Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Neighbourhood Haunt Hanoot

If you stand in the middle of any street in Rabat (and evade being squished by a car), close your eyes (and evade being squished by a car) and lob a rock, chances are that you'll hit a teleboutique, a hairdresser, or a hanoot. A hanoot, you say? Do tell ...

In its simplest terms, a hanoot is a convenience store. These ubiquitous Mom & Pop-style closets shops come in a variety of sizes (small, smaller, and smallest), levels of cleanliness (vermin not in plain view, a few cockroaches here & there, and rats a-scurrying), number of staff working at any one time (1 per customer, 2 per customer, and 3 per customer), and levels of custom (packed like sardines, breaking-the-fire-code-crowded, and lined up outside the door and shouting in grocery orders) and are run by a variety of proprietors (Berbers, Berbers, and Berbers). Although I am not 100% certain, I think that there is a by-law in the Moroccan Penal Code that states that if you own a hanoot and you are not a Berber then you must be drawn and quartered at dawn. On a Friday. In front of a mosque.

There are 2 hanoots between my home and my place of employment (separated by a distance of 50 meters or so and a phalanx of beggars), and it is not an exaggeration to say that I pass by one or both daily. I frequent both but for different reasons: 1 is closer to my home and the other is closer to my work place. The latter is a more modest affair but the proprietor (a Berber) carries an excellent stock of Crax sticks (don't ask), Crak cakes (don't ask) and - because I eat far too much chocolate - exceptionally fresh M&M's, Twix bars & KitKats. His is also the only hanoot for a good 100 meter radius to boast a teleboutique, so should you ever want to, you can chow down on a bag of cheese & onion Crunch Chips & call Tiznit at the same time. Although a mere 2 meters by 3 meters in diameter, it is staffed by the proprietor (a Berber), his son (a Berber), and another worker (probably a Berber). My only criticism of this hanoot lies in the fact that when the proprietor (a Berber) prays (which he discreetly does behind the counter beside his stock of Sidi Ali water bottles), he leaves his son in charge, and the boy doesn't know the price of the Coca Light. I keep meaning to have a word with him about this.

The hanoot that eats up most of my dirhams is slightly larger: it has a central display island that is perilously stacked with dry goods & tetrapak juices, around which is a narrow aisle that permits the passage of one slightly anorexic teenager at any one time. Unfortunately, there are normally 27 people in this hanoot at any one time. There are at least 6 staff (including a couple of wizened methuselahs, probably Berbers) on duty everyday who fetch items, thwack the heads of the glue-sniffing boys who careen about the corner, cut slabs of pumpkin, weigh produce, make sandwiches, and affect a mien of cheerful exhaustion, - as well as the proprietor (a Berber). The proprietor (a Berber), Brahim, is a mercantile wizard. He defines multi-tasking. Rather effortlessly, he answers the phone, takes orders, writes up bills using a scrap piece of paper and a calculator, bags the purchases of, and chats to the customers swarming in front of him at the same time.

And swarm they do. As there is no room in a hanoot to form an orderly queue - not that that would ever happen anyway although it's fun to imagine such a Morocco - Brahim's counter (where he holds court) is always a beehive of activity. Customers shamelessly blindside you, butting in line from every direction, including the front door. The little kids & old ladies are the worst; the former because you can't see or hear the little blighters coming, and the latter because old age has given them a sense of entitlement & they just don't give a shit. And they both have doleful expressions and very sharp elbows. The order in which you are served is generally determined by your importance as a human being (as determined by Brahim) or your ability to have exact change in your hand.

Beside him in a glass display window are the fruits of his accounting system: sun-faded receipts, invoices, a warranty or two, and chits (for he accepts credit on exceptionally generous terms) are all crammed in together like tickets in a church raffle. His services, like those of many other hanoot proprietors (all Berbers), include the sale of telephone cards, the preparation of mystery-meat sandwiches, and the delivery of groceries and Butagaz - the lacklustre blue canisters of combustible potentially city-leveling cooking gas that are trollied about the city in little metal prams all day long.

There is no such thing as horror vaccui in a hanoot because there are no empty spaces. Groceries and dry goods gather dust on a series of vertiginous shelves which require ladders and hooks and sometimes small children for retrieval. A quick glance around Brahim's hanoot and you will find: fruit & vegetables in season, dried pasta, fresh olives, sort of fresh bread, Special K cereal, soccer balls, umbrellas, pink powdery confections, toothbrushes, dried apricots, car air fresheners, jam, batteries, olive oil, ramen noodles, toilet paper, some sort of aerosol spray called Yuk, homemade macaroon cookies, plastic brooms, light bulbs, flan powder, skin-bleaching cream, Real Madrid lollipops, mops, Vache Qui Rit cheese, shaving cream, cans of tuna, shampoo, bottles of rose water, crappy children's toys from China, dates, pantyliners (Hey! Abdullatif - get down a package of Lightdays!), insect repellent (spray and plug-in's), flashlights, canned lentils, ketchup, and hair colour. To name but a few.

Of course the true joy of the hanoot lies in the fact that you never know what and when new merchandise may arrive. This week peanut butter appeared for the first time in 14 months. After its meager stock is depleted, it may never reappear. Or reincarnate as something different. Like pantyhose.

There is a theory bandied about by non-Berbers that hanoot proprietors (all Berbers) are tremendously wealthy by virtue of the fact that they rip their customers off blindly. I have no insights into this (although the same was once said about the convenience store owners [not Berber] of my youth & about whom I have equally few insights), but I can say that the dearth of price tags on their merchandise does result in a playfully fluid fluctuation of prices. I have paid 3 different prices for the same item I bought 3 times on the same day - but I like to delude myself think that it evens out in the end. Indeed, in the past year, the level of service I've received has escalated from benign tolerance (made manifest by a nod, being kept waiting in line while others pass me by, and questionable prices) to gracious hospitality (made manifest by effluent greetings, being kept waiting in line while others pass me by, and a more favourably buoyant pricing system).

It is one-stop shopping at its finest. Even with the vermin. Even without the cold beer.

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