The Far East…of Morocco

“Man am I hungry,” I think to myself.  It’s 9PM and I’m sitting inside of a police station in Oujda, a mid-sized Moroccan city near the boarder of Algeria.  My two travel companions and I were planning on staying in Saidia, which was described to us as “a trendy Mediterranean resort town.”   However, when we arrived there several hours earlier, we found a desolate beach strip with lonely prostitutes looking for work.  We were forewarned that the next closet place to stay, Oujda, is not the type of town you want to find yourself late at night, yet alone, without somewhere to sleep.  But we had no business being in Saidia, just as we would have no business being in Atlantic City in January. So we pushed on to Oujda. 

Oujda was more unwelcoming than we imagined it would be.  The streets were empty.  The people that were out, you did not want to talk to.  The first hotel we stopped in had no stars.  A no frills kind of place that had come to terms with its identity.  Perhaps better then the “★★★”hotel that has dirty sheets and cockroaches, perhaps not.   I interrupt two men in their early forties, deeply engaged in a low volume conversation, and inquire about a room:

I say, “Do you have a room?”

He slowly lifts his head and looks at me, “Yes, there is a room.” 

I respond, “Great, is there a bathroom?”

He replies, “No.”

I inquire further, “You mean there is no bathroom in the room?”

“Yes,” he replies.

“Is there a bathroom in the Hotel?”

“No”

We leave the bathroom-less hotel confused, hungry and ready to settle for just about any bathroom-equipped lodge.  We find an acceptable spot and hand over our passports to the concierge, so that he can record our information.  One of my travel companions, however, had given his passport to the car rental agency as a deposit for our car.  He only had a copy of his passport.  He also had a copy of the unique ID number that is stamped into his passport by the Moroccan government.  Usually this flies.  The concierge records all of the information and there isn’t an issue.  But we were in Oujda. 

Because the boarder between Algeria and Morocco is not open, Oujda, and other border towns have become smuggling hubs.  Cheap gasoline, winter coats, half decent cheese, other goods and people cross into Oujda illegally from Algeria daily.  If you want to stay in Oujda without a passport, then you need written permission from the police.

Without anywhere to turn, we walked two and a half blocks to the police station.  Standing outside the station was a friendly toothless police officer with an automatic machine gun.

“Salam Awlaykum” I say. 

“Walaykum a-Salam!” he replies.

“Where are you from?” he inquires. 

“America,” I respond. 

He gets very excited, “Where in America?”  He points to each of us. 

Washington, Florida and “New York, I’m form New York,” I say. 

“I have a brother in New Jersey!  That’s close to New York, right?”

I figure that it’s best to be as friendly as possible with the police officer and I reply, “Yes, it’s really close to New York.  Just across the river.” 

He directs us into the precinct and makes some phone calls.  Another officer shows up and starts the arduous process of getting written permission for my travel companion to stay in Oujda for the night.  The friendly guard returns and asks for a piece of paper and a pen.  We give it to him.  He hands the piece of paper back to me.  It has a number on it.

“It’s my brother’s phone number in New Jersey.  You should give him a call when you get back to the States.”

 I reply, “Of course, of course…” 

“What should I tell him?” I ask.

He says, “Tell him I say hi!”

He turns around and starts walking away, I call out, “Wait! What’s your name?” 

He looks confused, and perhaps even suspicious of my question, “Why do you want to know my name?” he blurts out.

I say, “When I call your brother, when I’m back in America, and want to send him your regards, who should I say sends his regards?” 

Looking at me as if I’m stupid he says, “Tell him that his brother the police officer in Oujda, Morocco sends his regards.  He only has one brother who is a police officer in Oujda.  He’ll know who I am…”

It took another two hours after that encounter for us to get permission to spend the night in Oujda.  We were grilled by the head officer on duty about why we were in Morocco.  Why had I been to Mauritania, four times…and in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and why, just why the heck, were we in Oujda.  Finally, after being handed written permission by the commanding officer, we held our breath as we tiptoed to the door of the police station.

“Wait!” yells the commanding officer.

I reply, “Yes, sir?”

There is a moment of silence.  Then he says, “Where did you park your car?” 

Relieved by the nature of the question, I say, “Up the street about two blocks away from the station.”

 He replies, “Yeah, it’ll get broken into there.  You should really move it.”

I reply, “Thanks for the advice.”

He says, “Of course.  Enjoy Oujda.”

These pictures are from the morning of Eid al-Adha in the Fes Medina .  Eid al-Adha is an important religious holiday for Muslims that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael in the name of G-d.  Muslims believe, that just before Abraham was about to sacrifice his son, G-d intervened and replaced him with a sheep.  This is why Muslims sacrifice a sheep on Eid al-Adha. 

#So Fes

So Fes

 

Salam alaykum Victor Manuel

My host family loves soap operas.  Actually, that would be an understatement.  From the time I wake up, until well after I’m asleep, a soap opera is playing on TV.  The thing is, there aren’t any Moroccan soap operas.  Their soaps of choice are Turkish and Mexican.  They are both dubbed into Moroccan Arabic, but the names of the characters are kept in their original languages.  This is hardly noticeable for the Turkish soaps, but it is hilariously apparent in the Mexican shows.  “Salam alaykum Victor Manuel! Wa alaykum asalaam Juan Garces!”

Your girlfriend is trying to reach you…

Kuthur, one of my host sisters, has a puffy Rebecca Black sticker on the back of her cell phone.  Her ringtone is R2D2 like sounds followed by a valley girl saying, “Your girlfriend is trying to reach you…your girlfriend is trying to reach you…”

Hello, you speak English?

Although it is happening less and less, a couple times a day, a Moroccan guy who is between 5 and 35 years old approaches me and ask, “You speak English?  You want to see tanneries?  I take you.”  The tanneries are where traditional leather goods are made in the Fes medina.  They are a cool place to visit.  In fact, if you come to Fes, you have to visit the tanneries.  But only visit them once.  After all, you can buy all of the goods sold at the tannery at other places in the medina for a fraction of the price.  And, the tanneries smell awful.  So no, I don’t want to go to the freakin’ tanneries.  And no, I don’t want to have this conversation again.  And no, I don’t want to be followed by somebody who wants to take me to the tanneries so that he can get a kickback.

Today: “Monsieur, monsieur, you speak English? “  Muhammad (this is how my Arabic teacher refers to all males in Morocco; females are Fatima) is inches away from my face.  I want to push him away and reclaim my personal space, but I know this will only egg him on further.  I hear the word tanneries escape his lips.  Before he can say anything else, I ask him in Arabic, “Do you want to see the tanneries?”  Muhammad looks confused.  I ask again, “Do you? Do you want to see the tanneries?”  He replies, “Why would I want to see the tanneries?”

“You don’t want a bag? Maybe a gift for your mother?” Muhammad looks very confused.

“No, I live here…I don’t want to see the tanneries”

“Ahh ha” I proclaim.  “Me too.  Salam Alaykum.”

A modern option for religious Moroccans who don’t want to wear traditional garb. 

A modern option for religious Moroccans who don’t want to wear traditional garb. 

Bootleg DVD copies of Hangover II and No Strings Attached seen in Oujda, near the Moroccan border with Algeria. 

How not to bargain in the Fes medina

My classmate, let’s call him Jerry, and I, were out in search of leather bags and a salesman to practice our Darija, Moroccan colloquial Arabic, with.  I need a bag that will fit my massive lap top computer and he wants a small shoulder bag for his notebooks.  After much searching, we find a store and ask the salesman to see two bags. 

The one that caught my eye is okay, but I don’t think it will fit my computer.  I decide to ask about the price as a comparison point, even though I know that I’m not going to buy that bag.  The lowest price he will give me for the bag is 350 MAD.  It’s not a bad price, but it doesn’t change the fact that it won’t fit my computer.  Jerry likes his bag.

“How much?” he asks. 

“I make you good price. For you, very good price.”

Jerry repeats himself, “How much?”

The shopkeeper responds, “For you, my friend, 300 MAD”

Considering the size of the bag and that Jerry was expected to bargain, the price wasn’t too bad.  Keep in mind, Jerry is trying to speak in Darija and we’ve only been learning Darija for three weeks at this point.

Jerry responds, “No, I don’t have the money.  I don’t have.  In western union, the money in.  Is no money.”

The shopkeeper looks confused.  I’m confused. 

The shopkeeper says, “Can you go to western union to get the money?”

Jerry replays, “There is no money.  The money is in Rabat. I don’t have it.”

The shopkeeper asks Jerry, “Are you okay?  Do you need help getting the money?  When are you going to Rabat?”

Jerry interprets the questions as a challenge, “No money.  You don’t understand anything!  Money in Rabat, no in western union.”

The shopkeeper doesn’t know what to do.  He looks at me.  He sees that I am as confused as he is.  Is Jerry in financial trouble?  I look at him inquisitively, “dude, are you having trouble with money…?”  Jerry says, “Psh, no man.  I’m bargaining.”

“Of course, man.  My bad. My bad.” 

How to bargain in the Fes medina

99% of the time I don’t want to buy anything.  After all, you can only have so many rugs, leather bags, and pairs of traditional Moroccan shoes.  But what happens when you do want to buy something?

Well, there are plenty of salesmen in the Fes medina and a bottomless pot of mint tea brewing in just about every shop.

The bargaining begins when you see something you like and decide to enter a shop.  Every cup of tea poured and every bag taken down make you think that you have to buy something in that shop.  After all, they’ve been so nice, so accommodating.  “This would never happen in the states,” you think to yourself.  You want to buy from this shop owner, even if he doesn’t have exactly what you want.  So, “how much” you ask. 

“For, you since I know you are student, I make you special price, 400 MAD”

Your first thought is, “Wow, that’s not bad.  50 bucks for a leather bag – and it’s camel leather, he says.” Then pinch yourself.  You are expected to bargain.  He is over charging you by at least 100 MAD – always.

“That’s expensive, you say.”  He responds, “It’s the real deal. Best quality.  Is camel leather…Okay for you very special price, 350 MAD.”

You counter, “I’ll give you 150.”  He says, “You are in the wrong store, this is the real thing.  Camel.  Expensive animal. Very humpy.” 

It’s your turn.  Take a stance.  “Okay, maybe I’m in the wrong store.  Thanks for the tea.”  This part is important.  Walk away.  Leave the premises of the store.  Get out of there.  Don’t worry; you’ll be called back.

“Monsieur, monsieur…” You respond, “Oui.”  He says, “You’ll have another cup of tea?” Keep negotiating until you’ve determined a reasonable price.  Remember, in a market like the one in Fes, where prices change by the second, an appropriate price is a price that you determine to be appropriate.  Walk around; check out how much others are charging for similar things.  Examine the quality of what you are looking to buy.   And, people often forget this, decide how much wandering around to look for something at a better price is worth to you. 

Same blog, new look

Welcome to the new home of dakhla2tangier. Our new home feels good, so we’re going to settle in and stick around.  Enjoy!