“Make sure you don’t have any valuables in your pockets,” Luke warned as we got out of the little red taxi. We were standing in front of a very oriental-looking blue archway. All kinds of people were streaming in and out of it. There were women wearing the traditional Muslim headcoverings, tourists from dozens of countries, and older men wearing Moroccan jellabas. This was the entrance to the “old city” part of Fez, Morocco, known as the “Medina.”
As I followed Luke through the archway, he turned around and pointed out that the archway was green from this side. I threw a quick glance at it, but my attention was riveted to the people and objects around me. Unlike Luke, who had spent most of his life in Africa, this was my first time on the continent and also my first exposure to Muslim culture. To be honest, it didn’t seem that different from an Indiana Jones movie. There were young men and teens riding their rusty bicycles or men leading donkeys loaded to the fullest capacity. Middle-aged men called out to passersby to step inside their little shops and older men in their long, pointy-hooded garments slowly shuffled through the narrow, brown streets or sat in clusters eating or talking in their Arabic language. Scrawny, disease-stricken cats and the occasional dog scavenged in the gutters. Every object in sight looked as if it was at least a few decades old: rusty, brown, worn, dusty, shaggy. The only things that displayed radiant color were the foods and the souvenirs the people of Morocco were trying to sell to their foreign visitors.
Several times I was foolish enough to look at a souvenir curiously and then make eye contact with the seller who would call prices out after us until we were out of sight. Whenever this happened, I mimicked Luke as he kept walking, laying his right palm on his chest and saying “Shukraan, shukraan,” which is Arabic for “thank you.”
One time, a man selling leather seat cushions caught my attention and I stayed for a few seconds to examine the merchandise. “Real leather,” the man said in almost perfect English and demonstrated by putting the cushion to the flame of a cigarette lighter. “Fifty dirham.” When we walked away, the guy followed us around several blocks, shouting out prices. Luke had told me about tactics that vendors used to pressure unsuspecting tourists to purchase something they didn’t really want. Boy, did I feel pressured. When the cushion salesman finally gave up, Luke turned to me. “That guy was unusually persistent,” he said.
Finally, we came to the shop of one of Luke’s friends. He was a very kind old man selling beautiful glass tea cups. I bought a purple one for my mom and a pink one for my little sister. After we left, we passed a shop that had a lot of swords in its window. I had determined not to leave Morocco without at least a dagger or knife in my possession, so Luke and I went in. I examined a few of the daggers and swords the shop owner had on display, but then an object hanging among some other items in the far corner caught my attention.
“What’s this?” I asked, walking over to it.
“That,” the vendor said in excellent English, “is a handmade Tuareg Sleeve Dagger. The Tuareg are a people who wear turbans and wander the desert. This dagger is around sixty years old, I think, and look, it has cobra skin on the sheath and handle.”
Immediately, I wanted it. However, in the Medina, you don’t just go in and buy something. Here, the barter system still reigns supreme.
Luke leaned towards me. “Do you want it?” he asked in a low voice.
“Yes,” I said, “can you barter for me?” I had never bartered before.
He grinned. “Sure.”
It was like a chess tournament. The dagger was laid on a table, along with a few other daggers I had selected to buy for my brothers. Luke and the shop owner faced each other on opposite sides of the table. After a few moments of serious silence, Luke named a price in Arabic.
The shop owner burst out laughing. Looking over to me, he pointed at Luke. “He barters like a Berber!” he exclaimed. “A Berber!”
From what I remembered of what Luke had told me, the Berbers were red-haired people with a long history. But apparently, they weren’t very admired by other Moroccans.
For the next few minutes, I watched intently as the two of them bartered for the price, switching occasionally to Arabic and then back to English. Apparently, Luke had a very particular idea of what a good price would be. Suddenly he shook his head, started walking away and motioned to me to leave with him. Alarmed, I started to protest. I wanted the dagger! But just then the shop owner gave in and I realized that Luke had employed a tactic of his own. The shop owner knew that Luke’s price was a good one, but had tried to trick us into paying higher. When Luke had pretended to leave, taking the prospects of the sale with him, the shop owner had given in and accepted the good price. Although he looked like a tourist because he was American, Luke was too experienced to be tricked by the souvenir sellers, even though they often tried.
We spent the rest of the day looking at shops and sights. I had my first ever Camel Burger in a restaurant called “The Clock.” We went to the tannery, a very famous but also very smelly tourist attraction. The tannery is where animal skins are treated to make leather products out of, which are some of the best-selling souvenirs. They soak and dye the skins in pits filled with a mixture of pigeon dung and water which produces a very smothering odor, especially on a hot day. Thankfully, we had been to a perfume shop earlier that day and the proprietor had rubbed some very pleasant smelling stuff called amber on my wrist. I held my wrist near my face the entire time we were near the tannery.
Finally, we came back to the archway where we had started. Gratefully, I looked up at the green side of the structure. But our adventures weren’t over yet. As we passed under the shade of the archway, we were surrounded by about five skinny teenagers. Three of them started talking to us while two of them snuck up right behind us. Even to me, it was very obvious that they were pickpockets. Though we had our wallets in our backpacks, our hands instinctively reached for our back pockets. When they realized we could not be robbed, the teens moved away. One of them shouted a rather strange remark in parting. “You have face like vegetable!”
The Medina of Fez marks only one of my experiences in Morocco. I visited Roman ruins, went hiking, fossil hunting, saw a city that was almost entirely blue, and spent the night in a hotel where the shower and the toilet were in the exact same space. But I think the Medina was the only place where I caught a glimpse into another culture, learned to understand it better, and gained a better appreciation for my own.