It was blisteringly hot and there were snails everywhere.
During the summer of 2013 after my yearlong study abroad in Florence, Italy, I decided to mix things up a bit by volunteering in Morocco. I stayed in a tiny town named Berrechid near Casablanca, with a family of seven living on a palm tree filled oasis in the midst of dead and derelict yellowing fields.
The snails were ravenous and they had all migrated from the surrounding fields to prey on the hundreds of palm trees on the farm. As a WWOOFer (volunteering with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), it was my job to scrape hundreds of snails off of each palm leaf. Each snail was deposited onto five gallon water jugs, which would later ferment and boil in the summer heat, then explode in the fields, raining decomposed snail guts everywhere. It was great fertilizer for the nearby grape fields.
Every now and again, we would drive to the Casablanca mercado, or souq, to browse the shady alleyways gazing longingly at loops of scrumptious dates and fondle intricately embroidered slippers & fuzzy fez.
There were piles upon piles of spices like you could never imagine, rows of smelly handmade leather satchels hung overlapping each other on hooked walls, and scraggly-toothed peddling the tastiest sandwiches- expertly slicing a fresh loaf open, and shoveling in all manners of morsels: fried fish, oily eggplant, boiled eggs, floppy tomato slices, for a very agreeable price.
Souqs are open-air marketplaces usually located near the medina, the central and oldest part of a city. They hold a three-fold purpose: acting as an intricate labryinth of community gathering places, a cultural phenomenon with which to ensnare curious tourists, and rows upon rows of stalls filled with merchandise.
At the Casablanca souq entrance, women sat on door steps, shaking cowrie shells in woven baskets and enticing passerby with tales of their fates, while their friends braided cornrows. The doorways of these souqs are grand in and of themselves: curvaceous and high-arched doorways, like portals into an alternate reality, full of hawkers, stunning colors, and enticing aromas. Within, some alleys have a lattice-work ceiling that lets speckled light through, as tourists and locals alike stroll past thick clay walls.
Historically, souqs were formed whenever caravans arrived from the Zahara desert and neighboring flatlands and cities. Souqs are traditionally organized into specialized sections according to product type, so you might stumble upon an alley full of spice merchants competing with each other or a row of stalls advertising intricate lengths of fabric.
Sometimes, my host sisters would bring us along and guide us through these mercados, haggling prices down so much that I would raise my eyebrows, astounded. Prices aren’t set, and it is expected that buyers will haggle the price down. My host sisters recommended to start by slashing the suggested price in half, and when the seller acts horrified, to gently east the price upwards until you can both settle on an agreeable price.
Vendors drag wooden trolleys around selling flatbreads for a handful of dirham (the local currency), roasted fava beans wrapped in triangles of old newspaper, and sandwiches brimming with savory meat of questionable origin. There are bakeries showcasing honey-coated confectionaries surrounded by hordes of flies, buzzing slowly in the summer heat.
If you’re looking for a carpet that will last your family several hundred years, the souq is the place to get it, although prices can be steep. Once you’ve shown sufficient interest in an item, the shopkeeper (usually the stalls are quite small, with one room and one shopkeeper) will sit you down on floor cushions and pour you cup upon cup of steaming and irresistibly sweet mint tea. Thus, the negotiations would begin.
The way this tea is poured is like an art- by pouring it far above the tall glass beakers, the boiling hot tea cools down on its way to the cup. My host mother would chisel huge chunks of sugar off of conically shaped sugar, and dunk them into a wrought silver teapot stuffed with handfuls of mint from the garden.
Later, we would visit the Rabat and Marrakech souqs, where you could sip on freshly squeezed orange juice and cool your insides. Meanwhile guys in faded athletic shirts toted around poor monkeys on leashes or lifted the tops off of baskets, showing you a glimpse of the snake coiled within. (They seemed to have few qualms about animal cruelty and I guess for them, this was another way to make some money off of tourists.)
If you ever wander over to Morocco, be sure to visit your local souq! You’ll not regret it.