Alongside highways and small roads, in large towns and tiny villages, exists an incredible phenomenon. Once a week, folks gather from the surrounding countryside to central locations throughout Morocco, and out of the dust, the weekly souk is formed. The villagers use any movable platform to ferry their wares to the souk. Old trucks are packed with sofas and chairs, hollowed-out minibuses stocked with sheep – bellowing out the windows, overloaded ancient vehicles with sacks of household goods. Then the donkeys. Donkeys pulling huge carts laden with goods, donkeys carrying large packs dangling on either side, donkeys moving entire families on their backs. All these, machine and beast, funnel to the well-used souks, clogging the roads and slowing passing traffic to a crawl.
For those not in a hurry to continue driving, the sight of the telltale congestion is a boon. In a small village in the desert north of Errachidia, the souk was tiny, consisting of a dozen stalls for vegetables and assorted products. A ten-minute walk around produced beautifully woven colorful bread plates, handmade using palm date fronds. Other souks are much larger, and some are absolutely massive. Many villages have specific plots saved for the exclusive use of the weekly hustle and bustle. The stands, booths and stretched tarp remain abandoned and silent, until the big day when a human flood descends into the stalls. Outside the designated area, peddlers display their merchandise sprawled out on the ground. Anything from clothes to old electronic devices can be found, but the bulk is often second-hand goods, broken wares, or what may be called ‘antiques.’ Searching through these can be tedious, but may yield retro Ray Bans frames or old leather bags. In one such place I found an old cigarette box from the 40s, stamped with the words “Produced specifically to prevent sore throat.”
Most souks are laid out with specific sections selling different goods. Each row, and in bigger souks even several rows, are dedicated to a different product. All the produce sellers will be concentrated in one area, often the grain sellers – with heaping mounds of barely or sacks of flour – will be nearby. The clothes rows are packed with scarves, jellabas, dresses, pants, suits, socks, produced locally or in China, for a price cheaper than can be found anywhere else. Next will be household products, ranging from shampoos to brooms to tagines. Heaped among them are traditional natural soaps, dried rose flowers, spices and other raw products for home use. The edges of the souk contain the ‘heavier’ sections. The meat market is one such section. Whole cows or sheep hang by the stalls, and the butcher will cut slabs according to the customer’s desire. Hearts, liver, kidneys are all available, and it is completed with chicken-slaughtering booths. Another edge, sometimes adjacent, is the food court, where freshly butchered meat is brought, grilled and served right away. On the outskirts is the livestock market. Sheep, goats and donkeys are sold and bought, either ridden out of the market, or packed tightly into the large trucks and taken back to the farms.
Some souks have areas that are unique. The souk in Azrou of the Middle Atlas, for example, is known for its local carpets – and some wealthy tourists come from all around to purchase unique designs. In a souk in the valleys outside Marrakech, I saw a whole district of blacksmiths producing yard tools, heating the iron in fire till it’s red and pliable, and working it into the desired shape.
The weekly souks in Morocco are incredible places. Almost anything can be found, and they provide a glimpse into a way of life that in many ways has remained unchanged for centuries. It is a place for community building and strengthening relationships with neighboring villages or folks from far-flung areas. The souks are not a tourist attraction, existing entirely for Moroccans, and in fact the tourists sometimes become an attraction themselves. Most importantly, if you stumble across a weekly souk in your travels, remember: bargaining is the only way to shop here. Good luck!