Sunday, February 12, 2012

Over-priced Carpets and Priceless Wisdom

Today's guest contribution comes from the bio-adventurer, traveller and travel writer, Christina Ammon. Christina is currently staying in Fez while she works on her next book. She kindly took time off to record her first impressions of the Fez Medina. 

 Abdul gestured to heaven.

 I used to work for money. Now I work for Allah. We are sitting outside his ceramic shop in one of those rare beams of sun that filter into the Fez medina at midday. Just a moment ago, he was laying on a heavy sales pitch for a tagine; now he was praising Allah. 

This was not like shopping in America. The sales clerks at Victoria’s Secret or The Gap are more interested in pushing a three-for-the-price-of-two panties – or spieling on about their credit line – than sitting in a ray of sun talking God. 

But to be clear: Abdul did have a keen interest in selling his wares. Anyone who has spent a split second in the medina knows that the shopkeepers are relentless. They call out to you everywhere you walk, and sometimes trailing you down the street. 

But what is redeeming about medina is that although overpriced gadgets may be plentiful, so are spiritual truths. The salesmen of the medina are shape-shifters. One minute Yousef-Carpet Salesman is tricking you into his shop and the next, he is waxing on like Khalil Gibran. 
“One day sunny, one day raining. One day good, the next day bad.” Si Mohammed was standing amidst the antique vases of his furniture shop. “That your heart is beating, this is important.” He placed his hand on his chest. “Health. It is the only thing that matters.” 

Somehow the shopkeepers of the Fez medina aren’t aware of the dirty secret of all thriving capitalist societies: that happy people don’t buy things. Dissatisfaction – not gratitude—is what fuels consumerism. Don’t remind people of the good fortune that is health. Tell them they are not thin enough, blonde enough, or young enough and their wallets will turn inside out. And lose the Insha-Allah, that laissez-faire sentiment that turns our fate over to the Higher Power. Tell them that with the right pair of skinny jeans, they can be the master of the universe. 

“Enjoy every second. For you do not know when and where you will die,” Rachid counseled as I leaned toward the mirror to inspect a pair of silver earrings and formulating my bid. My heart leapt. He’s right! I plucked the earrings from my lobes. What am I doing spending money in this dark shop when I should be out on the sunny rooftop, watching migrating storks and the springtime hills?

It’s not just wise words that you find in the medina, but also wise postures. Old men in djellabas lean all day against weather-stained walls, content as horses turned out to pasture. They occupy sidewalk tables, taking in the scene over cups of mint tea that never seem to empty. On my way home each day, I pass the same plumber taking the same seat of repose in the same chair. Such postures don’t exist in America. There, time is money, and everyone must fiddle with their cell phones, or be on their way somewhere. In the contented body-language of the Fassi lies a sort of somatic advertisement for Simply Being. 

No shopping trip is perfunctory in the labyrinthine byways of the medina. The sacred and the profane mix like intimate aromas and aggressive sales pitches are in no way at odds with spiritual pursuits. False guides bamboozle you into a tannery tours en-route to the mosque. Carpet sellers sing Hamdulila! and then rob you blind. The wisdom of the ages echo off walls hung with overpriced kitsch. You set off scouting for a roll of toilet paper, and suddenly find yourself standing in the center Si Mohammed’s antique shop, spellbound by his wisdom, and giving thanks for the very beating of your heart.

Medina plumber - photo Suzanna Clarke
Read about Christina's bio-adventures.



Anonymous said...

I think you are right and wrong at the same time.
You are right when you make some assumptions, but wrong when you project your desires onto some people and what they meant when they use these traditional phrases.
I like the way you think though.
Life should not be measured by how much material stuff we own, but how content we are about our condition and how satisfied we are with our lives.
Some people refuse to continue on this race to acquire and accumulate more wealth. The ones that do it knowingly are the true happy people.
I sometimes look at these gazillionaires, and I can't help but notice that something essential is missing. And you look at one of these wise old men, with barely enough material stuff to survive, and you see wide smiles and mountains of wisdom behind it.
I have kids, and if I could, I would go back to the Atlas mountains where my ancestors lived for millenniums with very little stuff and plenty of happiness. Unfortunately, I don't want to deprive my kids of an outstanding education. So I stay put where I am now.
I dream of retiring in the Atlas mountains, in some remote place where no tourists ever venture and where the roads are barely passable. I would not have a phone, laptop, or any of the modern amenities that we came to rely upon.
I think that then ,and only then, will I take the time to enjoy my "time".

Fatima Zohra said...

Nice work Nice writing and great observation.

Jeanine Sturm said...

I am thankful for insight into a way of life that combines commerce and human interaction. There are a few service-oriented professions here in the States where one has room to wax philosophical and prioritize human need over money. Unfortunately, they are few and far between. Ironically, it is the poorer paid who have the most to offer here.