Carts groaning under the weight of neatly stacked piles of oranges, watermelons, mangoes, bananas, honey dew melons and tangerines.
The tarmac is coated in fish slime and rotten fruit, flattened together into the ground under thousands of car wheels, mixed with scraps of material and mouldy bread.
The stench of horse manure and animal merges with the stink of open dustbins. A rickety monster machine of a rubbish lorry trundles by, leaving in its wake the fetid scent of hell.
The wind surges through the market, and the smell of animal is replaced by the warm aroma of freshly baked bread. Turn your head the other way and a cart piled high with strawberries, sweet perfume wafting over the stalls, trundles by.
Reaching the end of a street, after squeezing in between tightly packed stalls stacked with dresses, underwear, pyjamas, scarves, and gleaming jewellery, and a pungent fishy smell greets you like a sudden jolt against a foul, transparent wall. The road underfoot is awash with bloody water, melted ice, and rotten fish cast away from the gleaming silver piles on crates. A stray dog sniffs beneath one of the carts, while a donkey raises its massive head mournfully, tethered to the front of a cart piled high with sardines.
Shouts from all directions, each vendor competing in price and voice. Shoving a fish before you as you pass by, with brown, work-worn hands.
A man juicing oranges at the far end of the street, and it’s hard to discern whether the oranges smell of fish or not. The street opens out into a wider plaza where vendors selling gleaming teapots and baking dishes spread their ware next to vendors selling all kinds and colours of olives and pristine mountains of vibrantly coloured spices; scarlet paprika next to sunset turmeric and deep olive cumin.
I was trying to buy a dress. My father told me not to speak in my Arabic because they would know I was a foreigner and raise the price. So, silent, I allowed the woman to pull several dresses over my head, one after the other, each more richly decorated than the last. Her voice was high, and she was talking to me but I found it hard to understand her rushed accent. I didn’t want to try on anymore dresses. The sun was beating down on my head and my scalp was beginning to itch. The noise around me swelled and filled my head so I found it hard to think, and listen to all the voices around me. People shoved past me in the narrow alleyway where the woman selling the dresses kept pressing dresses onto me. I looked helplessly at my dad who was shaking his head at me, as if to say, ‘stop now, we’re going, say no.’
I really wanted a dress, though. He wanted to leave the market, it was getting too much and he didn’t like her insistent attitude.
Finally I was ready to go too. This was getting ridiculous. Why was she making me wear the dresses. I didn’t want to wear them, I wanted to look at them. I know my own size for goodness’ sake. My dad didn’t understand. He thought I wanted to try on the dresses and he was getting cross, thinking I didn’t need to. He was getting pushed further and further away by the throng of people pushing through the slim spaces between the carts.
I felt like I was drowning in Moroccan dialect and dresses and misunderstanding.
‘I don’t want to buy a dress.’ I told the lady.
She bundled one into a bag, pushing it in my face. I glanced helplessly at my dad; she hadn’t understood me. His face was turned away, his jaw set in the way it does when he is cross because I haven’t listened. It’s not my fault. Help me.
Then it happened. The heat, the noise, the fish infiltrating my nose and surging through my brain, the dirt, the surreal difficulty of shopping; everything has to be bargained, don’t speak your Arabic here, feeling lost and confused, dogs and donkeys, bloody fish guts and orange juice, stray cats that look like they are the spawn of satan with their oblong heads and extra long fangs…
I burst into tears.
Not just regular tears. No. Uncontrollable, unstoppable tears. My dad was furious. The shop lady bundled me into a chair and dried my soaking face with her hands, palms rough from work, and kissed my cheek. I was dimly aware of the crowds that had gathered around this strange girl who started crying for no reason. My father managed to elbow his way over and tell the others to stop crowding over me; I was fine.
In response I had my face in my hands. I didn’t want to cry but the heaving in my shoulders carried on of their own accord. Like there was an invisible force inside emptying my system like you would empty a leak in a boat. And it kept on filling up, the more the tears spilled from my eyes.
How embarrassing. What a weakling I must be. Look at that western girl, can’t deal with our markets.
I don’t know why it happened. I wish it hadn’t. I wish I had been more sturdy and strong and capable and not given into myself. I’d tried so hard to stop it but it just kept rolling over me, a waterfall of pent up emotion that I hadn’t even known I’d been harbouring.
I don’t think it was the market, though. I think it was something deeper, more menacing. Something I have been suppressing for a long time, and this is the first time it has reared its ugly head.