At the suggestion of the municipal officials we mounted the stairs and looked down on the packed square. There can be no more Oriental sight this side of the Atlas and the Sahara. The square is surrounded by low mud-houses, fondaks, cafes, and the like. In one corner, near the archway leading into the souks, is the fruit-market, where the red-gold branches of unripe dates[A] for animal fodder are piled up in great stacks, and dozens of donkeys are coming and going, their panniers laden with fruits and vegetables which are being heaped on the ground in gorgeous pyramids: purple egg-plants, melons, cucumbers, bright orange pumpkins, mauve and pink and violet onions, rusty crimson pomegranates and the gold grapes of Sefrou and Sale, all mingled with fresh green sheaves of mint and wormwood.
[Footnote A: Dates do not ripen in Morocco.]
[Illustration: From a photograph from “France-Maroc"
In the middle of the square sit the story-tellers’ turbaned audiences. Beyond these are the humbler crowds about the wild-ringleted snake-charmers with their epileptic gestures and hissing incantations, and farther off, in the densest circle of all, we could just discern the shaved heads and waving surpliced arms of the dancing-boys. Under an archway near by an important personage in white muslin, mounted on a handsome mule and surrounded by his attendants, sat with motionless face and narrowed eyes gravely following the movements of the dancers.
Suddenly, as we stood watching the extraordinary animation of the scene, a reddish light overspread it, and one of our companions exclaimed: “Ah—a dust-storm!”
In that very moment it was upon us: a red cloud rushing across the square out of nowhere, whirling the date-branches over the heads of the squatting throngs, tumbling down the stacks of fruits and vegetables, rooting up the canvas awnings over the lemonade-sellers’ stalls and before the cafe doors, huddling the blinded donkeys under the walls of the fondak, and stripping to the hips the black slave-girls scudding home from the souks.
Such a blast would instantly have scattered any western crowd, but “the patient East” remained undisturbed, rounding its shoulders before the storm and continuing to follow attentively the motions of the dancers and the turns of the story-tellers. By and bye, however, the gale grew too furious, and the spectators were so involved in collapsing tents, eddying date-branches and stampeding mules that the square began to clear, save for the listeners about the most popular story-teller, who continued to sit on unmoved. And then, at the height of the storm, they too were abruptly scattered by the rush of a cavalcade across the square. First came a handsomely dressed man, carrying before him on his peaked saddle a tiny boy in a gold-embroidered orange caftan, in front of whom he held an open book, and behind them a train of white-draped men on showily harnessed mules, followed by musicians in bright dresses. It was only a Circumcision procession on its way to the mosque; but the dust-enveloped rider in his rich dress, clutching the bewildered child to his breast, looked like some Oriental prince trying to escape with his son from the fiery embraces of desert Erl-maidens.