ancient medina which is more for local use in Casablanca than for tourists like the one in Fes. We found a bootleg copy of the movie Casablanca for sale for ten dirham. My Moroccan friend Hassan was furious that they would charge such a price, in Kenitra they cost seven dirham. I just did a conversion as I was writing this, ten dirham is (according to google) $1.19. Around the corner we found another guy who sold me one for eight. Hassan seemed much happier with this arrangement. I suppose it’s the principle. The man who sold us the dvd for eight dirham pointed to an alleyway and told us that it was where they filmed Casablanca. We told him we didn’t think that was true, pretty sure it was all on a sound stage in California somewhere. We said “Why do you think they call him Casablanca?” With which we couldn’t argue so down the street we went. Now we were in an ancient neighborhood where people hung out in doorways calling to people who were leaning out of window sills. Kids played ball and people did there thing and nobody took much notice of us. It was a nice day and we had a nice walk deeper and deeper away from the main area.

We went to Rabat one day and walked along the beach. We went to the top of the Kasbah which defended Rabat from the sea and I leaned over the wall and sang the Clash song. We had amazing tagine that day, and the waiters poured the tea with the pitcher raised well over their heads and the cup near their knees. We went with Hassan’s cousin who, despite having been clubbing until five that morning seemed in good spirits and a cheerful guide. Zero English so lots of physical gesture communication.

Oh, we had five days in Marrakesh at a TESOL conference with Scott Thornbury. We actually have done quite a bit. Yesterday we went to a town called Meknes.

Tell you what, I may write about the rest later, or maybe you can ask me about it. The classes are going well too, mostly well anyways. I would be happy to tell you those stories too. But today it’s my birthday and I feel like going to the gym. Later today I will get to teach one of my favorite collections of young amazing brains then I get to have a beer with some really great folks. As they say in Morocco Humdula!*

*I have no idea if that’s how you spell it. Sorry Arabic, I have enough trouble spelling my own language.

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