24 August 2020

The Babouches of the Arabian Nights

If you've ever travelled to Morocco (one R, two Cs, do note, many misspell the country’s name), you've probably set foot in Marrakesh and its well-known Jemaa-el-Fna square that truly comes alive at sunset. Oh it's touristy for sure but Moroccans themselves hang around the snake charmers and food stalls. Perhaps you'll fancy some freshly squeezed orange juice... until you realise the glass you're about to drink from has been dipped, for lack of being washed, into a bucket of unchanged, stale water.

During the day, it's best to find some shade in the dark alleys of the medina (this is the name of the old city centre) adjacent to the square mentioned previously. With some sense of orientation, you wouldn't get (entirely) lost, but the small, connected shops do all look alike. It's in one of those stores that I found my babouches on the first of my many trips to Morocco in April 2009. Babouches are Moroccan slippers made of leather and with no heel; the front is usually pointy, while harder-sole ones are used outdoors.

Pick any colour!

As with every product, they come in different degrees of quality and refinement – and therefore price. I had by then already analysed the price markup of the so-called "big merchants" of Marrakesh (in comparison with the ones in smaller towns who sold their wares to them): anything from three to ten times the actual price. Just like anybody, I dislike being ripped off and having been raised to be price sensitive, that was the perfect recipe to make me hesitate to "splurge" on a pair of beautiful, night-blue babouches which cost a little less than twenty dollars.

Abundance of choice confuses me

The merchant, however, was not the aggressive type who would harass you to death – if only those realised that they would sell significantly more if they opted for a softer approach... (Having said that, some sellers were humourous; I stole their joke by responding "helicopter?" when touts in other countries yelled at me: "taxi, taxi, motorbike, taxi!"). In fact the merchant was friendly enough that I very temporarily forgot my habitual shyness, asking to take a photo of him and his colleague. I can't help but smile every time I see his startled eyes on the photo: following the photographic advice to ensure everyone in a group would have their eyes open for the shot, I had asked them to close and then quickly open their eyes.

Babouches sellers in Marrakesh

Eleven years on, I'm still wearing my babouches as my indoor slippers at home. They've resisted the passage of time so much longer than any other French pair of slippers I've ever worn. Who would have guessed? The foam above the sole did gradually disintegrate, the colours faded and kitchen oil spilled on them. But they're still functional, no seam has broken. So that makes for a happy me, which prompted me, out of the blue, to write about them.

My night-blue babouches in 2020, after 11 years of using them

PS: The title of my article is a bit misleading though: most Moroccans are actually not Arabs but Berbers (also called Amazighs), a distinct ethnic group, even if the Islamic conquest of North Africa throughout the centuries led to their arabisation.