Essaouira sits at the intersection of Berber and Arab cultures. However, at the end of the day, the rural markets serve their local community and all its needs, regardless of language or cultural affiliation. We recently visited Souk Larbaâ, the Wednesday market serving the Berber village of Ida Ougard, inland and to the south of Essaouira.
Ida Ougard is easily reached from Essaouira by Lima Bus (blue and white buses which leave from Bab Doukkala, 5dh) or grand taxi (takes 5 passengers for 6dh each – they depart from beside the bus station). Unlike the Sunday market at Had Dra, for example where it’s worth getting up early for the livestock auctions, you can leave Essaouira for a day at Souk Larbaâ around 9am and not miss too much of the action.
As a tourist, you don’t need to carry all your week’s provisions back on public transport, so a trip to a local souk is probably more about seeing rural life in action, soaking up the atmosphere, catching a beldi (a Moroccan Arabic word meaning rural, traditional and/or old-fashioned) breakfast than doing your shopping.
First things first: breakfast. There are all number of small cafes around the market. Before you select one (they are pretty basic – your choice will largely be between sitting on wooden stools or the ground), you need to provide the basic ingredients. You can buy tea, sugar and mint (or in winter, chiba or absinthe, which is believed to ward off the cold) from one stand, bread from another and spreading cheese or oil from another. Take your packages to the cafe of your choice and enjoy your beldi breakfast!
Next, you might want to get your hair cut…. Or maybe not. At Souk Larbaâ there is a whole field of barbers’ tents with clients’ shopping (often still alive) in a pile outside….
You might want to buy some local medical remedies. On the day we went to the market, a guy was promoting them with a microphone and amp. I’m not sure what he was selling, exactly, but he looked pretty grumpy, so whatever he was taking didn’t seem to make him happy.
Should you need a reel of thread, a handmade basket or a couple of nails, you’ll find them here. You can also buy fresh produce, lambs, meat (you can have it barbecued on the spot if you are peckish) and spices. Or a second hand teapot or carpet. In fact, all that you’d need for a rural life of hard graft and minimal frills.
What struck me most at the market, however, was that nothing in the countryside is wasted. We saw animal troughs made of old tyres, baskets woven from polythene, donkey harnesses sewn from old plastic and candle holders made from wood off-cuts and bottle tops. You never know when there might be a power cut, after all. That is, if you even have electricity in your Berber village.
I also loved people watching. Ida Ougard is a Berber community, descendants of non-Arabic tribes. Under prayer caps and in tanned faces, you can spot blue and green eyes. And faces also tell of a lifetime of over-sugared tea and a lack of rural dentists: a good number of those farmers seemed to have fewer teeth than fingers on both hands….
Most of the serious shoppers and traders travel to market on the favourite rural transport: the lowly donkey. At Ida Ougard there is no car park to speak of – but there were plenty of donkey parks. And, further away, from the bus back to Essaouira, we also spotted donkeys parked at the ends of lanes and beside argan trees – waiting for their masters to hop off the bus and load up their purchases for the ride back to their farm.
A visit to a local souk is seldom an opportunity to buy souvenirs and trinkets. However, I’d really recommend it as a cheap excursion and a fantastic way to see how rural Morocco ekes out an existence away from the big cities and coastal resorts.
See more photos from the market on Facebook.