Thursday, March 10, 2011

traveling across morocco with a chicken

From a Marrakech street vender I bought a battered copy of Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights. An Afghani who grew up in Britain, Shah and his wife bought a house in the shantytowns surroundings Casablanca, and the book is a narrative both of his attempt to make himself at home in Moroccan culture and to understand the rich and enduring tradition of Moroccan storytellers. At one point he complains to his maid that he still gets ripped off like a tourist when he goes into the Casablanca souks. Her advice? Carry a sieve. Because no tourist would be walking through the market with a sieve.

Today walking through the Meknes souks, I saw something unexpected. From the souks of Marrakech, Fez and Essaouira I've grown used to the sensory pleasures of Moroccan markets: heaping piles of olives, dates and figs, perfect cones of spices rising from buckets, leather babouches and caftans in every imaginable color, tagines, glittering silver tea kettles, carefully arrayed collections of Berber jewellery and rugs.  The Meknes market is different. With the beautiful Moroccan crafts are the less pretty practicalities of life: cheap made in China shoes, plastic toys, bottles of shampoo and packages of toilet paper, cardboard boxes spilling produce. I was walking through the lines of stalls and came upon a box of tiny, fluffy chicks dyed bright blue, pink and orange. Vibrating with life and huddling together, a pulsing box of babies. I stooped to pet them. "Deux dirhams," the boy said to me. About 25 cents. I've seen birds in the souks before: lovebirds and parakeets and canaries suspended from poles in their cages, waiting for homes. But what do you do with a purple chick? Is it a pet? A cheap plaything till it dies? And by what miracle does this box of chicks chirp away unmolested in a country that seems to have more cats than people? I held one in my hand, gently running my finger over the soft down. I thought about Tahir Shah and his sieve in Casablanca. What if I traveled across Morocco with a chicken? No tourist would have one, of course-- the boys would quit yelling "Hola, hermana!" at me. I'd have a little cage to carry her around with me and at night I'd spread her feed over the bedspread in my cheap hotel rooms and she'd sleep in the warm cup of my hand.

And at the end of the journey? I'd give her to a sheep farmer or an argan oil collective outside Marrakech and she'd lay eggs for the farmer and spend her life at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. It would be a great test, to travel over Africa attending to the welfare of something so small and vulnerable, and a kind of Zen exercise in freedom from attachment. Be at peace, little chicken. Inshallah, we will meet again.

My time is running out, though: tomorrow morning on to Kenitra, then back to Marrakech tomorrow night for my last weekend with the henna artists and Djemaa el Fna storytellers.

But next trip, certainly. Morocco with a chicken.

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