I am rushing through the crowded streets, minding my steps, keeping up with the pace. Our first day trip to Tangier has turned into a shopping marathon with a guide we nickname ‘Speedy’ Mustafa.

Morocco is one hour behind Spanish time, so we arrived before the shops opened. Never mind. The hydrofoil boat ride across the Strait of Gibraltar has been somewhat unsettling, a pause with mint tea and almond cookies in the patio of El Minzah—the five-star hotel on Rue de la Liberté—is a better plan.

Deep into Bazaar Bargains

Shopping begins an hour later, directly across El Minzah. The colorful goods decking the Bazar Tindouf door lure us inside this Ali Baba-like cave for everything Moroccan:  

  • Heaps of hand-woven kilim rugs
  • Rows of hooded djellabas
  • Mounds of deflated leather ottomans (called poufs)
  • Piles of brass trays
  • Loads of copper pots
  • Lines of Moorish ginger jars
  • Collections of thuja-wood boxes with marquetry or tin and camel bones.

The place is packed floor to ceiling, leaving just enough space to browse through until I look up. Kaleidoscopic stained-glass lanterns dangle from the ceiling of a narrow hallway. The end of it reveals an old man, welding such lamps in a cavernous alcove next to a decrepit concrete staircase.

Narrow steps bordered by perilous stacks of ceramic dishes lead us down to a room hoarded with more kilims and glazed ceramic jars. Down another precarious staircase, too tempting to pass, the dirt floor suddenly hit our sights and senses in the semi-darkness. The mosaics’ intricate arabesques suddenly seem to churn, and the mustiness becomes unbreathable. We are in the guts of Tangier, where no bit of fresh air ever finds its way in.

After the expected haggling, we step back on the street, me with one bag of lacquered bowls in jewel tones adorned with tin cut-outs, and another with two sconces wrapped in Le Journal de Tangier. We are trying to get our bearings when a man in a white djellaba introduces himself, the map stretched in front of us a sure sign that we are first-time visitors. Never mind our attempts to communicate between us, Mustafa speaks every language we know. And he would also carry our bags.

Around the Shops in a Few Hours

The marathon begins on the way to the medina—the 14-th century walled part of the city. An outdoor market, evidently the daily errand of Moroccan housewives, flies by as we speed-walk through stalls of produce and mounds of ‘tangerines,’ so-named when they were first shipped from Tangier to Europe.

Soon after and already out of breath, we holler Mustafa, so he’d wait as we rush into a kitchenware shop. Tajine dishes with their pointed lids—and the kind safe for cooking—plus colorful tea glasses then join the load on his arms.

In the hustle and bustle of the medina, Mustafa seems to keep his distance, often running to the opposite curb. “Why?” we ask. As an “independent” guide, he would get in trouble by the “official” ones, and occasionally by the police. The visitors’ grapevine is full of stories of those official but despotic guides. We feel lucky with Mustafa, even if he keeps disappearing.

After Mustafa glances at our list of addresses, we hop over sewage-d curbs all the way to Majid’s Antiques. There, dazzling displays of vintage clothing, embroidered fabrics, painted wooden chests, and remarkable Berber jewelry take our breath away before we have time to catch it.

Majid, a man accustomed to Western designers and celebrities, then entrusts us to Mustafa for lunch at El Andaluz: four tables, a portable barbecue and a two-burner stove on the doorstep, and a small wall-hung washbasin (to “purify” one’s hands). The only women there, we feel welcome and safe. And while we have lunch, Mustafa will answer the call for prayer.

From Perfume to Pigeon Pie

Back on the shopping racing track, we frown at the closed door of Medini’s Oriental Perfume Essences. But only until Mustafa finds the chemist, who re-opens the shop for us. Hand-written labels on the vials aligned on wooden shelves reveal delightful fragrances: jasmine, verbena, santal, patchouli, citrus blend, and the costliest of all, the “absolute of rose.” We leave the store with essences, natural soap, and glass tubes of liquid amber and musk—sweet, fresh, heavenly.

The next stop is a Berber pharmacy where we buy argan oil. Endemic of Southwestern Morocco, it’s valued for its nutritive and medicinal properties and as a beauty product praised by Moroccan women. Beware though: it quickly gets rancid.

Our time is running short if we don’t want to miss our passage back to Spain. We still have to find Mouatamid, the pastry-shop where we pre-ordered bisteeyas—traditional pigeon pies loaded with hearty ingredients.

Then a bit of a spat happened, in Arabic, between Mustafa and a seller of baskets, necessary for our upcoming pasty load. He charges too much for the palm-leaf woven kind. Later on, a begrudged Mustafa elbows the basket vendor on the crowded street.

We rush out of the souks, ambulant merchants chasing the last of our cash. It’s time to part with Mustafa and pay for his service in this city where unemployment is high. After speedily pocketing the money, he hails a taxi for us.

Time ticking, the driver keeps the engine running while we run into the pastry-shop. And a flabbergasting misunderstanding yields twelve instead of six boxes of pigeon pies, large instead of small, and ready for our pick-up. “They can be frozen,” I hear as I regretfully eye gazelle’s horns cookies.

It’s past midnight when we retrieve our baskets from the car, oil dripping from the pigeon pies and into the trunk. For months thereafter begins a new tradition at our house in Spain—serve our guests a heaping slice of that sweet and savory pastry.

First published 2012 on Buckettriper.com