Splendid Chaos: Larbaa Idowgurd Souk of the Haha Berber by Gary Nabhan


We sauntered down the crowded curvilinear aisles, amazed at the splendid chaos of a Berber market:

Legs of mutton, ribs of goat hanging from meat hooks, the heads of the fallen at the feet of the halal butchers; tarps tossed on the limestone ground every which-way.

Heaped with piles of velvet-black eggplants, green peppers, crimson tomatoes and pink onions; a hopped-up lad in a turban, dependent upon a sick cobra and broken drum for his meager living;

Hobbled donkeys sneaking a bite out of their drover’s harvest of carrots, or sniffing a portable gas-powered generator until it gives them a shock;

An old man isolated from his customers by a sea of car and tractor parts of models no longer made, or for that matter, no longer serviced professionally within two hundred kilometers of the marketplace.

For every man, there was a donkey; for every donkey, a two-sided set of bags arching over his boney back; for every saddle bag, there was a burgeoning load of lambs or kids ready for slaughter; couscous ready for trading; ras al hanout spice mixtures ready for hawking; or vegetables ready for piling.

It did not matter whether one vendor sold the same exact inventory of produce, knives or braziers as the dozen men surrounding him in their own booths, for each had their own clients, friends and enemies. It did not matter that the donkeys grazed and defecated precariously near the seasonal fruits and vegetables; they were all grown out of that same manure. It did not matter than a man might sell a lamb and then buy a goat for the very same price; he would still go home with something that his family hadn’t had on the table since last week’s market.

I could not stand to come and gawk without buying one thing from the spice merchants there in the heart of the souk, so I moved from tent to tent, umbrella to umbrella, until I found a man with crippled legs who sat amidst bags of mint, ground harrisa red pepper, tumeric and saffron and cumin. I asked him for some of his shopkeeper’s choice spice mixture, the ras al-hanout that is nicknamed “top of the shop,” for every merchant puts a special price on his own aggregated mass of a dozen to two dozen distinctive spices.

As the spice merchant passed me a bag aglow with vivid colors of ground spices and I tossed him twenty dirham in exchange, I realized why I liked ras al-hanout more than another other item on sale at that stand. The best that he could offer has not a single premium spice, but a mélange of flavors and fragrances that challenged and hopefully complemented one another. We do not come to such markets to high-grade off the best and leave the rest to waste; we come here to taste chaos itself, to take it into our bellies and to remember that it is always like the wolf at the edge of the village, hidden but ready to humble us at any moment

But what may look like a dreadful mess to the outsider’s eyes is a chaos that splendid and perhaps divine at the same time. Its loose networks function in and for its community in ways that the uninitiated observer cannot immediately fathom:

A spare part sold for thirty dirhams miraculously fixes a tractor built in the Fifties that had languished on an orchard’s edge for fifteen years, for no one had yet found the missing valve it needed to run once more;

The cobra, queasy from a two-hour ride in the back of a pickup truck, rises to the beating of the broken drum, and takes in enough fresh air to dance for its dazzled audience;

The eggplants and tomatoes once strewn down on a tarp by one old farmer find their way into Fatima’s kitchen where they are added to a delicious couscous with the ras-al-hanout spice mixture that had been sold by the crippled merchant sitting next to that farmer.

The writer, wholly disoriented by the smells and sounds of the Larbaa Idowgurd souk, sits in his room humbly contemplating what he can do with his own bag of ras-al-hanout that might rekindle his memory of Fatima’s exquisite couscous.


One Response to “Splendid Chaos: Larbaa Idowgurd Souk of the Haha Berber by Gary Nabhan”

  1. Howard Beale : Turn off your television sets | Shopping For TVs net Says:

    […] Splendid Chaos: Larbaa Idowgurd Souk of the Haha Berber by Gary … […]

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