I have been having a lively email debate with our travelmate Liz on the nature of karma, a concept that appeals to her and many people but leaves my scientific soul cold. The exchange was precipitated by a final purchase on our last night in Essaouria, just a few hours after what I thought would be my final blog post, about 48 hours ago. But for it to make sense I must first tell you about the jewelry stores in Morocco; I’ve been remiss in not doing so sooner.
Moroccan jewelry — of which Alice has now purchased a substantial amount — is most frequently silver, often inlaid with stones. There is great variety among the styles and settings but the stones, though varying in size and shape, are almost always turquoise, orange coral, or a few varieties of semiprecious green gems.
All of the good quality stuff is handmade, and there is a lot of it. All of the stores display it in a common way, which is a chaotic riot of items filling every square inch of the front window and every wall, often spilling over into chests on the floor like some fairy tale Alladin’s find: little open treasure chests a foot or two across, filled with jingly rings and bracelets with no attempt at organization.
The walls are covered with necklaces, pendants, and bracelets, thousands of them, and all with a slight patina of tarnish that somehow makes their presence more warmly human and immediate. The silver shines but does not gleam; their display makes any Western jewelry store seem cold, overlit and antiseptic. But what really catches the eye, or more accurately overwhelms it, is the sheer density of items; if you laid them out on the floor you would cover every square inch of it to a measurable depth, and you could walk across it without a toe ever touching the tile below. Even hanging on the wall there is barely a quarter inch of space between them, filling every surface.
I find these displays to be like looking at a waterfall from very close range, so that the cascade fills your field of view completely. It is beautiful but disorienting, because it gives the eye no focal point on which to gain visual purchase. Rather, your eye flits from item to item to item without ever coming to rest, saccadic motions as your brain tries to process everything at once. It is pleasing and frustrating at the same time, and after more than a few minutes becomes tiring.
Alice does not have this difficulty; if it’s a problem at all, it is probably a male one. She — and I am guessing other women — seems with little effort to sort through the acreage of visual clutter, homing in one or another object and remarking, “Isn’t that one beautiful?” Well, yes, now that you mention it I suppose it is. But it is difficult for me to tell whether it is more or less beautiful than any of the glinting army of argent baubles surrounding it, and I am ever mystified as to what cortical algorithm allowed her to single out that one.
As you may be able to tell we have visited many such stores over the past three weeks. And so it was no surprise, the night before last, that Alice requested that after dinner with our friends we take a final stroll through the cobblestone alleys and their many storefronts in Essaouira. It was a cool and pleasant Saturday night, perhaps 8:30 PM; the stores were all open, and the streets lively.
We came upon one of many jewelry stores like the ones I have described, this one with many antique wares, and as Alice appraisingly scanned the storefront display, for the first time something caught my eye instead of hers, hanging from a cluster of thin leather thongs at one edge of the window. I thought at first it was an old pocket watch, because it was a brass disk whose color had caught my eye, one of the very few non-silver items in the window. I peered more closely and saw that it was not a watch, though it superficially resembled one: brass, about 2″ across with two ornate hands like on an antique clock face. But instead of a single ring of numbers the face had two concentric rings and was divided into 16 segments instead of twelve, which puzzled me. Some kind of calculator, perhaps, like a circular slide rule?
The owner saw my interest — they always come out to chat you up and inveigle you into the store — and pulled it out of the window, then started to fiddle with it. “It opens up,” he said, though I could not guess why, nor what might be inside it. And what was inside was five smaller disks, each of which could overlay the face and thus replace the inner ring. Some of the disks seemed to be marked with Arab numbers — a very confusing term, since actual Arabic numbers do not look like our numbers, which we call “Arabic numbers”. One disk had perforations of uncertain purpose, still others some arcane symbols, possibly astrological.
The owner explained that this was a Saharan nomad’s astrolabe, a navigation device. It had been hanging in the store window for decades; his grandfather had opened the shop in 1923, and it may well have been there since then. Its provenance and age were unknown, though it is clearly old.
So there is your karma, if that’s the way you prefer to look at it: an astronomer on his last night of vacation, walking through an alley in Morocco at the request of his wife, and stumbling on a nomad’s astronomical device for traversing the Sahara. There was really little question of not buying it. Since it had been hanging there forever the owner basically had to make up a price on the spot when I inquired; he asked for $150, I offered $80, we settled on $100 and both walked away happy. So, as my actual closing grace note to this vacation, here is my remarkable new treasure, which I must now research and learn more about. (I have removed the inside disks for display so you can see the whole thing.) What are the symbols? How is it used? How old is it?
There is a frisson of excitement in leaving such an exotic place with a little remaining mystery. We are home now, as you read this — I am typing it on the plane, about an hour before landing — so I can soon start my own navigations into my new acquisition’s past.