Chair #7

The Box Seller

Behind the souks of Marrakech, beyond the bustle of the stalls and the incessant din of voices haggling over the prices of carpets, tea sets and slippers, away from the tourists, con men and monkey handlers, lie the workshops of the artisans. The metalsmiths, carpenters, and leather workers, all working side by side in a hive of cramped little stalls and alcoves. Down winding alleyways of mud and brick, each workshop sharing a wall with the workshop beside it, all of them open on one side to the narrow street and vibrating with activity for as long as the day is light.

I’d come upon them entirely by accident,  escaping from the madness of the market. Browsing in peace was not an option at any time of the day or night, not even first thing in the morning when the plaza of Djemaa el Fna was empty and silent and even the almond and date carts still had their canvas tarps drawn tightly over them.

I’d wound my way through the maze of stalls, all the way to the very back of the souk where I paused to admire some puzzle boxes inlaid with mother of pearl. I hadn’t been a woodworker back then. It would still be another few years before I built that first butsudan, but a passion for the craft was certainly there, if only still a seed. 

The box had been made out of some dark hardwood, though there was so much inlay covering all of its sides that it appeared almost completely white–pearly white, each delicate little piece shimmering with ripples of pale green and pink and blue. 

The shopkeeper was at the back of the long and narrow stall and so had not noticed me. I turned the box over in my hands, looking for a way in. Not a single seam could I find, nor any irregularity in the surface of the inlay. Not the slightest wiggle to indicate the presence of a lid nor the faintest rattle of a drawer or false bottom. It was an exquisite little box, and utterly impenetrable. Only of course I knew it wasn’t.

“You will never find your way in,” said the shopkeeper. Suddenly he was standing beside me. He wore a mustard yellow djellaba with the hood pulled back and yellow slippers. “It is a magic box. You cannot get in unless someone first tells you its secret.” He spoke very softly and did not smile the way the other shop keepers did, and so I did not immediately put up my guard but instead stood there listening. “There are many boxes in my shop, but you have found the finest and most cleverly made.” My back started going up, yet it was hard to imagine a more beautiful box. “I will give it to you if you can open it.” He stood there quietly, unsmiling, as I ran my thumb along one of its sides, slowly until I thought I felt the slightest irregularity in one of the pieces of inlay. The shopkeeper then began to smile, just a little, and I knew that I could only make a fool of myself if I continued trying to figure the thing out on my own. I passed him the box and its secret was revealed, so elegantly and with such little effort, that I could not help but be astounded by its ingenuity and deeply impressed. Unfortunately, I’d made the mistake of acting impressed and so had given the shopkeeper his way in. “There is no better gift,” he’d said. “There is no other box like it anywhere, not of this quality.” I’d been in Morocco only a few days and knew I’d be wandering around the country for at least another couple of months, sleeping rough mostly. This wasn’t the time for buying gifts, especially ones I couldn’t make use of while on the road. I should have walked out then and there. I should never have stopped in the first place. So why on earth did I ask its price? The shopkeeper took a moment to consider, then gave me a number. The sum astounded me. Reading my face, he lowered his price a little, but still I reeled. I put the box down and started backing away. “You must take it,” he said. “I have told you its secret!” His voice was no longer soft. “I’m sorry,” I said. And I had been. Very sorry. But I kept backing away, feeling wretched and ashamed and genuinely taken aback by how infuriated he’d become. “Give me a price! You tell me. You tell me!” I took another step back, at which point he grabbed me by the lapels of my coat and began shaking me. This had gone too far. The man had obviously snapped.

No need to go into detail about how the next few moments had played out. Needless to say, I disentangled myself and, without looking back, hurried away from the market, which was how I came upon the alleyways where the artisans worked. 

Les Ateliers

It’s funny how fleeing from trouble can lead one into seemingly enchanted places. Trouble can be like a portal, or a Sphinx. Those permitted to pass beyond it will sometimes find themselves transported to a world that is somehow more real than the one they have just left behind, a place of light and vibrancy, a place beyond time where the ordinary humdrum world is remembered only as a pantomime, a kind of puppet show of fleeting shapes and shadows. In fact, it was escaping trouble that brought me to Morocco in the first place. From darkness into light, or at least grey skies to sunny ones. 

First there were the metalsmiths. These stalls were by far the noisiest. Here they hammered out the big round serving trays, cut, shaped and welded the tea pots and punched out the lanterns. The smiths sat on the ground before their anvils, on cushions or on low wooden stumps with their knees sticking up, beating out the metal by hand. Once the piece had been given its shape, it would then be grinded and polished, or, in the case of the serving platters, painstakingly chased and stamped into intricate geometric patterns and arabesques. Trays, teapots and lanterns, all in varying stages of completion, were scattered everywhere, piled in corners and hung on walls and even spilling pell-mell out into the street.

Down from the metalsmiths were the carpenters. Here the noise was considerably less, the air thick with the resinous odour of freshly sawn pine. Occasionally, one would hear the whir of a bandsaw coming to life, though mainly there was only the low knocking sound of hammer and chisel and the rhythmic shushing of the handsaw. Here, the joinery and finish work was done mostly by hand and with the barest minimum of tools. The stalls were crowded with tables and chairs, folding screens and stools, and most everything was carved to some extent or pierced through with an openwork of repeating geometric patterns. Here also the men sat on cushions on the ground, carving and sawing and chiseling. I’d hoped to see some of the puzzle boxes being made but they must have had somewhere else for doing that sort of work. Still, it had been very satisfying to watch, and a part of me had wanted to stay, to feel I belonged there and was a part of the making of things with wood.

Beyond the woodworkers were the leather crafters. Here there was little to no noise at all, save for the gentle thrum of the sewing machine. In these stalls were made the slippers and the large patchwork poufs that are still used for seating in some of the riads and restaurants of the medina. It had been hard at first to tell what the seamsters had actually been making because all of the completed poufs had been piled flatly, one on top another. It wasn’t until later, after they’d left the workshop, that the poufs would be stuffed with wads of newspaper or old clothes and become solid, three dimensional things, seats one could sit on comfortably for hours.

Scraps of leather littered the stall. As with the metalsmith and the woodworker, the seamster likewise sat on a cushion or folded blanket on the ground, sewing squares of leather together, piece by colored piece: squares of cinnamon red and orange the color of turmeric, plum rich purples and blacks. And the pieces were not really squares at all but rhombuses and diamonds that fitted together to create the cushion’s distinctive shape, pattern and texture. 

The seamster moved only his hands and arms, while the rest of his body seemed frozen in time, hunched slightly forward as he ran out the seams, pausing only now and then to clip a thread or reset a spool. And the stalls had smelled sharply of the vats the hides had sat in for so long, softening in a mixture of cow urine and pigeon feces in preparation for dying, which had either been done locally or else in Fez, where they are best known for such things. 

The workshops continued, though I’d begun to feel that maybe I’d stolen too long a glimpse behind the curtain and that my presence was no longer welcome. And so I headed back the way I’d come, feeling a certain amount of dread at the idea of crossing paths with the box seller. That’s the thing about portals. One is always forced, sooner or later, to pass through them again and return to the ordinary world, and whatever dangers might be there waiting.

A Hat

I’d taken a late bus out of Marrakech and headed up into the foothills of the Atlas mountains, landing in a town called Demnate. I’d heard there were many old Berber villages in that part of the country, where there was no electricity and the people still lived as they had done thousands of years ago. Demnate had seemed a good jumping off point. But first I needed a hat. 

The souks of the smaller towns and villages are much more laid back than those of the big cities. They are never as busy, and the shopkeepers rarely force their goods on you. This made browsing easier and far more enjoyable and one could just mull about and absorb the atmosphere at his leisure. 

Beyond the underlying dank of grey water, that stood in patches of broken pavement as a soup of decaying vegetables and donkey manure, was the smell of spices. The air was full of them. Cinnamon and coriander, fennel and paprika, whole carts filled with row upon row of spices and herbs. Nutmeg and saffron, dried mint and thyme. The colors were just as bright as the fragrances were aromatic, and I could not keep myself from purchasing an ounce or two of some of my favorites. Like I’d mentioned before, I planned on sleeping rough much of the time and that meant preparing my own evening meals. Having an assortment of spices would help take some of the monotony out of my otherwise unimaginative cooking, which centered mainly around stews of potatoes and tinned sardines, with the occasional vegetable thrown in. 

The hat I was looking for needed to be lightweight and have a wide brim. I’d seen something like it in Marrakech but had put off buying it, still a little jaded from my altercation with the box seller. It should have been easy enough to find, but I just wasn’t seeing it. And so I did something I normally avoid doing: I asked someone. 

Khalil

Khalil spoke slightly better French than most of the people in that town, whose first language was Tashelheit, one of the three Berber dialects. I’d chosen him to ask about the hat at random, which of course is absolute bunk. I honestly couldn’t name a single thing I’ve ever done that didn’t have at least some amount of rational thought applied to it. He looked about my age, had chubby cheeks and an innocent, almost bewildered, look about him. Like an overgrown baby. In fact, he was probably the least intimidating person I’d ever laid eyes on. Fortunately, he’d known exactly the kind of hat I was talking about and had led me straight to it. Moreover, he’d even offered to buy it for me. 

There are only two things I can remember him ever having said to me. The first was, “Je m’appelle Khalil.” 

“Good to meet you,” I’d replied.

The Imam

Khalil brought me home to have tea with his father, and it was very easy to see that they were much better off than most. The floors and walls of their three storied town house were all richly tiled and there were many wonderful handmade rugs and sofas scattered about. At the center of the house was a large room with a high ceiling, and there were terraces that opened out from the floors above and looked down into the room. And somewhere above it all was a window, through which the sunlight poured, flooding the place with light and bringing out the rich hand dyed colors of the carpets and patchworked cushions. 

I’d been given a pair of yellow slippers to wear and invited to wash my hands and rinse out my mouth and clear my nostrils. Khalil had guided me in performing the ablutions. There was something in these preparations, in the way that they were done, methodically and in silence, which comforted me. Though, looking down at the frayed cuffs of my jeans, I felt sorely underdressed and out of place. 

As it turned out, Khalil’s father was an Imam, a holy man and respected leader in the town. He met us in a white kaftan and kufi cap, over which he wore a knitted woolen tunic that was open down the front like a kind of sleeveless cardigan. His hair and beard were white and immaculately groomed, his skin tanned and showing wrinkles only at the corners of his eyes, which were green and bright as emeralds. He was not a very tall man, yet he carried himself with such bearing that it would have been impossible to guess his exact height without standing immediately beside him. 

I do not remember what we spoke about, or even if we spoke at all. I’m sure he must have asked me questions about my country and my family, and maybe even about what had brought me to Morocco. I had found it impossible to feel relaxed enough to act naturally around the man. I couldn’t help sensing I was being scrutinized, turned over and picked apart. I got the impression that Khalil had sensed this also. 

We sat around a large silver tray, similar to those I’d seen being made in the workshops, though this one was possibly of real silver and had the most exquisite patterns chased into its surface. Khalil’s father sat on one of the purple sofas while we perched slightly lower on a pair of leather poufs. 

His father poured out the tea, allowing the clear amber fluid to stream down from a great height and froth into little glasses etched in gold. Sunlight glinted off the spout of the teapot and off the dishes laid out on the platter, dishes laden with honey, butter and olive oil fresh from the market, and off the rims of cut glass bowls heaped with almonds, dates and dried figs. And at the center of the tray, as though everything else were in orbit around it, was a basket filled with round loaves of bread, all wrapped neatly in a white cloth. Akgroum, zit, atay… These are some of the words I remember. Bread, oil, tea.  

After we’d finished eating, Khalil’s father recited some verses from the Quran. He spoke in Arabic and, though I did not understand what he was saying, I nonetheless listened attentively. Undoubtedly, he could have recited all of the holy book from memory, had there been the time. And although I did not feel any warmth toward the man, the sound of his voice had touched something in me. There was music in it. Artistry. As he spoke, I found myself running my hands down the sides of the leather pouf, whereupon an image of the seamster came suddenly to my mind. The leather was very supple and luxuriant, undoubtedly of the very highest quality. I traced the seams with the tips of my fingers, knowing the threads that held each piece together, without feeling a single stitch. It was hard to imagine the dingy little workshops of the medina while sitting comfortably in so splendid a room. And yet the two places overlapped, and suddenly I could see the seamster at the Imam’s side, one man reciting verses while the other ran out his seams. Portals never fully close once you’ve been through them. Though never entirely reopened, windows can sometimes appear, allowing brief glimpses into that enchanted place where things are made, where the templates of all objects hang on the shop walls and the craftsmen work on in silence.  

The Second Thing Khalil Said

After tea, Khalil and I had left his father’s house and taken to wandering aimlessly through the streets of town. He did not lead me to the mosque or point out its minaret, nor did he show me the town’s oldest fountain or invite me to the shop of a friend where I would be pressured into buying his goods as an act of reciprocity. We just walked in silence, side by side, winding our way lazily through the narrow streets until at last we’d reached the edge of town, where it bordered on an olive grove. 

Khalil paused where the pavement met the red earth and we passed a long moment looking out across the tops of the trees toward the high Atlas mountains. The day had gotten late and the skies become low and grey, yet still one could see the snow along their peaks and down their sides, which sloped so steeply up from the foothills as to look like a cresting tidal wave. Those mountains, though perhaps no taller than any I’d seen before, were always startling to me. Something about them seemed impossible to comprehend, and I longed to explore them.

We continued down into the grove to walk among the trees. One could hardly guess at their age, though to see Khalil dressed in his faded djellaba passing among the gray dusty leaves, one might easily have been convinced that there was no such thing as time at all, or that there were places, such as these, where it moved only sideways and never forward so that things might grow and bear fruit but never become restless.

Coming to the burm of an irrigation ditch, we sat down together and stared into the gray green mist of the trees. At no point did he turn his head toward me, nor did he pick up a twig or dry fallen leaf to break into countless little pieces while he thought. He just sat there unmoving, hands folded in his lap, and stared off through the trees. His calm reached out to me, and soon I began to feel its quiet vibrating in my limbs. My breathing slowed. My head cleared. And with that sudden sense of peace there came a mild sadness that gripped my heart. I sensed the weight of the mountains surging up, felt the ground beneath me drawing in towards them like an undertow. Any moment now and the wave would come crashing down, and we’d either be lifted up and over it or else crushed and swept away. At that moment, Khalil broke his meditation to reach into the sleeve of his djellaba, drawing from it a small plastic bag filled with a clear fluid. He bit off one of the bag’s corners and began to suckle on it. His eyes closed, the fat of his cheeks trembling as he nursed on the bag’s contents. He then tore his mouth away with a little sigh and, very carefully, so as not to squeeze too hard and lose even a single precious drop, passed the bag over to me. 

“What is it?” 

“Eau de vie,” he’d said. “The water of life.”

~ by calebnrogers on February 14, 2021.

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