Colette Apelian writes about life in Rabat and a typical Sunday.
Living not far from the train station in central Rabat means I do not have access to a fresh vegetable market unless I walk five to ten minutes down Avenue Mohammed V into the madina. The old vegetable suq that used to be in an unique plaza under the streets in my area is now a lovely open space lined with an art gallery and restaurants. This kind of gentrification is great for children needing a park of sorts to play under the watchful eyes of parents desperate for coffee and sweets.
It may have also supported the Moroccan government’s successful application to have Rabat become an UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the outdoor cafes, customers can also enjoy nearly unobstructed views of some early twentieth century French colonial structures. The new designation makes me laugh a little when I think of Resident General Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey’s policies of preserving Moroccan madinas by building new cities outside their ramparts during the first decades of the French Protectorate (1912-56). Documents from the Rabat application at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1401/reveal that not just the pre-twentieth century monuments like the Chellah and Tour Hassan but also the surrounding and quite modern urban fabric of Hay Hassan are now officially valued as part of the Moroccan and global heritage. However, while all this is fine and well for feasting one’s eyes, it does make eating healthily a little difficult for inhabitants in the area. The wilted cucumbers and perpetual lack of cilantro in small hawanits here are not very appealing, apologies to any hawanit owners, who probably also shop in the madina, if not in al Akkari.
So, Sunday mornings, like many of my neighbors, I walk down Avenue Mohammed V past the expensive Marché Central stalls to some of the side streets of the old city where one can find better priced and much fresher veggies. One winding street is pretty well stocked. I like to find it by turning right off of Avenue Mohammed V in the madina onto Rue Sahraoui (Zanqa al-Sahrawi). I keep walking straight until the street turns into Rue Faran Zitouna (Zanqa Farran al-Zaitun). Soon, I see a line of vendors with wares spread on plastic tarps, wheeled carts, or wooden stands. As I walk along in the direction of the Oudayas, I can usually find everything from countryside eggs (“’bldi’ NOT ‘rumi,’ madam”) and bags of shelled peas to overpriced broccoli (“20 dirhem a kilo, really?”) and fish of all kinds, all sold under the watchful eye of neighborhood kitties (“scraps, please?”) and the occasional suq policeman. Usually, I fill two large plastic woven bags (mika or mikat in plural) with several kilos and carry the haul home with one mika in each hand.
On the way back this Sunday, I was stopped by a lady who looked like she was originally from Southern Morocco (like Los Angeles, everyone here is from somewhere else). Though she was even shorter than I, she insisted on carrying one of my bags since it was heavy, and then she grabbed it out of my hand quick as lightening before walking forward. There was nothing I could say to talk her out of it.
On our the way up the hill that follows the tram tracks towards Place Joulane in the Ville Nouvelle, I mentioned I should buy a carrossa like hers. She was dragging one of those two wheeled carts that have a flap-covered duffle-bag like container propped up inside. I often see ladies use them in madina suqs. She said she knew a place that sold them for 80 dirhems, and that is where she bought hers. Funny thing, I saw that store yesterday, but was not sure the carrossas were a good deal. However, here was a lady from the neighborhood quoting me the price in rials, telling me to buy it there, and using “ukhti” in her sentence (“my sister”). All of that meant that, unless she had part-ownership in the shop, which was kind of unlikely, a carrossa from this boutique was probably a good deal, at least in Rabat where prices are usually a bit higher than the rest of the country, except for Casablanca, of course.
We made a left turn at a roundabout before Place Joulane, and walked over to the shop along the route to Redal where we both pay our utility bills. Leaving her carrossa in front, the lady helped me choose the best color -- "What, no more black?" After my purchase, she gave me an orientation. I'm supposed to cut off the outside corners of the interior bottom piece so I can easily take the carrossa around building corners and in narrow places without ripping a hole in the fabric. I can put my bizaam (small money purse) in one of the carrossa zipper compartments, no need for a large purse in the suq. No, a Velcro attachment is not necessary to keep the top flap closed.
She then helped to load all my groceries inside and followed me a bit to make sure I had the hang of it before heading off to her place in Hay Hassan. I would like to thank her properly if I ever see her again. Perhaps down in the madina suq next weekend?
Colette Apelian is an art historian (Ph.D. University of California, Los Angeles, 2005) who writes about modern and contemporary art, architecture, and culture in Morocco.
First published on Morocco News Board