old meets new in the ancient districts of morocco's cities
Words by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank & Photos by Justin Hartney
After a friendly “As-salaam alaikum,” the formal Arabic greeting, it was time to get down to business. I said, “My friend told me it should cost 70 dirhams.” The man said, “For this much work, I couldn’t go less than 80.”
Following a night throwing up Moroccan couscous, I didn’t feel like bargaining to get my iPhone screen repaired. I made the bad decision to eat the traditional Friday couscous at a restaurant, which are notoriously untrustworthy in Morocco. Unfortunately, my illness coincided with my phone screen smashing, and there was no way I was going to pay a merchant’s price to get it fixed.
In the North African kingdom, bargaining is not only customary, but shop owners are disappointed if you aren’t willing to spend a minute going back and forth over a few dirhams, equivalent to less than one American dollar. That’s how I found myself in Rabat’s medina, the old part of the capital city, bargaining over about ten bucks. In a mix of my broken Arabic and the vendor’s French, we set on a price that was only slightly unreasonable—due to my foreigner status. Somehow, my phone came back to me with a perfect new screen, and he even told me he could fix the water-damaged battery.
It might seem odd that the best place for tech repair rests behind 12th century walls. But across Morocco, ancient medinas are where tradition mixes with the new. Each Moroccan city has its own medina, a maze of residential and commercial streets. Most of the cobblestone walkways are too narrow for cars, and the colorful buildings rise above like medieval skyscrapers. In the markets, grandmas in hijab and djellabas, long hooded tunics, buy groceries while young men in knock-off European designs sell selfie sticks and illegal copies of the latest American films.
The medinas are quiet in the morning as produce sellers open up their stalls, which seem to appear out of the sides of buildings. Moroccans are night people, and most families don’t eat dinner until 11 p.m. After the last of the five daily Muslim calls to prayer, people go out to buy groceries and sellers crowd the streets yelling prices over each other. Wafts of fresh, savory snail soup fill the air as carts full of dates, olives, and other dinner staples haphazardly skirt through the crowded streets. By midnight, the streets are empty and hundreds of cats appear, on the prowl for a forgotten fish head.
This daily routine is only disrupted by the many Muslim holidays that freeze the city. During Eid Al-Adha, families sacrifice a sheep, or howli—paying homage to the biblical story of Abraham, who was asked to sacrifice his son to prove his devotion to God. It is very expensive to buy a sheep—the cheapest start around 700 dirham—and families often invite their friends and neighbors over, to show off their sacrifice.
Even though I knew Eid was coming, I was still shocked to find two sheep outside of my bedroom in the apartment of the family I was living with. I tried not to get attached to the howli, and even grew frustrated when they wouldn’t stop baaing outside my door while I slept. The day of Eid, I spent a few anxious minutes in my narrow sofa bed, drinking a glass of mint tea while my five-year-old host brother Yassine made funny faces at the sheep. The family sacrificed them in the early morning, so they would have enough time to cook for the rest of the day. I quickly lost my appetite watching the women gather the blood and guts into plastic bags. But later I couldn’t resist trying the tender, barbequed kidney wrapped in its own fat. Although, after eating some parts of the sheep that even my family couldn’t name, I quickly drank a few more glasses of mint tea. For me, the communal meals were not unlike Thanksgiving; together we ate pastries and watched popular Turkish soap operas.
By nightfall, we cut up and packed the whole animal into the fridge, using every part of its body. The next day, already rather sick of eating sheep, I helped take the heads to an underground oven where they were grilled in order to eat the brain.
The cellar looked like something out of Dante’s Inferno, hidden behind two large doors big enough to fit a horse through. I didn’t have my camera with me, and it might have been odd to document this moment, but everyday I saw something that I had never seen before in my life. It was these unexpected little differences that made each day living in the medina exciting: whether it was a discussion on literature with the elderly English bookshop owner or going out to choose a chicken for dinner and then watching the butcher slaughter it. Whenever I ventured out into the ville nouville, or new city, I felt like I could be anywhere in the world. The tall buildings, relics of the French colonial period, and modern tramway had no character. It was only in the medina that I was constantly reminded that I was in Morocco, and that I had no desire to leave.