The trucks arrive early in the morning, around 4:30 a.m. By 6 a.m. the dusty field in the middle of town is transformed into a small tent city. By 3 p.m. they will all be gone and the field will be littered with trash. It’s Sunday or what I call ‘souq’ day in Had Ait Mimoun. Had Ait Mimoun is a small village in Morocco. It was my home for two years while serving in the Peace Corps. I estimate the population to be around 1,000. However, on souq day the number easily swells to 2 or 3 times that.
Souq means marketplace in Arabic. It generally refers to an open-air market place. Imagine a swap meet/farmers market hybrid. You can buy anything and everything there, from groceries to clothes to household goods. The souq can be daily or weekly. There are even specialty souqs, where the entire marketplace is devoted to one kind of product like the spice souq in Marrakech. The weekly souq is the most common form. Vendors travel around a souq circuit in their respective regions and each village in the area has souq one day per week.
The souq is of tremendous importance to a village like Had Ait Mimoun. The souq is the only opportunity for villagers to buy fresh food. In Had Ait Mimoun, there are only three small stores called hanouts. A hanout is nothing more than a walk up window where you can buy staple items like milk, eggs, flour, oil, sugar, and tea. And the milk and eggs are not always guaranteed to be in stock. A weekly souq eliminates the hardship of travelling 30 kilometers to the nearest city to buy food and goods.
A key difference between shopping at a hanout and the souq is price. At the hanout, all the prices are fixed. There is no negotiating. At the souq, the prices are flexible and fluctuate with your bargaining skills. Prices are always negotiable. If you buy in bulk or all your produce from one vendor you can usually get a lower price. I witnessed people argue over price down to the half Dirham (1 Dirham = $.11). Five cents may not seem like a lot, but in Had Ait Mimoun every Dirham counts. Vendors even sell on credit. They keep a ledger of what is purchased, the price, and by whom.
A good majority of the villagers work in agriculture. By no coincidence payday is on souq day. On souq day the farm managers come to town with large wads of cash. The field workers seek them out one by one and get their money to live off for the next week. By days end most of that money is gone.
Souq day is about more than just shopping for food. It is an important day for community. It’s guaranteed that the whole village will be flooded visitors. Relatives visit with each other. Business deals are negotiated. The Sheriff comes to town. The normally vacant cafes in town are full of people chatting over a cup of tea or coffee.
I had a souq tradition. Every Sunday I would wake up early because my bedroom window was on the perimeter of the souq field. I would get up and buy sfinge. Sfinge is fried dough like a doughnut but without a sugary topping. Then I would go shopping with my host mother. I was always looking for the most outrageous thing I could find. The best souq find I made was a knockoff Dolce and Gabbana belt. It was thick white leather and had a gaudy belt buckle. The buckle was shiny chrome and in the shape of my initials DG in cursive font. After navigating the souq my host mother would make a large lunch and we would share it with friends and relatives.
I miss the souq. It is one of my fondest memories of Had Ait Mimoun. I forged good relationships from the vendors I shopped from. I spent a lot of time talking and visiting with people on souq day. Most of my cultural and language competence came from my experiences on souq day.