Saturday, September 20, 2008


I often mention something called souq in my posts, but I haven’t yet explained what it is. Souq is the name for the traveling market that comes to towns, most often on a weekly basis. There isn’t a souq in every town; for instance, my town doesn’t have a souq. Most towns that have over a few thousand people will have a souq.
The souq that I go to is in Tounfite, about a 45 min – 60 min transit ride away. My town has a small store, but it only has the absolute bare, non-perishable essentials – soap, rice, salt, sugar, tea, etc. If I go to Tounfite on a non-souq day I can find some fruits and vegetables, but not everything. And it’s also harder to find household/furniture items outside of souq. Also, everything is cheaper at souq. So I go to souq every week to buy what I need.
Souq is an experience. I’m pretty sure most Moroccan guidebooks recommend going to souq in order to see “the real Morocco.” Most souqs are packed with people pushing their way through the crowd. I’m lucky because Tounfite’s souq is relatively small and less crowded. I can find most everything I need there without having to deal with the chaos of a larger souq.
Souqs are divided into different sections: food, clothing, dishes/cooking stuff, carpets/blankets, animals, random crap. The food section is the most enjoyable to be in. Most all of the food is fairly local and the smell of walking through all the food laying out on the ground is nice. A vendor will normally have a couple different kinds of fruits/vegetables. You go up and ask him how much something costs. You can try to bargain over the price of food, but normally people are giving you a set price. If you don’t like the price you can just try another vendor. If you like the price that you get, the vendor will toss you a plastic bucket thing and you pick out the fruits/vegetables you want. You can get fruit/vegetables in half-kilogram increments. The prices of things are absurdly cheap. Right now an American dollar buys you about 7 to 8 dirhams. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of tomatoes costs 4 dirhams (up from 2 dirhams during the summer). Potatoes cost 3 dirhams. Carrots 3 dirhams. Green peppers 4 dirhams. Grapes 6 or 7 dirhams. Oranges 5 dirhams. Pomegranates 3 dirhams. Figs 7 dirhams. Everything is fresh and delicious. I’m eating more fruits and vegetables than ever before and it’s all grown locally.
The rest of souq isn’t quite as exciting. There is a little more bargaining involved, but not a whole lot. In bigger souqs where more tourists come, prices are more inflated. But here in Tounfite vendors mostly give us Americans reasonable prices. Sometimes we get overcharged, but it’s not too bad. Bargaining is tough because sometimes the price you’re initially quoted is as low as the vendor wants to go and he doesn’t expect to bargain. Other times you can bargain. So it’s tough to know when to try and bargain and when not to. Ideally, I like to ask someone I know how much I ought to pay for an item before I buy it. But all in all it’s hard to be a good bargainer because the money that Peace Corps gives me is more than I need.

In my community there is a water association that takes care of the chateau (water tower) and the pump that fills the chateau. Every year there is an election to fill the seven spots in the association. The yearly election was just held on Wednesday and I attended it; it was a site to behold.
There was no better place to meet, so everyone who wanted to participate gathered in the local schoolroom. About 70 men packed into the room and squeezed into the pupils’ desks or stood in the back.
It’s really hard to describe the chaos that was the meeting. There are different norms about politeness and respecting the speaker here. One person would talk and inevitably he would be interrupted by someone else. This interruption would then degenerate into everyone yelling at the top of their lungs. It was difficult for me to understand everything that was being said, but the actual topic of the election was not always being discussed. There were lots of insults and lots of meaningless things. People would threaten to walk out on the meeting and they would leave the room and end up walking back in immediately. Sometimes men would physically grab each other and threaten further violence, but nothing serious ever happened. This yelling could easily last for 20 minutes until the people in charge banged something loud enough to get attention back. The meeting lasted for three to four hours and I’m not sure that anything productive was ever discussed. In the end, the vote overwhelmingly returned the current members of the association back to their positions. So, despite all the anger and discord, it seems that most everyone is happy with the status quo. As an outsider, it’s really hard not to simply condemn all the chaos as wasteful and pointless. As a product of a liberal arts education that stressed tolerance and acceptance, I’m trained to try and understand another perspective. I’m sure there is some explanation for all the yelling and arguing that I witnessed and that perhaps it served some important social function, but I’m hard pressed to come up with it on my own.
The meeting was a microcosm for how men interact with one another here. There is lots of angry yelling over any point of conflict. And this anger has been exacerbated by Ramadan – everyone’s tired, hungry and thirsty all the time. I’m quicker to anger as well. Yet despite the passion, people are quick to forgive as well. People are yelling one second and best friends the next. In that way, the culture has a leg up on the Western way of doing things, where I think we tend to hold grudges longer. Maybe because people are free to express their feelings in an honest way, they can accept the conflict as inevitable and thus get over their anger more easily. Also, since people don’t hold anything back, there is no lingering resentment that goes unexpressed. Does that make sense?

Besides being tired and hungry from fasting, I’ve been very healthy recently, which is a nice change. It’s amazing how much good health can easily lift my spirits. I’ve been in my house for nearly three weeks now and it’s starting to feel more like my home. Ramadan has been nice because people like to see me fasting with them. Also, I’ve been invited into many homes to break fast, which has allowed me to meet more people and get to know others better. Being invited into homes has also let me meet more women, which is nice. So I’m doing well. The other news is that the weather has noticeably changed here. It rains a little bit nearly every day – some days it rains a lot. It’s also getting colder. I hope all is well in the States and I miss you all.
One more thing, I’ve been asked by a fellow Swarthmore graduate to write an article for the newspaper that he works for. If there is some entry that you’ve all found particularly interesting, I’d like to know about it so I can write on that for my article.

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