Starre Vartan wandering Marrakesh.
The most fun I’ve ever had shopping is in the souks in the old city of Marrakech. The souks have been a bargainers mecca for hundreds of years, and I imagine a Victorian version of myself being just as enchanted with the wares as I was as an iPhone-toting modern woman. There’s something about the souks that just doesn’t lose its charm over the years; I remember stories that my grandma told of haggling at such marketplaces when she was travelling via Pan Am’s ‘around the world’ ticket. Now it was my turn, and I hope that my friend’s kids will one day tell me of their own trips to the souks of Marrakesh. I have more hope for the future of the world if magical places like these continue to exist.
A typical street; loved the light here, and the crouching man on the right.
I entered the souks through the wide open-plan Djemaa el Fna square, a giant open trapezoidal space edged with terraced cafes (and even a KFC/Pizza Hut), carts laden with dates, figs and nuts galore, huddles of smoking, tea-drinking men in long white and beige-colored djebellahs, and plenty of Aussie, British, French and Kiwi tourists; Americans were not well-represented (as they tend not to be, well, anywhere except at cheesy Caribbean resorts).
The drama of the souks is immediate and overwhelming in the best possible way. I left the big sky of the open square behind me, and entered the mostly covered, narrow streets of the souks, where donkey-led carts, Japanese scooters and people carrying gigantic loads on their shoulders mixed with men and women shopping from the narrow storefronts on either side. Not that there was room for this kind of traffic, but we all made concessions, including pedestrians who would hop out of the way of a zooming, noisy scooter or ornery donkey. Some shopkeepers advertised their wares, while some sat quietly, waiting in their tiny, ancient booths for passersby to take in interest.
Shops tended to sell a single item; handmade slipper/shoes, or jewelry, pottery or lamps and lanterns. The souks of Marrakesh (and in any city where you’ll find them) sell to tourists as well as locals, so this is no Disneyland of shopping – you can get that at upscale ‘malls’ in other parts of Marrakesh, but here the deal you make – or not – is the real thing.
My father, Gerry Vartan, waits patiently while I search for just the right rug….
I had to stop at one of the slipper-makers, and picked up a pair for a couple of dollars that were silver and gold patterned, threaded together in an intricate pattern, and which I now wear as my winter around-the-house shoes. I also bought an extremely lovely giant flower of an amythyst cocktail ring and some pillow covers.
But I was on a mission with a larger prey – the perfect rug. But of course, I couldn’t buy just any hand-made floor covering. After walking into, and out of five rug stores, which were the dominant store in the souk, my father was looking a bit tired. I had met him and my stepmom here in Marrakesh, and knowing my father and my penchant for shopping, she had wisely begged out of the mission. After a young boy had pulled what seemed like the millionth rug from the pile and unrolled it for me, and I had shook my head in disappointment, my father pointed high on a dusty shelf. Good thing perseverance runs in my family.
Starre Vartan’s perfect vintage Moroccan rug.
I had been describing to the shopkeepers I saw that I really wanted a Moroccan rug in shades not of orange, yellow, cream and red, but of purple, green, black and pink – but those are not common colors for rugs these days, which is why the search had been so fruitless. But once my dad’s spotted rug had been pulled down, and unrolled, I was rewarded for my vision. A vintage rug, somewhat worn, in shades exactly as I had described, was before me. The rug-seller thought I was a bit mad, as the floor covering was over 30 years old, but to me, it was perfect.
After some brave haggling on my part (I’m not much of a deal-maker, but I did my best), the rug was mine, and currently graces the floor of my bedroom. It’s perfect. And sometimes when I’m sitting around on it of a cool evening, I think about where it lived before my space in Connecticut, and what it had seen before making the trans-Atlantic trip with me.