During our orientation at the Arabic Language Institute of Fez, the program coordinators told us to be wary of Moroccans who approached us speaking English. “They either want to sell you something or put you in a dangerous situation, so it’s best just to stay away,” they warned us. We, as a group, had similar experiences in Istanbul; shopkeepers in the Grand Bazaar pleaded, “My friend! Please come to my shop!” and waiters on the streets shoved menus in our faces, persuading us that the terrace was our best bet for dinner.
So when Matt and I were exploring the side streets of the Medina on Saturday afternoon, we were skeptical when a young man told us that the path we were on led only to residences, and that we should browse his herbalist shop instead. More problematic was that there appeared to be a mummified cat perched on the awnings and another feline stiffly strung from the ceiling. As we tiptoed into the apothecary, lifeless lizards stared at jars lining the walls and brightly colored pelts were nailed above dried baskets of herbs. While we tentatively investigated the fragrances and soaps, he introduced himself as Adil, and invited us to view a presentation of his wares. Matt explained that we weren’t planning on purchasing anything, but he simply said, “Not a problem, the first time is free.” Our concerns slightly assuaged, we plopped our bags on the ground and found a spot on the crimson and gold couch as he approached plastic jars stacked on a wooden podium.
He snatched up one of the translucent containers filled with a golden powder, explaining that it was the main spice used in Moroccan home cooking. As I breathed the scent, I recognized the spicy aroma of the couscous we had had for lunch just the day before and of tagine chicken, a signature Moroccan dish. Now convinced both of the legitimacy of the store and the intentions of our host, I listened in earnest to his explanations of the difference between Indian and Moroccan curry and the regional prices of saffron. Replacing his spice jars for ones with cotton lining the edges, he informed us that herbalists were not just for spices, but also for perfumes. He took a small chalky block of musk and spread it on our arms, inviting us to smell for ourselves. His presentation essentially complete, we were encouraged to further explore his store.
While that was the end of the formal lesson, our learning experience was not yet complete. We quizzed Adil about how his family business, and how he chose working the shop over going to school. His perfect English was self-taught from the streets of the Medina. We marveled at his ability to quickly pick up a foreign language in light of our poor Moroccan Arabic skills, but he simply replied that, “If you want to, you will learn, Insha’Allah” We discovered that the shop caters to both tourists and locals, and, thankfully the stuffed reptiles and mammals were for decoration only. And Matt and I discovered the recession has hit all parts of the globe, as Adil confessed that his shop is failing.
What I learned at Adil’s shop is not something I would have learned in a classroom. Meeting regular Moroccans is a critical part of our education; it is important to not only learn in the classroom, but to discover the cultural identity of its citizens and how normal people live. Unfortunately, it is difficult to tell the difference between those who are legitimately interested in striking up a conversation and those who take you for a schmuck who can be pressured into buying an overpriced briefcase or plate. Navigating social interactions is just as treacherous as traveling the winding the streets of the Medina. Sometimes, you need a guide, and Matt and I were fortunate to have Adil.