Tahir Shah says somewhere that a souq is not a real souq unless it sells men’s underpants, and I’m sure he’s right. I spent this morning in Fes, wandering the medina on both sides of the oued, noting that on the Underpants Index the Andalus quarter, at least as far as its main streets go, is a good deal ‘more real’ than the Qairouyyine. Real life impinges quite forcibly too in the form of apricot-barrows (mishmish are coming into season) driven wildly downhill, screeching perilously to a halt at any sign of potential customers; and the all-season mules, laden with half-cured skins so smelly that one flattens oneself desperately to the wall well before the muleteer can shout “baalak.”
Very visible too is another thread in the texture of Moroccan souqs that fascinates me. Clothes shops are everywhere, and densely populated by mannequins. These mannequins are as various as humanity, with every tone of skin and every possible shape of nose. Some have sunglasses moulded onto their foreheads, some are smoothly featureless and bright green, or red, like Spiderman. Others have robotic faces made of horizontal strips, like the cylinder-head of a motorcycle. Some are just torsos with coathanger-hooks for suspending them; others headless on pedestals; yet others half-men, backless like coffin-suits, existing only in their forward-facing aspect.
But for the most part they are old and chipped, faces from the past with dated hairstyles and sullen pouts. Even amongst these humanoid figures there are subtle hierarchies. At the top of the tree are a pair of ur-mannequins, the Adam and Eve of Moroccan couture, a battered teddy-boy and his moll. I suppose that several decades ago an enterprising manufacturer got hold of the moulds, perhaps from France, perhaps even from a departing French business, and churned out the mannequins in cheap plastic for several decades. They are everywhere. Once recognized, they become like the song that Italians call a canzoncina tormentone, the melody that you can’t get out of your head. I can’t walk down a street without spotting, nodding to, and sometimes counting these strangely familiar faces. In the museum at Essaouira there is a very ornate Jewish bridal gown in a glass case, a waterfall of sequins, brocade and ribbon, and standing before it a few months ago, I was suddenly startled to recognize Eve staring soulfully out at me through the narrow slot in the costume’s veil. It can feel a little like Mrs Ravoon, the ghastly heroine of the modern ballad who turns up in the last line of every verse (Facing the fens, I looked back at the shore / Where all had been empty a moment before, / And there by the light of the Lincolnshire moon / Immense on the marshes stood MRS RAVOON!’).
The male figure, Adam, is a slightly meagre, tousle-haired fellow with a jaunty brush-back and big, scared eyes. His wife, Eve, is a frightened-looking creature with her hair up and the same big eyes, her eyebrows applied selon gout in many different forms. The version here is datedly elegant, but she can be much sadder: I recently came across her in leather trousers and naked to the waist, an unappealing sight in faded white plastic which I forbore from sympathy to photograph, almost as though she were a real person. What they have in common, apart from a stylistic continuity, is an ineffable sadness, made more intense by the fact that the paint on these effigy men and women has worn thin and often been touched up by hand over the years. Their eyes, perhaps once sharp and luminous, have been clumsily repainted as though with smudged kohl, so that they seem bruised. Their eyebrows and even their cheekbones, once prominent, are often grazed, sometimes collapsed. They seem to be trying hard to keep up appearances, but fighting a losing battle against the more gamine figures of the 1960s and 70s, with their pageboy haircuts; the aggressively modern 1980-ish girlies with aviator glasses and Farah Fawcett-Major manes; and the glossy, faceless sci-fi beetles of today.
Once you’ve got the idiom clear in your mind, the family grows. Adam and Eve have a son (I think of him as Seth, which may betray a latent gnosticism). Seth is to be found only, as far as I have discovered, outside the lugubriously festive shops where circumcision costumes and related finery are sold. No wonder he looks pretty miserable too – a small figure, five or six years old, with the same bruised, reproachful, kohl-shadowed eyes staring out from under his gilded turban, as though he knows exactly what is about to happen to him and isn’t vastly enthusiastic about it.
These three strange figures from a plastic past seem to me a poignant metaphor of poor, urban Morocco. They are make-do creatures, repaired and repainted, going nowhere but hanging doggedly on, everywhere and nowhere, carrying their scars, keeping their chins up and exuding a huge existential sadness. Watching the world pass them by, but refusing to die. Gamely sporting clothes unimagined in their youth, as their life erodes and more modern figures steal the employment for which they no longer really have the energy, the looks or the aptitude. Modern Morocco has its red-beetle-faced mannequins, and its glamorous plastic models who populate the shopping-malls: I prefer Adam and Eve.
The observant among my readers will have noticed that the running headline picture on my blog is a line of three Adams who stand outside a shop on Avenue Hassan II, not far from my office, embodying for me la condition marocaine. They bravely change their clothes from time to time, and shift their positions a little, but they stand there, winter and summer, rain and shine, chins up, bruised eyes staring forwards, determined to hang on, to get by, to survive. I admire them, and all that they stand for.
Anyone among my readers who is quixotic enough to share my unusual compassion for mannequins is invited to send me pictures of Adam and Eve and Seth, and to venture tentative identifications of their daughter, whom I have seen, I believe, but not photographed.
In Fes, too, an excellent lunch at Mike Richardson’s Café Clock, of camelburger and chips, followed by a truly magnificent scone. The ambience is excellent, Mine Host charming and the camel very interesting (as well as tasty). Mike spoke at an event on Employability (called #employability and q.v.) that the Council ran in Rabat last Friday, where he talked eloquently about his business, alongside four young Moroccan entrepreneurs, in what was a very inspiring start to our employability project.