We stood outside one of the Kasbah gates as a bright and washed-out Tangier spread out before us. We had just finished up tea and juice after having been, once again, led by an unofficial tour guide through the heart of the Medina. While part of me liked the tour, I tried to ditch the guide by entering an art shop at the corner of an alleyway.
Inside the shop, I struck up a conversation with the shopkeeper. I admired the textured brush strokes of the hand-painted art I saw and asked the man if it was his art. “No,” he said, placing his hand on my shoulder like he was sharing a secret, “it’s a friend’s.” Instead of telling me about the artist, though, he launched into a rhapsody about his love for running, and how he was a running coach. He even dusted off an old photo album and showed me a picture of himself in full marathon attire in what looked like 1980s Tangier.
A picture is a poem without words
I turned my attention back a book of small watercolors on the table. The signatures all matched, and I could see the ink reflecting in the light. These were original watercolors, I concluded, showcasing scenes of the Medina and its people — and they were good.
“How much?” I asked.
“For you, my friend, only 120 dirhams.” Only $12 for an original watercolor! Such a give-away price was pretty much unheard of, but I knew I was supposed to negotiate.
“Sixty dirhams,” I said.
He came back with a quick, “No, 100 dirhams.” Suddenly we were playing the haggling game.
“No eighty, has to be 100.”
I told him I’d think about it. As I left, I saw genuine sadness in the man’s face. I think what bothered him most wasn’t not making a sale. It was that our conversation about his running career was over.
But I couldn’t get the watercolor out of my mind—I had to buy it. I just didn’t know how to find the shop again. I knew I’d have to cross the entire medina. But without the guide I had already ditched, I had to locate a little shop in a vast maze of narrow streets. It seemed hopeless. What was I going to do? Ask people “Do you know a running coach who sells art?”
I didn’t even try. Instead, my boots began to cross the stones. First, I wandered into a small, blue and white courtyard only to be told “esta cerrado.” The man vaguely pointed me toward the Grand Socco. The labyrinth continued to unfold in front of me, the colors and elevations changing as quickly as they disappeared behind me, until, finally, I spotted a familiar corridor. I looped around the “Riad Tingis” at least three times before making the right combination of turns, like opening a kind of padlock. The art shop on the corner finally came into view.
The running coach smiled. “One hundred dirhams,” I said to him, reaching out to shake his hand.
I probably overpaid, and most people who will visit my apartment back in Maine will probably not even notice the watercolor framed on the wall. But every time I pass it, I will remember the twisting, mystical nature of the Medina.