Morocco, Land of Endless Hassles – part 3
by John Massaro
I MET HIM ON the way to the CTM bus station in Fez, where I was going to enquire about departures to Azrou, a small Berber town to the south. (When I had arrived in Fez, the driver demanded a “tip” before removing my backpack from the luggage compartment.) I was having trouble communicating with a man I had had stopped for directions, when he walked over and offered to help. (I can usually make myself understood with my high school French, but not always.) He was fluent in both French and English. He steered me the right way and I thanked him, but as everywhere in Morocco, I couldn’t get rid of him. Weary and cynical about mistrusting everyone, I said, “Why don’t we sit down and have a glass of mint tea?” He accepted the offer and we found an empty table at the Cafe Zanzi, where they used the freshest mint leaves, he said.
Miloud, who said he was seventeen, impressed me as being different from the innumerable pests I’d encountered after four days in the country. He had fair skin and a kind expression, a handsome lad who stood out noticeably from the unpleasant faces of most Moroccan males. For a teenager he knew the ropes of the “unofficial” travel business quite well, having guided tourists through the impossible maze of the medina, the old quarter, since the age of nine. In fact, he had met the author of my guidebook the previous year, or so he said. We talked for an hour. I liked him and I enjoyed hearing his opinions about Israel, Muammar Khaddafi, Islam and other topics. He was amazingly well-informed for a seventeen-year-old. I told him how difficult it was, with all the lying and cheating, for a traveler to keep his wits about him, especially being alone. He nodded knowingly; he was even familiar with the word “hustler.” I enjoyed telling him the story about the only hustler who thus far had really deceived me, though in the end it came to no harm.
It happened in Chefchaouen, where I had spent my first three nights in Morocco, and from where I had traveled directly to Fez. A man, thinking I was a Spanish tourist (“Hey amigo”) addressed me in that language. Speaking fractured French, I told him I knew even less Spanish and that I was American. He rattled off some more Spanish, then switching to English told me was a tourist himself, a student from Barcelona. He looked too dark and sinister to be a Spaniard, but he spoke the language like a native and I took the bait. He asked me if he could join me strolling around the medina and I obliged. Looking down at his sandals and dirty, blistered toes, I began to have doubts about his citizenship.
“Your watch, how much you have paid for it?” We had just sat down at an outdoor cafe. He wanted to swap his digital watch for my lowly Timex, but I refused on sentimental grounds. The waiter came by and he ordered two teas in Arabic. “I am studying Arabic for one year. Is very difficult language. You speak with the stomach, not with the tongue.”
“You seem to be coming along very well with it,” I smiled, knowing he would miss the irony.
“Sometimes.” (This was 1986, five years before I kicked the filthy habit for good.)
He pulled a plastic bag from his pocket. “Kif. Do you know? In Morocco, is the best in the world. I give you good price. Six hundred dirhams.”
“No, I don’t smoke that stuff. I thought you were talking about tobacco.”
“Okay, five hundred dirhams.” I frowned. “No, listen. I have friend. If you want he can put inside caramel. Nothing to worry about police.” He boasted that he smuggled thousands of dollars worth of dope into Spain every year by concealing it in caramel candy. It was the third time that day I had been offered kif, which is made from the most potent part of the marijuana plant and cut with other substances. Marijuana grows wild in the mountains of Morocco, and locals smoke kif openly, but the authorities deal harshly with travelers caught with it in their possession. At one time the country was a favorite destination for hippies and other drug subculture wastrels, who swarmed into the country after rock star Jimi Hendrix visited the dreamy seaside town of Essouira in 1968 and put Morocco on the map. (Hendrix died two years later in London after he ate too many barbiturates and drank too much wine.) But the government didn’t like this image and decided to crack down.
According to my guidebook, 500 Americans had been arrested on drug charges in the early 1980s. My “Spanish” friend denied this. I told him the same lie I’d already told and would continue to tell: I used to smoke pot every day for years but I started getting bad headaches and my doctor told me to never smoke it again. It sounded plausible, it gave them the satisfaction of friendly conversation, and it was final, though earlier that day one pusher had persisted: “Hey man, this is Morocco, this the capital of dope, this not sh__ American drugs.”
I paid for the tea and we left. He suggested we go to a shop where I could see how rugs were woven. The young owner, who had been lying down, jumped up and gave me a demonstration on the loom. He then said we should go upstairs to see his rugs, but I said I had no intention of buying anything and thanked him. “As you wish,” he solemnly replied. I knew my friend would return later for a hefty commission on anything I bought. I was getting tired of these games and told him I wanted to go back to my hotel.
“You have something for me, some money, some gift?”
“No, I paid for your tea.” I smiled awkwardly, proud for having handled him the best way possible. He stood there scowling as I walked away.
“So you see,” I said to Miloud, “in this country it is very difficult to find someone you can trust. Now take you for example. We’ve been talking for a long time and I’m sure you are honest and different from the rest, but I’m not completely sure.” I smiled and he smiled back. I regretted saying what I had just said. “No,” I added apologetically, “I know I can trust you.” I called the waiter over to pay the bill. “So!” I announced. “Do you want to be my guide tomorrow?”
He smiled coyly. “Maybe.”
“Good! Let’s talk about money. My book says that 50 dirhams (about $6) for a full day is the right price. How does that sound?” I didn’t like being so blunt about payment, but I wanted to avoid any misunderstanding later.
“That book shows the price from last year. To buy things now it is more expensive. You can give me seventy dirhams?”
“Hmm. Sixty, let’s say. We can finish at four o’clock instead of six o’clock.”
He thought about it. “Alright, sixty.”
We shook on it and I went to my hotel, congratulating myself on finding someone I could trust, and someone who was genuinely friendly and sincere besides. That was all I wanted. I didn’t want to spend seven hours gorging myself on “must see” sights. If there was anything I wanted to see it was the craftsmen at work – hammering copper, working leather, carving wood – away from the main thoroughfare with all the tourist shops selling their finished products. If you show the least bit of curiosity for just a moment, you’re dragged inside by the shopkeeper. No, there would be none of that; I’d made it clear to Miloud that I didn’t want to do any shopping. It would simply be the pleasure of plunging into the most difficult-to-navigate medina in Morocco, knowing I had someone to find the way out when I wanted to leave, someone who had lived there his whole life, and whose presence would keep all the human flies from buzzing around me.
Miloud was sitting outside the Cafe Zanzi at our appointed hour. We drank coffee and took a taxi to the Bab Bou Jeloud, a great stone arch and the main gate to the medina. He pointed out the different colored tiles on either side of the arch – one side green, the other blue – and we were swept into the river of humanity along the rue Tala Kebira, the main artery. I didn’t know anything about the golden age of Fez, when scholars from all over the Arab world flocked to the Karaouiyne, one of the world’s oldest universities, nor was I really interested. So I pretty much yawned through Miloud’s historical narrative of the Medersa of Bou Inania and the Mzara of Moulay Indriss. He sounded like he was reading from a book. There was nothing special about these structures. I think he sensed my lack of interest when I ignored his suggestions to take photographs. He led me through narrow alleys that stunk of animal carcasses to the tannery. Now this was the sort of thing I wanted to see. There was a large courtyard of vats and tubs filled with dyes of different colors, where hides were washed, softened and colored. The stench was overpowering, but there were men walking around actually dripping with this slime. I climbed to the top of one of the low-lying houses surrounding the courtyard and took some pictures.
“I enjoyed that,” I told Miloud as we walked out a different way. He asked me if I knew anything about the Palais de Fez; I didn’t, of course. He said it was once the greatest mansion in the city, but now it was a great artisan center. Actually, it was a huge emporium with rugs and carpets of all sizes and designs lining the floor and walls. He took me there.
“Sit down, please,” a man in shirt and tie said to me in English. “Would you like some tea?”
“No thank you. We just had coffee.”
He smiled and nodded. “First time in Morocco?” I said yes. “Of course you do not want to leave Morocco without taking home a beautiful rug.” And so it began. He started unrolling carpets and throwing them on the floor, asking me what size and color I preferred. He turned them upside-down, explaining that they took months to weave. He showed me one with more than 90,000 knots, he said. I would’ve thought 900 knots, but what did I know?. I didn’t come prepared to haggle over a carpet and had no idea what they cost. I asked him the price of a small rug which had caught my eye. “This one is $170.” He brought out a table which indicated the price per square meter, according to the grade of the rug. The more knots, the higher the grade. The government, he said, established the rates based on the grade so there was no way he could overcharge me. “You can pay with dirhams, US dollars, travelers checks or credit card. If you like, you can make only a down payment now.”
“Well, they’re all really nice but I wasn’t planning to buy anything yet. I’ll be doing a lot more traveling in Morocco and I –”
“This is not a problem. We can ship for you. And for that small one you like, the shipping costs very little.” I didn’t like that Miloud had tricked me into this place, but I was beginning to soften; I really adored that little rug, and I had some blank $100 travelers checks in my money pouch. “You know how much a rug like this costs in America, don’t you? Seven, maybe eight hundred dollars.” He was closing in for the kill. “When you see something you like, and you don’t buy it, you wait, and then you never see it again, it’s a shame.” My inner voice was telling me don’t buy it. Wait. You’ve got plenty of time yet. Let’s look into these “government-controlled prices.” This guy might be just as much a thief as some louse in a dirty kaftan. “Here, you can read yourself. Letters from all over the world. This one is from New York.” From his desk he had pulled out a scrapbook filled with gushing letters. I read the one supposedly written by a woman from New York. Her carpet had arrived in perfect condition and she went on and on about how wonderful it looked on the floor of her apartment.
I stood up and said, “Well, I think I’m going to wait. I might be coming back to Fez before I go home and if I don’t find a rug I like somewhere else, I’ll come back here. Can you give me a business card?” His mood changed, seeing that it was pointless to continue. I knew and he knew we’d never see each other again. He dejectedly called up to a colleague on the upper level, and a card came fluttering down. Outside, Miloud told me I was foolish not to buy that rug.
“Listen,” I said. “This is the first carpet store I’ve seen. I want to see other rugs and I don’t want to buy anything until just before I leave. Maybe in Marrakesh. I told you that yesterday.”
“There is nothing in Marrakesh,” he replied impatiently. “This is where they make all the rugs, here in Fez. In Marrakesh there is nothing.” We walked along. Things were beginning to unravel. That exchange had not been pleasant. “Now we can go where they make copper” – he then added with a touch of sarcasm – “like you want to see.” We turned into a small shop filled with copper plates, daggers and jewelry. “Take your time,” said Miloud, standing by the doorway. Now there was no doubt that he was just trying to wring money out of me.
“Welcome,” the shopowner said.
“I think I should tell you that I don’t want to buy anything.”
“Oh, money money money. Don’t talk about money. Where you from?”
“New York! Wild and crazy guy, huh?” He rocked me by the shoulders. I couldn’t help being amused. “Sit down for God’s sake. Every American who comes here buys something from my shop. I know you’ll buy something too. Look at this.” He pulled an engraved copper plate with an oasis scene from the shelf and wiped it with a towel. “Voila! How much do you think you pay for this in New York, if you can find it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. About eight million dollars.” We bounced prices around for a few minutes, but I didn’t budge in my determination to buy nothing while Miloud was “guiding” me. Unlike the rest, though, this man didn’t sulk when I left without making a purchase. In fact, he asked me what I had enjoyed seeing in Fez and recommended a few other sights. I liked him for that. There weren’t many like him in Morocco.
Miloud didn’t react when I walked out empty-handed. Right next door there was another shop. He said, “Here you can watch them making the rugs.”
“I told you yesterday that I didn’t want to buy anything,” I snapped.
“You said you wanted to see how they make things,” he shot back. “Here you can see.” We went upstairs. I was livid now. How badly I had been fooled by this little rat! I think I’m a good judge of character, but I sure slipped up this time. I had looked directly into his eyes the day before and thought I saw honesty, but he saw only dollar signs in mine.
Two little girls were operating a loom. The owner introduced himself and I told him politely but firmly that I was not going to buy a rug or anything else. “I am not asking you to buy anything. It is more important to have love than to have money.” Yeah, okay. I was getting wise to this spiel. Back in Chefchaouen, I had fallen for it. I checked into a hotel room which the owner told me cost 55 dirhams. The sign posted on the door stated that the price was 38 for one person. I went back to the front desk and mentioned this. It was high season now, he implored; he had to charge me extra. “My dear friend, in my heart” – he placed his hand over it – “I don’t want you to leave thinking I have stolen your money.” That satisfied me at the time, but later I thought, if you don’t want me to think you’re a thief, why don’t you charge me the right price, the one the law requires you to display, instead of giving me this “high season” baloney. The sign, which was in French, English and Arabic, had said nothing about high season.
None of the rugs here appealed to me. They were berbers, of a different style and material and not as colorful and plush as the others I’d seen. He was spreading them out on the floor and Miloud was helping him. “Shokran,” the man said to him, a bit overdone. He turned to me. “Do you know, shokran, what it means?”
“Yes, you know. It is the first word we learn when we are little babies.” Oh, please.
He offered me a rug for $150. I suspected it was a ridiculous price but I didn’t care because I had no intention of wandering around Morocco with a rug folded over my shoulder. I repeated my line, that I wasn’t going to make any major purchases until near the end of my trip. I got up to leave.
“You can give me any price? Anything?”
“No, I’m sorry.” He followed us down the street and then he really let me have it.
“You are a fool. If you always wait to buy something you will buy nothing.” He kept talking and I kept walking, not bothering to look back. Miloud and I headed to the Bab Bou Jeloud and left the old quarter. No doubt he was frustrated at producing a dud customer in three places, and I was starting to hate him.
“Why do you say you don’t buy anything until you leave? When I hear this I laugh at you. If you don’t want to buy, just say no.”
“Why? What’s wrong with saying that? It’s the truth.”
“Oh, you only go to look. You will buy nothing,” he jeered.
“Listen, is it your business if I buy no rugs or if I buy ten rugs? I told you yesterday I didn’t want to go to the stores. I know you go back later to get paid. Do you think I’m stupid?”
“And do you think I want to work only for the money you give me?”
We walked in silence. This was getting intensely unpleasant. God, how he had fooled me. I should’ve heeded the advice in my guidebook and gone to the tourist office, where I could’ve hired a registered guide. It would’ve cost a lot more, but they never would’ve pulled anything like this, knowing they could be reported and lose their job. I couldn’t get over how this little creep had deceived me. We were still walking together, but to where I didn’t know. I would try to end this miserable “tour” diplomatically. Looking at my watch – it was 12:05 – I said, “Well, I think we should stop now. I give you forty dirhams, alright?” It seemed fair: I was offering more than half the agreed upon price for less than half the agreed upon time.
“What forty dirhams? You say sixty yesterday. Now you make me very angry. Keep your money!” He walked off in a huff, leaving me standing there with camel cud on my face. He stood ten yards away with his arms folded, glowering at me and muttering in Arabic. I was perplexed. He was making me feel like a cheat and I was falling for it. I changed course and tried to be conciliatory.
“Miloud, hey, come here. Didn’t we say we’d go until four o’clock?”
“You said you would pay sixty. Now you change what you said?”
“Listen, I think we have two different mentalities. In my country if you make an agreement and you change the time, you change the price too. It’s no problem. Look, I pay you sixty. Can you show me other places? Can’t we see the men making copper and wooden things?”
“They are not working today. It is a holiday.” The lying bastard. But I let it pass.
“Can’t we walk around the walls and see the other gates?”
“I said I would be your guide for the inside of the medina, not the outside. It is fifteen kilometers around the walls. Do you think I walk fifteen kilometers for sixty dirhams?” No, you son of a bitch, but it’s obvious you don’t care what I see and don’t see. You don’t want to walk in the sun, that’s what it is. You know I’m not going to ask you to walk ten miles.
“Let’s have some tea and then we decide what to do,” I suggested. I was discombobulated. I knew I was being played, but at the same time I felt a bit ashamed for going back on my word. Okay, I’d pay him sixty – and really, what were we talking about, eight bucks? – but I’d try to stretch out our time so I felt less cheated, as ridiculous as that was. He showed me around for another hour, pure charade. When we finally split up we were both smiling, and I was glad to get through it with a happy ending. But when I sorted out my thoughts later, I decided I’d been had. What I should’ve done, when he stood there cursing at me in Arabic, was said, “Here, take your f___ing sixty dirhams. You’re just another hustler like the ones I told you about.” That would’ve been most satisfying. But it misses the point, which is that in his mind he had every right to be paid sixty, and nothing else mattered. That I came from a wealthier country was a factor – and I knew from experience that the rules change when a “rich” tourist visits a poor country – but at bottom, our minds worked in different ways, more so in this part of the world than in any other. There’s just something about Arabs – many of them, anyway – that’s different. The deceit, the craftiness, the mind games to squeeze money from the unwary. Take Turkey, for example, which is not an Arab country but does share long borders with Syria and Iraq. I spent five weeks traveling alone around Turkey where, from my observation, the standard of living is just slightly higher than the average in the Arab world – that is to say, materially poor by our standards, but by no means desperately poor. Yet there is a genuine code of hospitality towards the foreign visitor in Turkey, and you simply don’t come across people like Miloud, and the shopkeepers and merchants whom I’ve just written about, whom you’ll find in other Arab countries as well, though not as concentrated as they are in Morocco.
(to be continued)
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Source: End the Shots