By: Francis, NSLI-Y Morocco, Summer 2012
All kinds of experts, from tour guides to Middle East academics describe North Africa’s souks as the “supermarkets” of the Maghreb. Such a comparison doesn’t even come close to covering the full blown sensory shock and awe campaign that greets Americans entering a Moroccan Souk. Without a doubt, acclimating to the sights, sounds, and absolute bustle of Morocco’s venerable old markets was both the most challenging and rewarding aspect of culture shock that I had to deal with. In the souk, the fragrances of exotic spices couple with the haggling of merchants and the bleating of livestock, while the eye is drawn to stalls selling everything from severed goat heads to pirated copies of the latest Western movies.
To the uninitiated, even the dingiest American mini-mart seems as clean and somber as a hospital in comparison. But while navigating the sheer sound and fury of the souk was challenge enough, the true struggle came when I was trying to communicate as a new Arabic language student. In the souk, bargaining with impatient merchants was the true test of my Arabic skills. While my host family and AMIDEAST teachers were wonderfully patient with me, the experienced and wily hawkers had (feigned or otherwise) little patience for my originally halting Arabic. In those first few days, I would often become so confused that I would simply agree to whatever price was easiest to comprehend. When I returned home, groceries or souvenirs in tow, my host family would shake their heads in disbelief when I told them how much I had paid. With my humble student’s budget on the line, I quickly made it a priority to learn the Arabic names for items and foods as well as Arabic’s complicated system of numbers and plurals.
Over the course of my trip, the souks were an unadulterated, real life application of skills learned in the classroom, with the souk merchants serving as harsh and impatient instructors. Needless to say, I uncovered many grammatical mistakes in those pungent corridors of commerce, as furrowed brows and dismissive gestures greeted my numerous errors. However, the triumph that came weeks later when I realized that I could now purchase things at “local prices” was as satisfying as any high test score.