The Bazaar in Morocco, by Pierre Loti

from Into Morocco

How can I describe the swarming crowds of the bazaar, the constant, noiseless stir of all those bournouses [Footnote: Bournouses: cf. "An Arab Fisherman."] in the semi-darkness! The little labyrinthine avenues cross each other in every direction, covered with their ancient roofing of wood, or else with trellises of cane, over which grape-vines are trained. Fronting on these passages are the shops, something like holes in a wall as regards size, and in them the turbaned dealers sit squatted, stately and impassible, among their rare knick-knacks. Shops where the same kind of goods are sold are grouped in quarters by themselves. There is the street of the dealers in clothing, where the booths are bright with pink, blue, and orange silks, and with brocades of gold and silver, and where ladies, veiled and draped like phantoms, are posted. There is the street of the leather merchants, where thousands of sets of harness of every conceivable color, for horses, mules, and asses, are hanging from the walls; there are all sorts of objects of strange and ancient fashion for use in the chase or in war: powder-horns inlaid with gold and silver, embroidered belts for sword and musket, travelling bags for caravans and amulets [Footnote: Amulets: ornaments worn as a charm against evil.] to charm away the dangers of the desert. Then there is the street of the workers in brass, where from morning till night is heard the sound of hammers at work on the arabesques [Footnote: Arabesques: a kind of low-relief carving of man and animal figures fantastically interlaced.] of vases and plates; the street of the papooch embroiderers, where all the little dens are filled with velvet, pearls and gold; the street of the furniture decorators; that of the naked, grimy blacksmiths; that of the dyers, with purple or indigo-bedaubed arms, Finally, the quarter of the armorers, who make long flint-lock muskets, thin as cane-stalks, the silver inlaid butt of which is made excessively large so as to receive the shoulder. The Moroccans [Footnote: The Moroccans … in this country. What similar statement was made in "An Arab Fisherman"?] never have the slightest idea of changing the form adopted by their ancestors, and the shape of their musket is as immutable as all things else are in this country; it seems like a dream to see them at this day making such quantities of these old-fashioned arms.

A stifled hum of unceasing activity arises from the mass of people, clad in their gray woolen robes, thus congregated from afar to buy and sell all sorts of queer small objects. There are sorcerers performing their incantations; bands of armed men dancing the war-dance, with firing of guns, to the sound of the tambourines and the wailing pipes; beggars exposing their sores; negro slaves wheeling their loads; asses rolling in the dust. The ground, of the same grayish shade as the multitude upon it, is covered with all kinds of filth: animal refuse, chicken feathers, dead mice; and the crowd tread down the revolting mass under their trailing slippers.

How far removed is all this life from ours! The activity of this people is as foreign to us as its stagnation and its slumberousness. An indifference which I cannot explain, a disregard of everything, to us quite unknown, characterized these burnous-clad folk even in their greatest stir and bustle. The cowled heads of the men and the veiled heads of the women are occupied by one unchanging dream, even in the midst of their bargaining; five times a day they offer up their prayer, and their thoughts turn, to the exclusion of all besides, upon eternity and death. You will see squalid beggars with the eyes of an inspired man; ragged fellows who have noble attitudes and faces of prophets.

People of all the different tribes meet and mingle promiscuously among themselves. Negroes from the Soudan [Footnote: Soudan: the region south of the Sahara Desert.] and light-colored Arabs: Mussulmans [Footnote: Mussulmans: Mohammedans.] without conviction of the faith, whose women veil only their mouths; and the green-turbaned Derkaouas, merciless fanatics, who turn their heads and spit upon the ground at the sight of a Christian. Every day the "Holy woman," with wild eyes and vermilion-painted cheeks, is to be seen prophesying in some public place. And the "Holy man," too, who is incessantly walking like the wandering Jew, always in a hurry and all the while mumbling his prayers.

What queer old jewelry finds a market in Mequinez! [Footnote: Mequinez (Mekinez): a city not far from Fez.] When could the things ever have been new?—There is not one which has not an air of extreme antiquity; old rings for wrists or ankles, worn smooth by centuries of rubbing against human flesh; great clasps for fastening veils; little old silver bottles with coral pendants to hold the black dye with which the eyes are painted, with hooks to fasten them at the belt; boxes to enclose Korans, [Footnote: Korans: the Koran is the sacred book of the Mohammedans.] carved in arabesques and bearing Solomon's seal; old necklaces of gold sequins, defaced by wear on the necks of women long since dead; and quantities of those large trefoils [Footnote: Trefoil: a shape similar to that of the clover leaf.] in hammered silver, enclosing a green stone, which are hung about the neck to avert the bad effect of the evil-eye. These things are all spread out on little dirty worm-eaten tables, in front of the squatting merchants, in the little dens in the old walls.

The bazaar is very near the Jewish quarter, and several of that race, knowing us to be here, come and offer us trinkets, bracelets, quaint old rings and emerald earrings,—things which they take from the pockets of their black robes with furtive airs, after having cast distrustful looks around. We are also approached by the dealers in the fine woolen rugs and carpets of R'bat, which they throw upon the ground, among the dust, refuse, and bones, to show us the rare designs and splendid colors of their wares.

The sun is getting low; it is time for us to end our bargaining, which has not been conducted without some wrangling, and to leave the sacred city which we are to behold no more, and betake ourselves to our tents.

Before passing the last gate of the enclosure, we halt in a sort of small bazaar, of whose existence we were not previously aware. It is that of the bric-a-brac merchants, and the Lord only knows what queer oddities this kind of shop can display. Ancient arms constitute the principal stock in trade; rusty yataghans, long Souss muskets; then old leather amulets for war or for the chase; ridiculous powder-horns, and also musical instruments; guitars covered with snake-skin, pipes and tambourines. To keep the rubbish which they are selling in countenance, no doubt, the dealers are mostly all broken-down, worn-out, old men.

Undoubtedly the people in this bazaar are very poor and have need to sell their goods, for they crowd around us and press us with their wares. We make several surprising bargains. As the sky grows yellow and the cold breeze of sunset springs up, we are still there, near the lonely gate, beneath the branches of the old trees.


[Footnote: Pierre Loti is the nom-de-plume of a well-known French writer. His real name is Louis Marie Julien Viaud, and he is an officer in the French army. His work is particularly celebrated for the vividness and brilliancy of his descriptions. He has described scenes in Africa, India, China, and on the ocean. One of his best books is "An Iceland Fisherman."]

[Footnote: Select some of the best examples of minute detail in the descriptions. Note the use of color, form, and smell. How has the author contrasted the civilizations of East and West? Notice how the rapid enumeration of objects gives the effect of passing through the bazaar. Why would a painter find it easy to paint a picture from these written descriptions? What things are sold in the bazaar that show the Eastern skill in handicraft? that show superstition? What contrasts between beauty and sordidness are made in the descriptions?]

Louise de la Ramee