A Month in Morocco: Meat Perfume

I had five hours to kill before my bus arrived and I spent most of that time sitting in a shop talking with Samir. I had met him five days earlier when I first arrived in Erfoud. He sold me a Touareg turban then linked me up with the trekking company that took me into the Sahara. Samir was a hawker, but unlike other hawkers I had encountered, he didn’t discard me after our transaction.

Samir’s shop was tiny. He explained that most souvenir shops were government-owned and stocked with a generic inventory. He worked on 100% commission. To compensate for slow sales, Samir sold an assortment of random things under the table: desert minerals, trilobite fossils, various electronics, and books he scored from tourists. He said it was worth it but if he got caught doing it he’d be back to hustling on the streets. This time of year business was bad, but at least he had a roof over his head. I bought a dog-eared copy of Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie from him.

As we were talking in the shop, another man joined us and sat quietly, looking at his ancient cell phone. Samir picked up a djembe and played some Bob Marley, humming where he didn’t know the words. I hadn’t been feeling too well and was running a low-grade fever, but the drums and his voice were soothing and I found myself dozing off with my head resting against a display of woolen djellabas.

The man interrupted Samir and I could tell he was talking about me. Samir asked me what time my bus was scheduled to leave, I told him and the man shook his head, then said something else. Samir laughed and said the man wanted to show me a video on his phone. The man pointed to the tiny screen and said, “camel, camel.” For the next 9 minutes, 33 seconds we watched a choppy French film with Arabic subtitles. Seemed to me that the video was comparing the strength of camels to souped-up 4×4 trucks. The man kept looking at me and I’d smile and nod. He’d say something like, “camel strong, yes?” I’d agree.

When the video ended, the man said something that cracked them both up. I couldn’t help but wonder if I had somehow made myself a laughing stock—like maybe I was the one tourist who had watched the camel video all the way through to the end.

Samir said, “You’re going to Fez, right,” then he told me the man said the bus makes only one rest stop along the 8-hour ride. It’ll be the middle of the night and I’ll be surrounded by animals hanging by their necks. The bus will park near a barbeque and fill with smoke. He said I should absolutely get off because sometimes people pass out. But I shouldn’t worry, the driver will blow his horn when it’s time to go. Samir said, “Whatever you do, don’t stay on that bus.” Then the man remembered something and tapped Samir’s shoulder. He laughed again and told me that the man calls this stop, “Meat Perfume.”

Samir went back to the drums. After a while he stopped and asked I believed in God. I said, “yeah, sure.” His voice got louder as he told me that people in India worship monkeys and rats, that some folks think cows and fire are sacred. “But,” he said, “These people are wrong—a cow is a cow, and fire is just fire.” Samir, however, said be believed that people should be able to think whatever they want, and if thinking about these animals makes them remember to be nice, he was all for it.

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