Olyn Ozbick is an award-winning, non-fiction editor and a publisher. Her essays, journalism, reviews and creative non-ficiton have been published in Chatelaine, Harrowsmith, Equinox, The Calgary Herald, Avenue Magazine, Bloom, Banff Life and many others. She is currently writing and studying fiction in Calgary. Her short story "Rites" was a finalist in the CBC Literary Prize. Read more at http://olynozbick.wordpress.com/
Into the Souk
The entrance to the souk was low and dark. A stone wall framed it, and wood gates stood open and chained. Through this portal and jostling to find shoulder room moved the traders. Berbers with wrapped heads flashing eyes desperately blue and lined in black. Tall Arabs with pointed hoods and smiling eyes who dodged Fez-capped donkey-riders, blue-robed Touaregs, and women on mopeds, their djlabas flowing and faces covered. Boys with snakes, beggars with babies, and small dirty children beetled between them. Unnoticed in this crowd, my daughter and I slipped easily through the gates, our cotton tops buttoned and scarves wrapped up to hide our hair.
We found the spice and goulimine-bead shop, which was our destination, deep in the market's labyrinth. Among the heady scents, the hoards of beads and exotic ancient-seeming booty, we found our treasures and decided between us upon a price. The merchant, his pointed long-toed flats slipping not far behind our heels, indicated to my daughter that he wanted to touch the blond hair that peeked out from beneath her scarf. I stepped between them then to challenge him with a price on some ambergris I cherished; an exotic, rare, waxy whale secretion found floating on the seas off Morocco and used in perfumes for its sweet, rich, earthy animal odour. He disagreed with my price and I was ready for that. I insisted, and so did he. I lowered my price. He raised his. His price was high, much too high, but he disagreed. He was vehement and I wasn’t prepared to pay. When he wouldn’t accept the dirham bills I had taken from my jeans pocket to hand him as my final price, my daughter and I resigned ourselves to try elsewhere. He was angry then, and insisted we buy. This, too, we had come to expect, but it was aggressive and uncomfortable, so we decided in glances to leave. When the shopkeeper stepped out to stop us, we made a mistake. I waved a dismissive hand at him. “Bug off,” my daughter said.
The man reared up. He pivoted on his glittering soles, lifted his arms so his robes spread out between both arms like an angry bat, and shouted, "What! You say fuck off! I fuck you!"
"No," my daughter said, "I said bug...." I grabbed her and she grabbed me and we ran, as hard and as far as we could, out the door, through the maze, left and right, our pursuer shouting at us in French and Arabic and some English too, as he flew behind us.
Charging from the darkness of the souk into the brightness of the Jemaa el-Fna square beyond its walls, with its hoards of traders, snake charmers and hennaed hawkers, we heard the haunting, chanting Muslim call to prayer echoing in the air. For the first time to our western ears, the eerie, ancient other-worldly tones of it were a comfort to us. Briefly, we stopped in the crowded square to get our bearings, being careful not to stand too near the snake charmers who would take that as invitation to dash up and drape us with snakes, then hound us for payment to have them removed. We looked quickly around and decided the restaurant in front of us would be a good place to disappear into. We hoped our purser was gone, but we didn't know.
Climbing long stairs, we reached the rooftop of the Argana Cafe and were lucky to find an empty table at the edge of the restaurant overlooking the square. We ordered Fantas, which arrived in glass bottles, and a tajine each, baked and served in clay pots and filled with steaming chicken slowly stewed among local dates, nuts, apricots and spices. We watched over the scene below, enjoying the vibrancy of it; the life being lived in so many permutations in a world teeming with life, history, colour, sound. Its voices called out in need, greed, lust and joy. The beauty of it, the grit of it, was simply enthralling. We threw crusts of thickly cut bread to a cat that was raising very thin kittens in the roof gutter outside the railing and made plans together to return.
Four months later, that restaurant was gone. I watched on TV and called my daughter, wanting to be sure that she saw it too. It had been bombed. The Argana Café and the people who died or were injured that day drinking their colas and eating tajine had become a small part of the history of revolutionary change that was sweeping North Africa. The Arab Spring had already taken many lives, toppled dictators and changed the political landscape of some ancient lands. It had now entered the small kingdom of Morocco, and it saddened me to wonder if I could ever visit that land again. I thought of the cat on the roof that was gone, and the scrawny kittens we had thrown our bread to in an effort to save.
"The Brain, within its Groove Runs evenly -- and true -- But let a Splinter swerve --" Emily Dickinson
Copyright © 2006-2012 splinterswerve. All rights reserved.