Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Souq day, the most important day of the week

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.




Kate said...

Wow, Mr. Gomez, I really enjoyed this post. I have never heard of Souq days, and it is really interesting how the local population seemingly thrives on "Souqs" and the days they are in operation. It is also interesting to think about souqs in how this eliminates the problem of food deserts in areas that would otherwise face extreme access barriers. Very nice.

Ahva said...

I really appreciate this post -- thank you for giving an international perspective on rurality with your explanation of the Souq. Your explanation of the Souq being an especially important day both economically and with respect to family, fellowship, and community life reminds me of small-town festivals. Many small towns in rural areas have an annual festival that they are relatively well-known for, and people from surrounding towns and regions will often flock to the host town to attend. Often, the host town's economy depends on the influx of visitors and customers during the festival, and the festival also fosters fellowship within the community. For example, my husband's rural hometown of Pendleton, Oregon hosts the annual "Round-Up" -- a rodeo weekend which attracts 50,000 visitors to an isolated town with a population of 16,000. During the Round-Up, businesses boom, and, in my husband's words, "family and friends from out of town come to visit, and the whole community bonds."

Though the Souq appears to occur more often and on a smaller scale than the small-town festivals I've described, it seems like it serves many of the same purposes as those festivals -- economic growth and community fellowship.

Desi Fairly said...

I am always interested to hear about "farmers markets" equivalents in other countries. The Souq days in Morocco sound like they attract every member of the community. You describe a market that provides food that is otherwise extremely difficult to obtain and absolutely essential to the diets of shoppers. I feel like most farmers markets in the United States do not play the same role. Oakland's market, for example, is catty-corner from a major supermarket. The prices at the Oakland farmers market are noticeably higher than one would pay at the nearby grocery store. It attracts affluent people who are more concerned with the popular organic movement than with having a source of food. I am not saying that Morocco's market is better or worse than the farmers market I’ve described in the United States. I am simply noting the difference in cultural niches that such markets play within a community.

David Gomez said...

Aha this is a great point about festivals. In Morocco there are countless local festivals. Most of them celebrate a local crop. For instance there are festivals for roses, apples, and dates. There is even one for weddings.