I’m living in a town without a Wal-Mart. There’s no Target or Best Buy or any other big-box store, either. If I want one, I have to drive an hour — and I don’t have a car.
I do have the Internet, though, and I’ve been following the discussion about Wal-Mart on the Chevy Chase Community Listserv. The many naysayers who have been posting must believe my circumstances to be paradise, full of quaint local shops offering a wide variety of interesting goods and fresh produce — especially since Ifrane is a small resort town high in the Atlas Mountains, sporting a small university, a fancy hotel, a royal palace and lots of vacation homes.
Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. There are three shopping areas here. Downtown is the closest to my on-campus apartment at Al Akhawayn University. It’s a 20-minute walk. There I can find a couple of suprettes, as corner stores are called, a couple of pharmacies and a small, expensive, mediocre liquor store.
On weekends, I can hit the souk, which requires a 20-minute ride on the university’s once-an-hour van, and then a 20-minute walk. The souk, which covers a couple of acres, is a cross between a giant flea market and a giant farmers market.
The flea market sells used shoes, brand-new pots and pans, and pretty much everything in between — bicycles, computer equipment (it may look new, but it may not work), cutlery, clothes, copper teapots, and on and on. Most of it, frankly, is junk.
The farmers market, on the other hand, is a sight to behold: beautiful fresh produce, stunningly inexpensive. A mound of eggs on a table sits next to a small mountain of onions on the ground. Men crack rock salt into powder and pack it in bags, selling them along with other spices. Long stalks of some vegetable I don’t recognize compete with peaches, melons and apples. I bought half a kilo of black mission figs for six dirham, or more than a pound for about 75 cents.
The best daily shopping is in the marché, a van ride or 35-minute walk from campus. In one wing of the indoor market, five or six merchants display what have proved to be tasty fruits and vegetables, which are maybe 20 percent more expensive than at the souk but still very reasonable. At several butcher shops across the aisle, sides of lamb and beef hang from hooks; the offerings in the meat cases below look yummy even though it’s not clear they’re refrigerated. A few shops offer bread baked by local women.
Another wing of the marché is devoted to dry goods and groceries. The fetching smell of food wafts through the halls and the outdoors, sent by several restaurants that are roasting chickens on rotisseries and grilling kofta, the meatballs from this part of the world.
And, of course, there’s also the barber and the cellphone store and lots of other tiny shops.
It’s delightful. The problem is, you can’t always get what you want. And even if you try, sometimes you can’t get what you need.
Last week, for instance, I went looking for a light bulb for a new lamp — a compact fluorescent bulb of no more than 20 watts. The “hardware store” had one bulb that would work — 15 watts and a little less than $3. But its light is so starkly white that I cannot use it for reading, and I haven’t been able to find a replacement.
I need a Wal-Mart, or at least its Moroccan equivalent, Marjane. I’d still shop at the marché for fresh food. I’d still go there for a haircut and to have dinner at one of the restaurants or take home a roast chicken, despite having to spring for a $2 taxi ride back to campus. I’d even patronize the suprettes downtown when I need to pick up something quickly, and I’d go to the souk when I wanted an adventure.
But a Wal-Mart? Wal-Mart is far from perfect in many respects, and it would be difficult competition for a few of these local merchants. But I want passable towels at a reasonable price. I want grocery staples — milk, cereal, flour, sugar, canned goods — at a chain’s uninflated price. And I want the right light bulb. I bet the folks who live around here, perhaps the less well-off even more so than the wealthy, would want the same thing.
The writer, a former senior editor at NPR, is teaching journalism this semester in Morocco. He lives in Northwest Washington.