Thursday, December 7, 2017

A five-hour schlepp around the souk reminds me that a souk is a souk is a souk. And I am persuaded not to waste my money on a de luxe camel leather bag, and that the difference between £9.10 and £101 is a rather hefty £91.90

Morocco – Day Three: Fes

In May I was in Israel for a week and spent a day in Jerusalem, where after visiting the Wailing Wall, I headed into the souk. It was my first visit to any souk anywhere. A few days later, after driving into Jaffa and realising that it wasn’t really the city for simply following your nose and wandering around, I took of to Acre, about 14 miles to the north, and after eating a tasty lunch right on the waterside, I headed back to the car via Acre’s souk.

Today our battalion of tourists jumped onto our coach and after a brief stop at some palace or other, we headed for Fes’s old city and spent the next four hours trailing around its souk. And I have to say, risking accusations of being an old philistine, it seems to me that once you have seen one souk, you have pretty much seen them all. My sister, who lived in Istanbul for several years, tells me that the souk there is something else, and I don’t doubt it. But that not withstanding, I don’t think I shall be rushing to join the queue to visit yet another. If you haven’t been to a souk, by all means take yourself off and inspect one, and I’m sure your first will impress you. Your second less so. This was my third.

Fes’s souk has the usual rundown of tiny butchers, tiny ‘shops’ selling olives or spices or vegetables. There were tradesman galore, working in wood, in copper, in leather, in this and in that, there was more than any number of men young and old hawking leather wallets, purses, bracelets and caps, though it occurs to me as I write that I didn’t see any shops selling electrical equipment, irons, sound systems, that kind of thing. The one in Jerusalem did (plus and extraordinary amount of cheap religious tat being offered as severely high prices

We spent some time a rather large leather tannery, gazing down from the windows of one of the showrooms in to a large courtyard of any number of vats where the hides of animals were stripped of their hair, treated with quicklime and pigeon poo to soften them up, washed, dyed, then worked into various items, bags, jackets, satchels, trousers and I don’t know what else. On the way in we were each hand a sprig of mint to help us overcome the smell, but to be honest it wasn’t at all bad. Anyone who has taken a leak in any rural British pub, pissing into a shallow trough caked in urea crystals will know the smell, and in terms of offensiveness, the pub gents were often far worse. Sadly, for visitors to Old Blighty wanting to gain an authentic impression of Olde England, especially its traditional smells, you will hardly find such a gents (US ‘rest room) anymore now that health and safety have taken hold and insisted – against tough opposition it must be said – on better hygiene. And let’s thank them for that.

Ever since the man bag I had bought myself in a street market in Mallorca was stolen from my car two weeks later in a London square (and don’t knock them, for the convenience of carrying various items you seem to want to need while on holiday, a man bag takes some beating. Sod machismo), I have wanted another, so my sister and I wandered off to one of the many showrooms at the tannery to inspect those intended for men.

We were immediately given the hard sell, the plain unadorned one which caught my eye being lauded to high heaven as the best quality camel leather money could buy. ‘How much,’ I asked. ‘130,’ the man replied. ‘100,’ I said. ‘115,’ I replied, thinking that I could probably beat him down further, but what the hell. At that point my sister took me to one side and insisted it was far too much. What I had not realised was that the price was in euros, not Moroccan Dirham, so not the £9.10 my bargain might have been, but £101. ‘You can get them for much less,’ she assured me. But more hard sell ensued and it took a while to persuade the guy that there would be no sell. Oh, and barely ten minutes later when the showroom’s main man gave a general talk about the leather used and so on, he proudly told us that they only used lamb, pig and sheep skin, never camel.

Once we had left the tannery and its showrooms, it was on to the workshops of other craftsmen and it slowly became apparent – well, slowly to me – that we were not being guided here and there to admire the skill of the various Moroccan craftsmen, but to buy stuff. I’m not against buying stuff in the slightest, but I’m the boring sort that has come to mistrust the impulse purchases which were so much a feature of my younger days.

. . .
To be honest, the whole souk tour rather swiftly became something of a schlepp, and I was glad when finally, about seven hours later (with a one-hour break) we returned to our hotel. It was also a bit dispiriting to realise that whatever benefits tourists – I have to say under the circumstances ‘we tourists’ as I was part of one of several gangs trooping around the souk and getting in the way of Moroccans doing their shopping, coming home from school and trying to deliver goods through the narrow alleyways – that we are not quite as welcome was we affluent northern Europeans (and a troop of South Korean tourists) seem to imagine.

As I have already remarked, I am really not one for going around in organised groups, but prefer, as on my visit to Israel in May, to be on my own. For one thing, and there is no other way I can put this although it might be too harsh a description, there seems to be something essentially voyeuristic about this kind of tourism, rather like 18th century Londoners enjoyed trips to Bedlam – the Bethlehem hospital for the ‘mad’ – to gawp and laugh at the loonies. Yes, I know I am overegging the cake a little, but I can’t deny I feel that way. When I go abroad, I like to visit a country and see it as it is and perhaps meet some of its people. Yet these organised tourist trips seem almost to achieve the opposite: to see less well-off tourist countries as better-off countries would like them to be. Not for me, chums.

The same kind of sensitivity affects my picture taking. I just don’t like pointing my camera at people and snapping away as though they were merely some kind of exhibit. The upshot is that I tend mainly to take pictures of objects and buildings, and when I do take a picture of someone, I ask them first. Fair enough, but then they tend to pose and the resulting picture is not much good at all and is nowhere near the picture you would like to take. So far I can’t see a way around it.

Tomorrow, it’s off somewhere else, but I can’t say off hand. I know that Rabat, Casablance and a place called Meknes are on the itinerary but which we will head for first I really don’t know. I know I could do with one or two rest days, doing fuck-all for as long as I feel like it, but that isn’t part of the plan. So I shall be a brave soldier and carry on. Still, no Champions League tonight, so it can be an early bath and bed before 9pm (or something like that).

. . .

Since writing the above, I have just found more information about Morocco on the web, following a Google search, and it seemed to confirm an impression I got while trooping around the souk. It was that for every friendly Moroccan, there seemed to be two or three who, although not necessarily unfriendly, did not seem at all pleased by the rabble of tourists choking up the souk. What at first seemed an unimportant impression, possibly a misleading impression, gained a little more of my attention when I was apparently barged into by a teenage Moroccan girl who was coming towards me arm-in-arm with her mother.

This was in the crowded souk, so I thought no more about it. I turned and apologised, but did not get a reciprocal acknowledgment, rather more of a sullen one, as in ‘you should be more careful’. Later, no longer in the souk and walking towards our coach chatting to our tour guide on a less than crowded street, I again bumped into someone, a man in a green djellababa or asleham. Again I turned around to apologise, but the man did not turn around and just walked on. Then I realised that the incident had not been my fault, for although I was turned to the tour guide while talking to him and was not looking ahead of me, there was more than ample room for the guy to walk past without a slight collision. Yet a slight collision there was, and I could only assume it was intentional.

. . .

One last thing: it is bloody cold here in Fes. OK, not as cold as the unimaginably appalling Arctic conditions our gutter press are rather gleefully predicting will afflict Britain over the coming days – temperatures plummeting to -1C and commuters being warned to expect contending with at least 2cm of snow on their roads to work – but distinctly chilly. I opted to bring a pullover with me, expecting the others in my party to subject me to a barrage of ribaldry over my wimpishness.

Well, that hasn’t happened as they are just as chilled as I am and have retreated to their rooms for a little warmth. I am now wearing it. Writing this, fully aware of my duty to acquaint the world with very trivial detail of the minutiae of my life and intent on fulfilling that duty come what may, I am sitting in the large lobby cum TV room cum bar cum Lord knows what else of the hotel and am grateful that about 20 minutes ago a wood fire was started.

It is now only 6.45pm (US 6.45pm) and we are all meeting up for supper at 7.30pm (US 7.30pm), but I can’t deny that I am more than keen to get upstairs, enjoy a hot bath, then crawl into bed for a long kip than, quite frankly, is decent in polite society. We Brits are expected to buckle down if need be and cross the North Pole on our hands and knees before breakfast and are rightfully proud that one or two of our national idiots have done just that. But count me out.

Tomorrow we are due to clamber aboard our coach ready to set of for our next destination at 8.30am. That’s the Germans for you. But why does it have to be so early? Finally, a couple of piccies to keep you happy, though sadly not one of the Moroccan gent who barged into me. Perhaps that’s for the best.




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