I rushed through the crowded streets, trying to mind my steps while keeping up with the pace: Our day in Tangier had become a shopping marathon with a guide we nicknamed “speedy Mustafa.”
The shops were still closed in the morning when we arrived by ferry from the Spanish coast, so we passed time enjoying mint tea and Moroccan almond cookies in the patio of El Minzah Hotel. The hotel reception rooms are a classic example of Moorish architecture with arches and traditional mosaic tile work known as zellige.
From Bazaar Bargains to Argan Oil
When the first shops opened, it was time to start our shopping expedition. We crossed Rue Liberté, lured by intriguing objects suspended around the door of Bazaar Tindouf.
Inside, Moroccan crafts were displayed floor to ceiling leaving little space to walk around: Heaps of hand-woven kilim rugs, rows of hooded djellabahs, mounds of deflated leather ottomans (poufs), piles of brass trays, loads of copper pots, and various kinds of boxes some adorned with marquetry and others with tin and camel bones.
In Your Bucket Because…
- If you are on vacation on the Spanish Riviera, shopping in Moroccan souks is an eye-opening experience.
- Moroccan artisans are skilled, creative, and use traditional natural materials.
- For die-hard shoppers/hagglers, discerning eyes, good walkers, bargain hunters.
In the back of the shop, traditional leaded-glass lanterns dangled from the ceiling of a narrow hallway, and glowed like stained-glass windows backlit by natural light. At one end of the hallway, we found an old man welding in a cavernous alcove close to a decrepit concrete staircase.
We tiptoed down the steps made narrower by piles of ceramics and ended up in a dark room stockpiled with kilims and ginger jars with mosaic designs. In a corner, another risky staircase seemed too tempting to pass. It led us to more of everything. When we thought of how deep below street level we were, the musty air suddenly became unbearable: It felt as if we were in the guts of Tangier.
A Guided Tour for Shopping on the Run
Back on the street, I was checking a city map when a man introduced himself as Mustafa and said he wanted to be our guide. My friends and I couldn’t communicate privately because Mustafa speaks every language we know, but his persistence won us over. It occurred to us that that he could well have been one of the guides in white djellabahs we dismissed at the port. But having a guide meant that Mustafa carried our finds from Tindouf: small lacquered bowls in rich jewel tones adorned with tin cut-outs, and two sconces wrapped in Le Journal de Tanger.
Mustafa tended to keep his distance and he often ran to the opposite curb. When we complained, he explained: He was, he told us, an “independent” guide who would get in trouble by the “authorized” ones, and occasionally by the police. Since we heard through the traveller’s grapevine that official guides tend to be despotic, we felt lucky to have Mustafa even if he occasionally disappeared.
Around the Shops in a Few Hours
We hurried down a street lined by small gadget vendors and arrived at a crowded area where locals were going about their daily routine. Stalls offered anything a Moroccan housewife could possibly need. We called out for Mustafa to stop at a kitchenware shop: Not longer after, tagine dishes with pointed lids and multicolored tea glasses joined the load on Mustafa’s arm.
Back on the street, we walked past fruit vendors where mounds of tangerines reminded us that when oranges were shipped from Tangier to Europe for the first time, they became known as tangerines.
But the stores didn’t only carry practical items: Our next stop, an antique shop, dazzled us with displays of vintage clothing, embroidered fabrics, painted wooden chests, and amazing Berber jewelry.
Mid-day found us at El Andaluz: four tables, a portable barbecue and a two-burner stove on the doorstep, and a small wall-hung washbasin. The only women there, we felt welcome and safe. While we stopped for lunch, Mustafa answered the call for prayer.
After lunch, Mustafa guided us to Medini’s Oriental Perfume Essences. It was closed, but never mind: Mustafa disappeared briefly and returned with the owner/chemist who pulled up the metal door. In the small shop, vials with hand-written labels were aligned on shelves: jasmine, rosemary, verveina, santal, patchouli, “azahara” citrus blend, and the costliest of all, the “absolute of rose.” We loaded bags with natural soap and glass tubes of liquid amber and musk: sweet, fresh, and heavenly.
At a Berber pharmacy we bought argan oil. Endemic of Southwestern Morocco, it is valued for its nutritive and medicinal properties and is a praised beauty products of Moroccan women.
By this time, we were almost running out of time, yet we still had to find the Mouatamid pastry-shop where we had pre-ordered bisteeyas: traditional pigeon pies loaded with hearty ingredients. But first, we stopped to buy baskets — hand-woven from palm leaves — to carry the growing load that would soon pass from Mustafa’s arms to ours. When I wanted to pay, Mustafa got into a heated conversation in Arabic with the vendor — He felt insulted that the young man charged too much. Later on, Mustafa intentionally bumped into someone on the street: the basket vendor.
Ambulant merchants tried to get the last of our cash as we walked out of the souks. When it was time to pay Mustafa, we considered that this is how he makes a living in a city with high unemployment. Thankful, he pocketed 40.00 euros without a look at what we gave him.
Finally, our last stop: the pastry shop. We ran in, and were flabbergasted at a misunderstanding that resulted in twelve boxes of pigeon pies ready for our pick-up. “They can be frozen,” we were told. Forget about the platters of scrumptious cookies we had planned to buy.
The taxi took us back to the port, where we caught an afternoon ferry back to Spain and to our home, in another world. When we retrieved our baskets from the car, oil had dripped from the pigeon pies into the trunk – which was not the way we had planned to end this exciting single-day shopping marathon.
Other Moroccan Crafts
- Centre de l’Artisannat: Carved plaster for lampshades and sconces, footwear slip-ons (babouches) with intricate leather weaving, book binding.
- Shops in the souks: Filigree jewelry, formal caftans, silk and sequins babouches, silk knotted-buttons, hand-woven belts, carpet rugs, thuya wood boxes pen holders/domino sets, and mosaics.
- Comfortable closed-toe shoes, long loose-fitting skirts and a covering top are highly recommended — Don’t forget your passport and beware of pickpockets!
- Check ferry schedule online. Ferry tickets are valid on earlier or later crossings. You can hire a guide online, in a Spanish travel agency, or upon disembarking, but set a firm price.
- Cash is better for haggling. Merchants prefer euros to the local dirhams. Most shops take credit cards.
- A shopping day goes by fast: Shops open at 10 AM, and close for at least 2 hrs. mid-day. Morocco is 1 hr. behind Spain’s time (2 hrs. during daylight saving time).
Copyright 2012, Marie Claude Arnott. All rights reserved.