Morocco’s Extraordinary Donkeys

The author returns to Fez to explore the stubborn animal’s central role in the life of this desert kingdom

Working like "little pistons," donkeys keep the medina humming. An estimated 100,000 people in the Fez area depend on the animals for their livelihood. (Eric Sander)
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A roar floated over the fairground; it was the combined chatter of hundreds of buyers and sellers haggling, and the smack and thump of boxes being opened and sacks being slapped down to be filled, and vendors hollering for attention and a blast of Moroccan music playing out of an unattended laptop computer that was hooked to man-size speakers, beneath a tent of fabric cut from a Nokia cellphone billboard. We walked in through a section of the souk where vendors sat behind mountains of dried beans in baskets four feet wide, and past stalls selling fried fish and kebabs, the greasy smoky air trapped in the tents, and then we arrived at the donkey area. At the entrance were rows and rows of vendors selling donkey and mule supplies. A young man, deep furrows in his face, was selling bits made of rusty iron—his inventory, hundreds of bits, was in a stack three feet high. Beside him, a family sat on a blanket surrounded by harnesses made of tan and orange and white nylon webbing, and every member of the family, including the children, was stitching new harnesses while they waited to sell the ones they had already made. The next row had a dozen stalls, all offering donkey saddles—V-shaped wooden forms that sit on the animal's back and support the cart shafts. The saddles were made out of old chair legs and scrap lumber, the corners nailed together with squares cut from old tin cans; they were rough-looking but sturdy, and they had thick padding where they would rest on the animal's skin.

Just past the saddle sellers was a small field jammed with donkeys for sale, their owners scanning the crowd for buyers, the buyers strolling among them, stopping to glance at one, size up another. There was much milling around, the crowd moving in and out of the clusters of donkeys; the donkeys, though, stood quietly, nodding off in the warming sun, idly chewing a bit of grass, flicking off flies. They were a rainbow of browns, from dusty tan to almost chocolate, some sleek, others with the last patches of their thick winter coats. For someone who loves donkeys, it was an amazing sight. I stopped near one dealer who was in the center of the field. A small woman with piercing blue eyes, covered head to toe in black fabric, was completing her transaction—she had traded her older donkey and some cash to the dealer for a younger animal. The donkey dealer was tying a hobble on his new acquisition, and when he finished, he told me he was having a busy day and had sold eight donkeys already that morning. His name was Mohammed, and his farm was ten miles from the souk; he brought his load of donkeys here on the back of a flatbed truck. It was a good line of work. His family had always been donkey dealers—his mother and his father, his grandparents, their grandparents—and business was steady, 50 donkeys or so sold each week. He had brought 11 donkeys to the souk that morning, so he had three small, sturdy animals left.

"How old is this one?" I asked, patting the smallest of them.

"He's 3 years old," Mohammed said. As he said this, a young man behind him grabbed his elbow and moved him aside and said, "No, no, he's only 1."

"Well, is he 3 years old or 1 year old?"

"Uh, yes," Mohammed said. "And very strong." He leaned down and began untying the donkey's hobble. "You will not find a better donkey here at the souk. Just give me 15,000 dirhams."

 I explained that I lived in New York and that it didn't seem practical for me to buy a donkey in Khemis-des Zemamra. Moreover, the price—the equivalent of about $1,800—sounded exorbitant. Donkeys here usually go for under 700 dirhams.

"Tell me, what is the price you want to pay?" Mohammed asked. He was a dark-skinned man with sharp features and a loud chesty laugh. He led the donkey a few feet away, and then turned him in a circle, displaying his fine points. By now a crowd of other donkey sellers was gathering. I explained again that I was not being coy, that as much as I would love to buy the donkey, it was more impractical than even I, an often impetuous shopper, could possibly be.

"Then we'll make it 12,000 dirhams," he said, firmly. "Very good."

By this time, the crowd had become emotionally invested in the idea that I might buy the donkey; a gaggle of little boys had joined in, and they were giggling and jumping up and down with excitement, dodging under the donkey's head to glance at me, and then dashing away. The donkey was unperturbed by the commotion; he seemed wise, as they all seem to be, to the fleeting nature of the moment, and the inconsequential nature of the outcome, that life would just roll on as it has, and will, for thousands of years, and that certain things like the hard work of animals and the mysterious air of the medina and the curious and contradictory nature of all of Morocco will probably never change.


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