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Tangier’s Shopping Secrets

Michael James O’Brien

Photo: Michael James O’Brien

After lunch at the home of a friend of Taralon (you rarely see any women in restaurants here, which frankly unnerves me) we head to Boutique Majid, which he likens to “une vraie caverne d’Ali Baba.” Two minutes inside the door and he is swooning over carpets made of bamboo and leather. “So modern, and isn’t that the Hermès style?”

My gaze, however, has landed on the far-from-modern. I’m entranced by Majid’s jewelry, especially the massive amber bead necklaces that would make the wearer resemble Nancy Cunard, the 1920’s artiste and heiress famous for her penchant for ethnic jewelry. I am contemplating a silver pendant whose main feature is a large Hand of Fatima inscribed with tiny Arabic letters (proving that this decorative motif long predates the Hermès beach towel), when Taralon motions for me to follow him upstairs.

We wander through a seemingly endless warren of rooms piled high with centuries’ worth of local goods. An old rack intended for the back of a camel looks to Taralon like a contemporary sculpture; the austere lines of a synagogue lamp may be reimagined for Hermès with silver horse bits.

Vintage synagogue lamps are swell, but unlike Taralon, I am not the sort of person who relishes rewiring projects. I’m the kind who wants Taralon to help her pick out a pair of incredibly stylish ankle boots at Boutique Volubilis, in the Petit Socco.

Volubilis is just the kind of place I dream of when I’m traveling and am invariably disappointed by the ubiquitous chain stores that clot major downtowns in every city of the world. For me, Tangier’s great strength—besides the wild beauty of the place—is that shopping here is blissfully free of those prepackaged, homogenous goods shoved down your throat in so many other supposedly remote burgs. At Volubilis, the utterly distinctive, handmade, oddly colored booties—halfway between hobbit footwear and Comme des Garçons—are embellished with covered buttons and lacings. After a lot of discussion, I settle on deep-pink-and-forest-green ones, a steal at around $100.

Once I start spending, I’m on a roll. I convince Taralon that we should visit Marrakech La Rouge, even though from the outside it looks like a classic tourist trap, including the shill out front. The ambience may be initially inauspicious, but inside, the goods, culled from all over the country, are cheap and first-rate: spice holders, hand-painted cups from Fez, inlaid boxes, miniature teapots, and more. I stack up a pile of these trifles and begin haggling for the lot, a good-natured ritual that is so much a part of shopping in Tangier.

And where is Taralon?Grumpy?Bored?I locate him in another corner of the store, where he is hugging a tray of olive wood and indulging in his own round of hard bargaining. “See,” I say, “you can find good things anywhere.”

It wouldn’t be Tangier without a visit to a traditional rug store, so Taralon introduces me to Coin de L’Art Berbère, where the owners provide Perrier and we are dazzled by an endless array of carpets, most of them ridiculously underpriced at around $300. I am taken with an orange-and-black checkerboard number, and am fairly kicking myself that I didn’t measure my rooms before the trip. (Don’t make this mistake!)

The next day, Taralon has planned an outing to his favorite restaurant, Casa Garcia, in the resort town of Asilah, which is a sort of white-walled, 15th-century version of Amagansett, if the Hamptons had been founded by the Phoenicians. We drive for an hour, past camels loping down the beach, past the straw market where Taralon has tables and chairs made and which he thinks is in imminent danger of disappearing in the wave of new development apparent everywhere.

Asilah does indeed have a surprisingly laid-back ambience—Casa Garcia is the first place where I’ve seen men and women eating together openly. Berobed young women stroll by, their abayat punched up with skintight jeans, stilettos, and copious eye makeup. Taralon tells me that this restaurant is a hangout for artists and the intelligentsia, and that in high season you can easily sit here for six hours. “It’s a celebration, like a church, a temple, a rite,” he rhapsodizes.

We don’t stay for six hours. We share plates of calamari and then walk through the walled town, filled with small shops selling earrings, scarves, and inevitably carpets, until we reach a high wall over the sea, on which are perched dozens of giggling teenagers.

Then we drive back to Tangier, where Taralon is anxious to show me Casabarata, a flea market so sprawling it’s a city in itself. I think, but don’t say aloud, that this could only charitably be called a junk market, but Taralon is beaming at the stacks of mattresses, the Mickey Mouse blankets, the rusted appliances. He insists that rare treasures exist under the rubble, and indeed a friend of his swears that Pierre Cardin once found a 1950’s Dunhill cigarette lighter here.

I find no gold lighters. When I unwittingly crinkle up my nose at the vast piles of maimed goods all around us, he just grins, thinking no doubt of how the metal washtubs might inspire Hermès chandeliers or how the broken window grills could be retrofitted as mirrors. “There are good things everywhere,” he reminds me.

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