By Chris McBeath

We were high in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, surrounded by Berbers and beautiful, but inhospitable country. “Take off your jewelry, leave your wallets with the driver; and don’t leave my side”. Our instructions were more like orders and for one uneasy moment, as my husband and I exchanged nervous glances, we wondered if this was how neophytes were seconded into white slavery. But we really wanted to explore this extraordinary market and if this was the price, we were prepared to obey. After all, our escorts were ‘official guides’ and with that stature, our safety as tourists was more than their own lives were worth.

Beyond Marrakesh

A two-hour drive from tourist-oriented Marrakesh, the tiny market village of Asni is barely visible on the map yet come Saturday, it is one of the busiest Berber souqs (markets) you will find. While these markets are generally safe, foreigners still represent easy pickings to many stall-keepers and traders. In city centers, the King has installed undercover ‘tourist police’ to mingle with the crowds and haul away overly zealous hawkers.  Consequently, souvenir shopping is fairly hassle free, save for the odd bartering session. But here in the mountains, royal edicts are less easily enforced so it was with common-sense wisdom that we secured an escort.

As we entered the market compound, we were glad we did.  It was a mass of humanity jostling through the mud to set up make-shift stalls, box displays, and ground covers. Merchants showcased everything from turnips to false teeth, and as I looked at the rather unappetizing selection of dentures atop a wooden crate, those in need seemed happy to slip a pair into their mouth, trying them out rather like a new pair or shoes. As with many traditional markets, fresh meat and produce are the order of the day and soon we were walking down a path lined, like some satanic trail, with the just-skinned heads of sheep. It led to the open air abattoir where Berbers were feverishly haggling over the plumpness of chickens, entrails and very fresh lamb. This market is not for the squeamish.

In another area lay baskets of dried fruits, nuts and spices, their aromas suddenly sweetening the air from where we had just been. A series of fold-away barber salons were doing a brisk trade, herbalists administered their public doctrines to various parts of a patient’s anatomy and the baker, tucked in a cavernous ditch nearby, was busy piling loaves of unleavened bread into an earth-oven. Each unbaked loaf had been carried to him from the mountains and identified by a colorful cloth into which the cooked bread was placed, ready the trip home.

Mule Mechanics

For many of these mountain folk, getting their goods to market is almost day’s hike, clambering beside lush valleys and through the crumbly terra cotta mountains that resemble millefeuilles of loose strata. With them come hundreds of mules, each piled high with loads so heavy they leave a legacy of sway backs, sores and split hooves. Once at market, these forlorn-looking creatures are herded into a corral and, rather like readying a car for road, the animals were fed, watered, and shod. On-the-spot blacksmiths tend the line while first aid ‘mechanics’ wrap grubby cloths around bleeding hooves, readying the animal for the return trek.

We took our cue and readied ourselves for the drive back to Marrakesh. Of all our travels in Morocco, this had been among the most authentic. As a working market, Asni offered an insight into a way of life that seems frozen in time. Only the merchandise changes so that today, old Nike running shoes have found retail value alongside kitchen utensils carved out of bone. And while take-home souvenirs were virtually non-existent, Asni offers something more –  a travel experience that stirs curiosity and captures the imagination for years to come.