So: let’s have a plate of couscous and glass of mint tea and I’ll tell you more about my trip to Morocco. Let’s go back to the Tetouan medina, Tetouan’s original walled city, where with a busload of American college students at the crest of pop culture we see a market unchanged by centuries: the souk of my dad’s Syrian childhood, the streets of pre-Inquisition Spain, in the era of Facebook and iPhones. Where our tour guide Abdul teaches us rudiments of Muslim greeting and observance, describes the waning tradition of polygamy, and invites us to call him Michael Douglas. Will there be nearly enough time in a weekend to untangle the cultural complexities of this country?
Abdul slash Michael Douglas takes us to a Moroccan crafts cooperative, through a narrow door, up a flight of stairs, into a large room draped with bright-colored rugs. A man in a white jalaba (a long embroidered robe) and a kufi cap welcomes us, smiling, while everyone squeezes into place on the benches along the walls. “You’ll like him,” Michael Douglas tells me, remembering my questions about the synagogue he pointed to from the bus. “He’s one of your people. He’s Jewish.” I smile.
This is a big rug showroom, not really what I expected from a “crafts cooperative.” The man in the white jalaba explains he’ll show us several rugs and if we see ones we like, we’ll talk together later about price, “no pressing, no pressing,” he says, earning endearing giggles for imperfect English. He teaches us two Arabic words – waha (I want it) and la (no) - which we repeat in scraggly unison. If we like it and agree on a price, we take it home or it will be shipped to us, “guaranteed, delivered, door to the door.” If not, we go. No pressing.
He nods to one of his young assistants, who unrolls a huge red and blue rug on the floor. Gasps from the crowd. He folds back a corner; it’s fully reversible: “Summer, winter. No cleaning.” He holds a lighter to the fibers; they don’t burn. More gasps. They bring out rug after rug, rolling them out one on top of another in a growing stack: Berbers, northern Moroccan, nomadic; silk, wool, cotton, camel hair, cactus fiber; rugs, runners, prayer mats, blankets, bed covers. It’s a well-used sales routine and they work it tirelessly, but I look around the room at this group of American college students and wonder what the Arabic equivalent would be for “barking up the wrong tree.”
Waha and la: he reminds us of our new words. Two large stacks fill the center of the room. He raises a small prayer rug from the top, the last rug added to the pile. “La,” several people say: no. With the next, someone says “Waha!” and they hand her the rug. Before long, most of the group is holding something. If two people say “Waha” for the same blanket or spread, the young assistants hand them similar ones. I’m remembering a large silk rug, shades of green and pink, one of the first to be laid down. I wait for it to resurface. No one has mentioned prices yet, not even ballpark. What the heck – I’ll find out. “Waha!”
When every item has been handed out or put away, we’re whisked around the building to talk price one on one, away from the group. I’ve selected the largest, priciest item, and the man in the white jalaba leads me to a back room himself. Michael Douglas introduces us, noting we’re both of the same people. (Should I have asked him to recite the sh’ma?) At the moment I have more pressing concerns; it’s well after noon and I haven’t eaten since breakfast at the hotel – jam-filled crepes, pastries, yoghurt and sweet mint tea – and I’m getting a wicked low-blood-sugar headache. So I ask, in pathetic Spanish, if they have any almonds (I know that one – almendras) or peanuts (I never remember how to pronounce cacahuetes). He sends off one of the young assistants, who comes back with a large bottle of water and a spongy pastry filled with lime-green goo. I’m desperate. I eat it.
Someone brings in the rug and rolls it out on the ground. “Please,” my rug man says, spreading out an arm. “Please. Take off your shoes and walk on it.” I slide off my sandals and step on it gingerly.
He takes out a yellow spiral notebook, flips to a blank page, writes $6500 in the upper right corner, and circles it.
“It’s really beautiful,” I say again, now wondering how to extract myself, “and I know it’s worth it. But I can’t possibly spend that much money.”
He draws a vertical line down the page, points to the left of it and asks me to write my offer. I contemplate the altitude between my price point and his. “Please,” he says again, holding out the pen.
I write $1000. Circle it.
He smiles like a benevolent teacher trying not to embarrass a young student. At this point a tiny woman with a shawl around her head walks through the room. She smiles, not quite making eye contact, before slipping through a doorway. She’s one of the women who ties these rugs, he says, reminding me how many knots per square meter, how many months of work, go into a rug this size.
He writes $5500 below his first number. Circles it.
Again I say how nice it is, how I’m sure it’s worth it, but that’s it’s a lot of money for me. Still… I think how fun it would be to have a rug from this trip to Morocco in our newly-remodeled living room, with the newly-refinished floors…. But dare I put so much on our credit card in another country and trust the rug to arrive in Santa Fe in a month “door to the door”? I need someone to talk to.
Michael Douglas, who has been wandering in and out, takes me aside and asks what I think. “Oh, it’s beautiful,” I say yet again, as if the rug has ears and feelings, “but it’s a lot of money for me to spend!”
“Señora,” he says. “Please. Don’t think of it as an expense. Think of it as an investment.”
Ooo, I think, turning to hide my grin, that one might work! I think of the money we’re keeping in the bank until the stock market stabilizes. Would it be the worst thing to put some of it into in a Moroccan rug, something of value and beauty and memories…
I write $1500 in the notebook. Circle it.
Eventually I get up (I think) to $2200 and the rug man is still nodding like a preschool teacher, when Michael Douglas comes back to get me; our tour group has already gathered for lunch. He leads me outside, my eyes stinging from the bright sun after so long indoors, to the restaurant across the alley.
“I need to talk!” I tell Tine and Claudia, sitting at a large round table with several of the American college students, and I squeeze in another chair. Several people in the group have bought rugs or bed spreads, now feeling shades of remorse about for putting so much of their Morocco spending money into a purchase they hadn’t planned on. Some worry they spent more than others for similar items, but they had to decide so quickly, in isolation from one another. I offer reassurance, and tell them my experience, on a whole different price plane, talking quickly, shoveling in food (chicken and veggie tagine, pretty good).
“So did you buy it?” someone asks.
“No,” I say, “but I have a feeling it’s not over. I don’t think it’s over ’til we get on the bus and leave.”
Girls get henna designs painted on their arms or shoulders for a few euros. A Moroccan man dances for tips. On our way back to the bus I see the director of the cooperative standing in a doorway. I make out the words “Senora- $2000″ – but keep walking.
Bus to Tangier… A stop where almost everyone gets their picture taken riding a camel; I pass. A stop on the coast, where the waters of the Mediterranean meet the Atlantic. At a market, an hour to shop. Wherever we stop, men swarm our group, selling fezes, earrings, camel hair belts, leather bags, Spanish soccer jerseys; Claudia says she and her family didn’t experience this on their trip here in December and that we are getting it because we’re a large group of (mostly) young tourists. It’s nearly overwhelming. Then back to our hotel in Tetouan, where some of the group watches the last end of the World Cup soccer game before dinner, but Claudia, Tine and I go up to our room to rest.
Ring! Michael Douglas calls on the room phone to tell us dinner is being served in the restaurant, and as I walk through the lobby, there’s my rug guy (now in shorts and a button-down shirt, no jalaba or kufi) offering me the rug for $1500, including shipping, guaranteed, door to the door. I’m so beyond overwhelmed. “Can I eat dinner?” I ask, flumbuzzled. “Of course.” This isn’t the land of mañana, it’s the land of the endless day.
“He’s in the lobby?” Tine asks at the dinner table. “I told you it wasn’t over,” I answer. I don’t know what to do anymore. It’s a lot of money to spend, especially in another country. What if this package doesn’t arrive in a month as promised, door to the door? This isn’t the type of decision I’d ever make without Charles. But I’m flying sola. Should I throw caution and go for it?
“You need to come with me!” I grab Tine and Claudia after dinner when I see the rug man, chatting with hotel staff, in the lobby. He takes us upstairs to an empty ballroom and rolls the rug out for me, one last time. Oh, it is pretty, I see my friends thinking. I take another long look, trying to imagine it in the living room I haven’t seen for almost five weeks, and tell Tine I no longer feel I can’t do without it. I’m relieved.
But it’s Claudia, sensible Claudia, who thinks to ask the dimensions. Duh! We convert centimeters into inches, top of our heads, and inches into feet, and I realize it’s too big for the space in our living room between the couch and the wood stove. Uncompromisingly too big. I made this mistake before, with Charles, in an antiques store in Albuquerque. Spatial-visualization is my weak suit.
“I’m so sorry,” I say to the rug man, and even he concedes this is the deal breaker. He looks forlorn. This was nearly a whole day’s work, and the big fish is slipping off the line. He’s losing the biggest sale of the day, to a woman’s inability to estimate measurements.
Or is that the reason. “He didn’t know who he was dealing with!” Charles shouts when I tell him this story a week later at home. “He didn’t know you’re the daughter of Mike Sutton, who grew up in markets just like that one in Aleppo, Syria, whose father sold fabrics in stores like that, and his father’s father, and it obviously rubbed off on you. Those men didn’t know who they were dealing with!”
And maybe I don’t either. I apologize again, snap a blurry photo, and take his e-mail just in case we decide differently at home. In the stairway, Tine gives me two thumbs up and we do a post-mortem recap. I feel so grateful to Tine and Claudia for being there for me.
“I didn’t want to tell you,” Charles says when I’m safely back at home, “but I was worried about you in Morocco. All those stories of women swept away in the white sex-slave trade.” I smile. I know it’s hard to wait graciously at home while your sun and moon is across the ocean in an exotic land, that it’s hard to maintain perspective for five weeks apart, but the thought of myself at 52-year-old as sex-slave material just makes me smile.
As it was, I didn’t buy much in Morocco: a slipper-shaped refrigerator magnet from the mountain village of Chefchaouen, and a two-euro silver bracelet that I left on the night table in my hotel room in Madrid, intentionally, I’m not sure why. I suppose I just wanted to leave that very foreign country with impressions and photos, and questions just barely answered.