The comfort and hospitality of El Reducto seems far from the chaotic medina that streams like an artery at the end of the pathway. Anything becomes possible under the colored tarps strung between buildings that provide a spectrum of shade for the vendors, the colored light broken only in the places where the evening sun slips through. For once it is not raining, so the markets are crowded and busy with families and gangs of youth, pulsating with unspent energy. Bags of grains, bouquets of verdures mint, baskets of brown chicken eggs give way to dazzling shops of steel teapots and crystalline chandeliers crammed so close, the shop itself becomes a faceted diamond. Plucked, dead chickens hang by their feet, the last of the blood dripping from their necks into the walkway. The fluid trickles to the center gutter to join the guts of fresh sardines, and juice from the womb of a cat that has just given birth. Goat heads smile up in a row, unblinking at strings of green peppers that twirl in the wind. Pleasant aromas of cinnamon and cumin in large open sacks are disrupted by rotting vegetables and fresh animal death. Wafts of leather from the tannery vats choke in my throat as I wend by the entrance, where men stand up to their knees in the pungent chemicals. My hand goes out instinctively to a kitten perched on the edge of a vendors table and it lets me pet its soft, scabby head. The air chills around carts of fish on mounds of ice. A little boy waits with his father as the vendor packs the silvery morsels into a bag, and as they wait, the father rests his hand on the child’s head, who is level with the dozens of eyes that gape back. Labyrinthine alleys appear between shops as if summoned, leading to another pandemonium, or down a residential path that is empty and shadowed, somehow forbidden to the casual wanderer. The scent of these medina’s is not for the faint hearted. It is a place where anything can happen, where the cycles of life, death, and commerce come together in a beautiful and intimidating disorder that tries, turn after turn, to knock you over with something new.
If I am being heckled by the young men as I walk the streets of Tetouan alone, I’m lucky I don’t understand the language. To them I am a blonde American, and judging from the TV shows I receive, dubbed over in Arabic, German, French, and Spanish (but never English) their views of American women are about as limited as my views of Moroccan men. Certain signs of heckling are universal: stares, kissing noises, mutterings in the direction of my ear as I walk by. But most of the words in my environment carry no meaning in my uni-lingual mind. It’s rather peaceful to tune out something that bothers me because my ignorance shields me from offense. That never happens in the States—I’m a vocal and aggressive anti-catcaller. In my other proceedings with the locals, I can coast by on a little Spanish—although Mexican Spanish is different from Spanish Spanish—but most of my transactions, such as buying bags of salty olives or a tuna sandwich, are completed with a combination of gestures, self-confidence, and trust in the vendors. If I have been taken advantage of yet, I don’t know it. It is possible, but it seems smiles and pleasant openness will get one far even when there is a language gap. I buy a grouping of garlic pulled fresh out of the mountain farms, a bag of green and purple olives, and a papaya that smells like the air did in Cameroon.
I turn around and make my way back through the uproarious market, remembering to turn at the third pen of live hens clucking behind the butcher. The street signs are in Arabic, and a wrong turn down one of the other alleys would make return from the unknown difficult in the dwindling light. I pass the familiar landmarks, not willing to get lost in the maze of hidden doors and whispered prayers as the sun goes down and the young men begin to travel in bigger packs. I return to my apartment and watch the events unfold from my balcony. Not much changes, except a group of children kick around a tennis ball outside the guarded palace gates, a young man leads an old blind man through the crowds, and I see more clearly the depth and magnificence of the Rif mountains, now that the rain has ended, framed by fine pink clouds as the sun goes down.