Brothers in the Market of Rugs

We went to Morocco for Christmas, mainly to Marrakech. Known as “the jewel of the south,” the city lies inland from Casablanca, which is on the Atlantic. An Islamic country would not be everyone’s top choice during a Christian holiday, but the tourist hotels, knowing their customers, had decorated evergreen trees in the lobbies.

On the way from the hotel to the souk or covered market, we ran a gauntlet of guides who insisted we’d otherwise get lost in the labyrinth of brass-beaters, shoemakers, robe shops, spice sellers, and rug merchants. Our guide took us first to his own home, where his mother, obviously the boss of the house, kept his wife in line as she served us tiny cups of very strong coffee.

One of our party, a musician, had his heart set on commissioning a goat-skin drum. The next day we heard that a goat has been slaughtered. The scraped-off hair was still on the floor. After several visits marked by very strong coffee, the finished drum was delivered by motor-scooter to a designated spot next to a soccer field. Tied along the edges of the field were camels, which had just plodded north across the Sahara.

But our big shopping adventure took place in a rug shop, the proprietors of which doubtless gave the guide a commission. Many rugs were unfolded for us, both pile and flat-weave (kelim). The next morning I wrote a dialogue called “Brothers in the Market of Rugs.” As in the shop, there were two local speakers but the words are fictional:

“Allow us to welcome you to our shop, you and your friends: here is the best selection you will find in Marrakech. You are American? We have a brother, lives in Brooklyn. We make a special price for you, very cheap, special price.”

“Don't look at those rugs--inferior quality--you see? Let us show you the best we have, flat weave from High Atlas, wool woven by young girls before they ever go with a man.”

“Look at the sheen, you'd think it was silk….”

“It shines like the eyes of an oasis woman as she sees the caravan finally approaching when her man's been away six months. To weave this rug it takes that long. You can go blind: so small the knots, so many knots in each square meter. Your children will give this rug to their children.”

“Oh, you like this other one? Your grandchildren will dance on this rug, will be blessing you. It's an investment. Is this your first time in our country?”

“The dye is made from flowers found just below the snow line.”

“May we bring you tea, mint tea, maybe coffee? Or a Coke?”

“You will find such rugs only in the palace of royalty.”

“You have cats, dogs? Feel how tough the back is--last forever. Which one do you like? Each rug, you just tell us yes or no. If you say no, we take it away--in Arabic it's la.”

“And when a rug will touch your heart, please signal us okay and we put it aside. Perhaps you will find more than one. We lower the price. One for your friends to admire, the other at the foot of your bed.”

“You will have more tea?”

“Very special, this rug: it shows how paradise would look if wool could show--it can, you know--the breath of love in spring on a low garden bed under a canopy of silk with nectar on a table, bird-song in a flowering tree and, behind a hedge, musicians weaving, knotting their song as the lover's face rises into a mask of ecstasy. Or maybe you'd like something else? Woven of hair from the ear of a camel, or a billygoat's soft beard?”

“Just tell us what you like. We ship it direct to your home.”

“For you, the finest treasures of our culture--no problem!”

“All prices are clearly marked. We make only ten per cent. We have letters we can show you from Americans who left Marrakech without buying the rug that they loved, who ask us to send it….”

“But how can they describe one rug among so many visions of paradise we have shown? And do they even recognize what it is our rugs depict, when they say how well the colors will go with their drapes? Will this one here match yours? Will it go with the upholstery? Our women lose their sight weaving gardens for the tourists, who do not even comprehend the magic that they buy.”

“But you would comprehend it--you, a lady of vision-- so we will make you a special price for our first customer of the day and will roll up paradise so small you can check it on the jet back to France, and give you a receipt telling customs that you paid even less for it than you will. Give us an offer. Let's make a deal. Can we shake on it?”

“Next year you will return and buy another, or your friends will come on the plane and be led by a guide to our shop and we will sell them rugs almost as fine as what you bought, as we fill the living rooms of your rich northern countries with the mystic template of our wildest dreams, which remain, to you, as invisible as the ring the snake charmer draws around himself in the air before lifting his drum and revealing, beneath it, a cobra ready to be charmed.”

“We will sell them rugs, as we are selling this rug to you, for that is what the Great One has given to us to do, to arouse in you a desire for objects of wool that you can bargain over, pay for, and spread on your floor…”

“Without ever knowing how stars look, in the High Atlas, when you watch a flock by night, or how you shear the wool in late spring, wash it, gather blossoms in a basket to make dye, dig roots for other colors, and fix in yarn the spirit of our sky, the dull red earth of Marrakech, spring run-off from the peaks, olives and dates from market stalls, and the blood of a lamb slaughtered just after Ramadan.”

“More tea?”

“Let the gentleman know, who gets his rug with credit card, the dance of forearm, wrist and fingers that ties so many knots, more knots for him than the number of stars that a shepherd can see in the mountains as he dreams of a paradise not found in the High Atlas or in the city that wheels around the Koutoubia mosque with its souks, squares, courtyards, with its palaces and ramparts and luxury hotels where our customers drink wine and listen to musicians make sound as subtle, intricate and mysterious as the patterns in the rugs we sell--music that puts in code, in your ear, the same message our rugs put in your eye in code you can't decipher with a laptop—a garden you can't enter on American Express.”

“But we just sell rugs and for you we make a special price so you can take home a little bundle of Marrakech, spread it on a wooden floor and know you have acquired at least as much as you paid for, taking into account the Moroccan hospitality, the banter with us, the spectacle of fifty rugs unfolded just for you, and the game of dancing toward a price where, as if it were a cafe, we can meet, do our business, and be gone.”

“So let us ask you, our dear friend: what are you willing to pay?”

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