Monday, October 12, 2009

Princes and Paupers

Last Friday the King opened parliament. Since my apartment is next to the train station (which is about a block away from parliament on the route between the royal palace and parliament) I naturally had to attend the festivities. I should mention that the city of Rabat has not been remiss in preparing for the big day. Crosswalks have been repainted, palm trees trimmed, new flags placed in the traffic circles and along buildings lining the grand boulevard of Mohammed V. In addition the police and army presence has been overwhelming. The parking lot outside my building was crammed full of anti-riot vehicles, and various military and law enforcement officers milled about in their freshly laundered and tailored dress uniforms. I met up with a few of my IES compatriots and we took up a position along the police barricades in front of the Hotel Balima. Men wandered through the crowd passing out small Moroccan flags made out of paper stapled to wood sticks as well as portraits of the King.

After a few minutes of milling around an honor guard of riflemen dressed in billowing white trousers, short white jackets and green fezes took up their position in front of parliament. There uniforms were, amazingly enough, not even close to the most spectacular costumes on display which ranged from traditional dress uniforms of green, gold and orange to military dress costumes of gray and black with white sleeves, belts and jackboots and of course the traditional white djellabas and red fezes. As the King pulled up in his motorcade all of the uniformed men came to attention and as he walked down the red carpet (which extended the length of the block) the honor guard presented arms and every officer turned and saluted. The captain of the honor guard bowed, sank to one knee and kissed the hand of the King and his brother, an act which was repeated by every dignitary. Meanwhile the crowd had erupted with all of us pushing and jostling to get a view of the King. It was quite an expereince both to see and to be in such an excited crowd.

This weekend I also had the good fortune to experience a true Moroccan souk. I went with some of my new found Moroccan friends, Aziz and Adam to Salé the city which is directly across the Bouregreg from Rabat. The easiest and cheapest way to get to Salé is to take a grande-taxi which involves cramming yourself into a Mercedes sedan with five other people (not counting the driver) and taking about a twenty minute scenic drive. The grande-taxi route between Rabat and Salé passes one of the major shantytowns which, my Moroccan friends assured me, is nto actually that dangerous. Although the houses are rickety and the alleys between them unpaved and filled with trash, every (and I mean every) household has a sattelite TV dish-a cheap form of escapism in our digital age.

The souk of Salé is held in in a large empty lot littered with trash picked over by the local cats, dogs and donkeys. In the center of this lot a variety of tarps, awning-tents and tables are laid out, strung up or cobbled together. It is on these tarps and tables that piles of clothes either rejected from European boutiques and department stores or purchased in bulk secondhand are piled, roughly sorted by type of clothing (men's jackets, women's jeans, t-shirts, shoes, etc.). The souk is essentially a large and well attended rummage sale, and (shifting our cell phones and wallets to our front pockets from our more easily picked back ones) we dove in; jostling for a good position to pick through the piles. Everything is cheap in the souk. Typical clothing prices are 8dh ($1) a t-shirt, 15dh for a pair of jeans or pants, 15-30dh for a jacket, sweater or pair of shoes and 50-60dh for a suit. Although much of what one finds at the souk is generally worth what you pay for it, half of the adventure is rummaging through and finding a good pair of designer jeans, a quality dress-shirt or an ironic t-shirt which is a true bargain. Combine this with the fact that tailors here are commonplace and cheap (3dh a shirt, 5dh for pants and about 20-30dh a suit) and I plan to be quite the well-dressed dandy for most of my time here.

Leaving the souk (which I should mention sells other goods than just clothing--I saw tarps and tables piled with everything from lightbulbs to teapots, blenders and stereos) we went to have lunch in the food market of Salé. This market was half permanent stalls and half shanty-stalls, with vegetables, fruit, fish, spices, grains and olives piled high. The pathways were narrow and mostly dirt, lined with trash and populated by beggars and roaming chickens. For lunch we had a salad of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and onions and then a main course of fish; grilled sardines, grilled ground fish with spices, deep-fried calamari and another larger grilled fish which I couldn't identify.

Both the souk and market (and Salé in general) provided a look into the other side of Morocco. Unlike Rabat which has a much more cosmopolitan feel and is clearly the center of power and government, Salé is much more laid back, with less bustle and plainer streets and buildings. Salé (or at least the parts I visited) also seemed to have less of a wealth disparity. Although there are clearly differences in wealth, people tend to shop in the same places, eat the same food, wear the same clothes and sit in the same cafés, something which is certainly not reflected in Rabat

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