The Matriarch of Msallah

Photo of the author, Alyssa Ehrenfried

As the only child of a modest family of musicians and public health enthusiasts, I once believed the biggest risk I’d ever take was studying abroad in Morocco. Tangier, with its vibrant colors, culture, cuisine, and nightlife – what could be more of a stretch for me?

Little did I know. One day at the Boulevard’s famous Cafe de Paris, I wondered what it was like to be a street vendor selling fruit, vegetables, or pastries. Do they work for themselves or others? Maybe, I thought, I could learn the ropes of their business and connect better with the people of this amazing city.

I was lucky – just as I was cooking up a plan, our campus manager Mourad swept into the cafeteria and sat at our table. With that earnest look of a man always ready to help, he asked,

“What can I do? How can I help? Need anything?”

I smiled and nodded. “I want to understand the lives of street vendors. I just don’t know how to go about it.”

“Okay, no problem. Let me think.” Mourad’s face scrunched with intense concentration. His eyebrows furrowed, and I could almost see the wheels turning in his head.

“Yes!” he finally said. “I’ll introduce you to a vegetable seller I know in Msallah. Let’s go!” He gestured towards the cafeteria doors.

“Perfect! I’ve heard great things about Msallah…”

“Wonderful, wonderful people,” he said, scribbling names and what looked like a map. “We’ll visit… ah… this lady and this man… Very popular, popular. He owes me a big favor.”

I thought to myself, as he continued his spiel, that half of Tangier seemed to owe Mourad favors. If he ever collected them all at once, the line would stretch down Belair Street.

“So, it’s settled. We’ll meet the Matriarch of Msallah. How about Thursday?”


On Thursday, Mourad, my friend Katie, and I left campus and walked the short distance to Msallah. We dove into a crowded alleyway, and Mourad turned with a grin. “Welcome to my old home.” He was born in Msallah.

Mourad led us deeper into the souk until we reached Asmae, an older woman selling vegetables. Mourad explained that she works from seven in the morning to eight at night, every day except Friday, the Muslim holy day.

When I approached, Asmae was preparing a bag of fresh peas. I sat next to her on a step beside a heavy black door adorned with gold details.

“Good morning, Asmae! My name is Alyssa. How are you today?” Mourad translated my questions and her replies back to me.

“I am doing fine, how are you?” she said, looking directly at me with a warm smile.

“I’m doing great! It’s a beautiful day. May I ask about your life?”

Asmae’s smile widened. “Of course, it would be my pleasure.”

I began with simple questions about her family and her work. She told me about her large family: one son, twenty-five years old, and four daughters, the youngest being nine.

One question I had was about prepping and selling a bag of peas. It sounds simple, but asking her was more nerve-wracking than a flu shot! Before I asked, Asmae handed me a bowl, dropped in five pods, and pointed at them, signaling it was time for work.

With no training, I fumbled with the pea pods, losing some peas in the process. Asmae caught my eye and gestured at a plastic bag. It was my turn to pack and prep for sale. She pulled out a full bag and placed it on a scale showing me the correct weight.

Just as I’d filled my bag, a customer approached. Asmae looked at me with a mischievous grin. All I had to do was hand over the bag and take the money, with Asmae thankfully handling the talking.

Afterwards, I asked, “How long have you worked in Msallah?”

“Twenty years.”

“Wow, that’s impressive. Have you moved around?”

“Oh, not at all! This exact spot, for twenty years.”

Twenty years in the same place, and still that genuine smile? Here was someone I could learn from.

My trip to the souk taught me that happiness is all about perspective. The people of Msallah were genuinely happy because they had community, family, and love.

If I hadn’t ventured beyond my comfort zone, ignoring my family’s worries, I’d never have experienced selling peas alongside Asmae.


Alyssa Ehrenfried is an Athletic Training major at the University of New England.

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