Magazine article The Spectator

Tales from the Souk

Magazine article The Spectator

Tales from the Souk

Article excerpt

My back was jammed against the pink, sand-encrusted wall of the souk. He was grasping my arm so hard that it had caused a nervous reaction in my left shoulder which hit a window with mechanical regularity. He was screaming in my ear, `You make me so happy. I am so very pleased to meet you. Give me kiss.'

That was it. The straw that broke the camel's back. Literally. I had been brought up on A Thousand and One Nights, Rider Haggard's She and so forth. Obviously places like Morocco were teeming with dashing Arab guide chappies. They were as thin as papyrus plants: silent, amusedly cynical. They had dark, saturnine faces with eyes like questing panthers'.

Imagine my disappointment at the man who greeted me in the lobby of the hotel. Not so much Richard Burton, the great 19th-century Orientalist, as Richard Tauber, the fat opera singer. He was short, as round as a bowl of couscous and red in the face. What is more, in an instant a myth was shattered. Instead of carrying a jewelled dagger in his hands he clasped, oh my god, a mobile phone.

`Hey, girl,' he said, in a manner less Sinbad than Dennis Skinner, `I'm Abdullah.' He added, `You make me very happy.' Eh? Wasn't it supposed to be the other way around? My mother and I asked him to take us to a certain textile shop. We gave him the name on a piece of paper. He looked at it contemptuously and then threw it on the ground. `I take you to my shop. Better.' We protested we wanted to go to the first establishment. He shrugged, `Okay, but I take you to my shop first.'

Morocco. T.E. Lawrence used to complain about it. The situation came about because the French colonies were run differently to ours. The French liked to mould their subject peoples into Frenchmen. So, many Moroccans have the arrogance of the French and the ineptitude of some Africans. It's a winning combination.

All the way to his shop Abdullah kept jabbing at his mobile phone. Unfortunately he spotted mine. Give me the number, he demanded. Did I slap him in the face for his impertinence? Did I raise myself up and put on a voice like Joyce Grenfell? I did not. I rather feebly gave him the numher. American gangsters in the Twenties used to practise something called the Hot ii Foot. This involved slipping a match into someone's shoe between the sole and the heel, lighting it and then standing back. …

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