I was thrilled and honored last year when an abridged version of “Moroccan and a Half” was published on Hidden Compass, an online travel magazine. There, I got to share space with some amazing and even famous writers and photographers. This past March 1, I was equally honored when the original unedited version won a Solas Award in the Destination Story category from Travelers Tales. Here is that story.
Moroccan And A Half To understand a people, you must live among them for 40 days.-Arabic proverb
The taxi driver glared at me when I demanded that he use le compteur. “What do you think that is?” he snapped in French, pointing at the already-running meter under his dash. Looking both pained and angry, he glanced into the rear-view mirror at another passenger already in the back, then turned again to face me.
Switching to English, I apologized as I got into the front seat of his bright-red petit taxi, explaining that every other driver in Marrakesh had insisted on an inflated, fixed price for tourists like me. “Are you a tourist?” he asked, his voice still raised, chiding me. “Aren’t you living here?”
Few things for me are more full of short-term pain and long-term pleasure than spending too much money to buy something I didn’t want. Because almost always, once I’ve finished smacking myself on the forehead for being so stupid, I realize that along with the purchase comes a good story at no extra charge. And then, the unwanted thing becomes a cherished memento. So it was that one morning in Essaouira, I was sucked into a nomad’s trinket shop.
My shopping list for this visit to Morocco was very short: a pair of earrings for my wife, and argan oil. I’d already bought the earrings in Marrakesh and I knew where to get argan oil, so I was taking a carefree walk down a bright, gallery-filled street in Essaouira called Rue Ibn Rochd, taking pleasure in window shopping.
“English? Francais?” said the black-turbaned, round-faced, smiling man.
“English,” I said.
“Come into my shop and have a look around!”
“I’m not buying, I did all of my shopping last year.”
“No problem, just have a look anyway!”
He did have some nice things, not just the usual tribal jewelry and Hands of Fatima. My eye fell first on an engraved, silver letter opener, and then on an antique-looking bronze globe, about 6″ in diameter and set into a 4-legged bronze stand where it could spin freely. The globe and stand were covered with innumerable etchings of faces, animals, Arabic letters, flowers, and constellations. It was gorgeous.
“Ah, that is not for sale,” he said. “An Italian man paid 1,450 euros for it and he’s coming to get it tomorrow. But I have this one.”
He pointed out another globe, similar in style and beauty but smaller, in a classic upright globe stand. Another man, who looked like Eddie Murphy in a blue robe and turban, pulled it out from the glass display case and set it down on a low table in front of me.
“Have a seat, I’ll make you some mint tea,” the first man cooed. “Do you like sugar?”
Reluctantly, I sat. He introduced himself as Abdullah, and the Eddie Murphy look-alike was his friend Mohammed. They came from desert nomad families and Abdullah’s owned the shop. In a few months, they’d be replaced by brothers or cousins, and go home to their wives and children. Periodically, the cycle repeats. At least that’s what they told me.
Despite my best intentions, I found myself asking Abdullah what he wanted for the globe. “7,000 dirham,” he answered. About $750. “I take Visa, it’s no problem!” There was no way I was going to pay that much for it. I didn’t even want it. But as soon as I asked the price, he knew he’d hooked me. And like the best fishermen, he knew how to play out his line, reeling me in so slowly that I didn’t notice.
The globe was very old, he claimed, made by Berbers long ago. His family had traded other things to acquire it and there was nothing else like it in Morocco. He asked me to make him an offer; I shrewdly suggested 500 dh. He laughed like Geoffrey Holder in the old “Uncola” commercials and replied, “If I took 500 for it, my papa would chain me down in the desert without food for a month!” I told him that if I paid him 7,000 dh, my wife would chain me down in the desert. He put the globe back into the glass case.
We talked for a while about our lives. From time to time, as Mohammed poured us more tea or went outside to smoke, Abdullah pulled out boxes of bracelets or rings to show me; I had no interest. He said, “big shop, small price!” which I’ve heard a lot in Morocco. He told me that Americans have big hearts. “Big hearts, small wallets!” I parried. He had some cups carved from gourds that reminded me of the coconut bras you find in Hawaii, and we had a good time joking about those.
A few minutes later he put the globe in front of me again. How much was I really willing to pay? he asked. As I reluctantly offered 1,000 dh, I understood what he’d known for some time: my wallet was soon going to be even smaller. In Moroccan bargaining style, he took out a piece of paper, wrote his price on the top, then crossed it out. He wrote my offer at the bottom, then crossed that out.
“Make me another offer, a serious one” he said. Despite myself, I wrote 2,000 dh on his paper. I thought, What am I doing??
“That’s all I can afford,” I told him.
He laughed that glorious laugh again.” If I let you have it for 2,000, my papa would make me wear those cups and dance for him!” I told him that I thought he’d look very beautiful that way, which elicited an even bigger laugh. We definitely enjoyed each others’ sense of humor. He crossed out my 2nd offer. I was doomed.
In the end, we settled on 4,000 dh cash, on the condition that it wasn’t for resale, and that I wouldn’t tell anyone how “little” I’d paid. Because, you know, it was such a steal. I agreed, if he would throw in that beautiful silver letter opener I’d also had my eye on. He resisted, but finally said yes. I drove a hard bargain.
I admire that globe almost every day. I have no idea what it’s really worth or how old it is; I haven’t been able to find anything remotely like it online.
Since someone is sure to ask: no, Yvonne didn’t give me a hard time for buying it. After all, it came with a great story about Abdullah, Mohammed, and their masterful salesmanship.
I’m sitting in the back of our taxi as we drive, looping inland and then back to the Atlantic coast heading north from Essaouira. We’ve just begun the seven-hour drive to Salé, where we will spend our final night in Morroco. The sky is overcast. Forests of thuya wood stretch from both sides of the road, as far as the eye can see. As always, Yvonne is sitting in the front seat so that she can talk to the driver in French. I am half-listening, half writing.
The trees become scrub as we get closer to the sea. Unburdened donkeys graze by the road, no work this morning. Small herds of sheep and goats populate the hillsides, their keepers always nearby. Low stone walls make corrals for the occasional horses or cows. We mount a rise in the road, and suddenly the ocean appears, calm, the beach an endless stretch of sand.
It was so windy in Essaouira the evening we arrived that my hat flew off of my head as I exited the car. That much wind was exceptional, but it isn’t called the Windy City for nothing; this coastal town and its tradewinds are world-reknowned for kitesurfing. The typical weather during our visit was cool and overcast in the morning, even foggy sometimes, while afternoons were sunny and breezy. It was much more like San Francisco than hot Casablanca, which is 200 miles north.