Morocco at a Glance: The Berber Pharmacy

The walk to the Berber Spice Shop could be considered a worthwhile activity on its own. I twist through the cobblestone streets, my eyes catching on the bright colors of handwoven cloth with silver and gold highlights. There is nothing pretentious or expensive about this area, causing its authenticity to captivate those who are lucky enough to encounter it. The smell of fresh bread coaxed from its clay oven warms the atmosphere. A boy is balancing the flat loaves on his head with the help of a large tray. Although I am watching this, I’m not surprised when the tour guide announces we have arrived; I can already smell the fragrance of the shop.

thespiceshopbyalicesozziOur host limps into the room, delighting us with his large smile and welcoming attitude. I didn’t know that it was possible to fit so many fascinating things in one open room. Our host leads us to comfortable benches sitting up against a wall. Overhead, glass bottles filled with different colored liquids are lined up on wooden shelves. Once we are seated, our host starts the demonstration.

First, he treats us to an assortment of essential oils. These pure oils, he explains, were without alcohol added, meaning that only a few drops in water makes a natural perfume. Each oil has its own charm: classics, like jasmine and rose, and exotic oils such as myrrh and sandalwood. Argan oil, commonly called Moroccan oil, is also shown to us. He tells us that the Argan seeds were gathered first by tree-climbing goats and then later by their owners. Then, they were cleaned and pressed to achieve this multipurpose oil. He gives a willing participant a quick shoulder massage with the oil to show us its muscle relaxant effects.

After this display, he pulls out an etched wooden jar with a smooth stick poking out of the top. He explains that this was kohl, Moroccan eyeliner, and asks for volunteers. When I raise my hand, he walks over and pulls out a pencil-like object coated with metallic powder. With one experienced stroke, he pulls the pencil across my closed eye. Surprised by the speed, I jump, and look in the mirror to see the dark grey lines of Moroccan style makeup.

Now, our host passes out a jar holding cubes of white musk. I can’t imagine anything smelling better. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he reaches over to pull a small sack from his table. We wonder at its purpose. Personally, I thought that it was the stone from which the Kohl was made. Others thought it was incense. He questions us to see if there is anyone with had a stuffy nose. Cautiously, a man raises his hand. Our host shuffles over, dropping a pinch of the black flakes into the cloth. Then he closes the cloth and rubs it fast against his palm. He holds it up to his patient’s nose, telling him to inhale it deeply for three seconds.

berberpharmacy2“One two three,” he counts with a grin. The gentleman who smelled the mystery concoction sits up straight and opens his eyes wide as he feels the immediate effect of his sinuses clearing. After laughing, others try this potent remedy. We then pass around different jars of spices. One of these was saffron, in some places worth its weight in gold. He tells us the saffron was handpicked from the stamen of the crocus flower, thus its rarity.

As his demonstration finishes, we are able to look around the shop for different items that we can bring back home as a taste of Morocco for ourselves and to share with friends. I’d count this as a highlight of my Morocco experience!

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