Sunday, February 15, 2015

My Safi Bowl

by Martin Rea    © June 2014            

The dust rising outside tells him another bus of tourists is coming.   Mostly people with blue eyes and reddened skin, they wear wide hats to protect themselves from the sun.  Many are overweight and some wear white socks inside their sandals; they carry heavy cameras that weigh them down.  They will enter his shaded workshop, look around for a while, and then they will approach him and ask him how much for his bowls and when he tells them the price they will laugh, they think it is the natives' way to argue about the price-and they will force him to reduce the price to something beneath fairness.  They come here and argue with him over amounts of money that mean nothing to them, as if it were a king's ransom, and he can do nothing but smile and make more bowls, more beautiful than before.
There must easily be ten charity shops in this city with more opening all the time: certainly a truism that they flourish in times of economic recession.  I find myself in them every now and then, browsing, to see what chance throws me in the way of books. I once found a copy of Palgrave's Golden Treasury in such a shop and was touched to find it had once belonged to a minor poet of national renown.  A book of poetry that once belonged to a poet: surely that has some meaning?
Crime fiction, while not exactly a dime a dozen, is great value for your hard-earned entertainment euro with all the best-selling authors to be found for nearly next to nothing.  I got the Larsson trilogy all in one go in a charity shop; there was a 'three for two' offer on at the time.  And I had helped a good cause with my purchase.
There's plenty of Romantic fiction there, at rock bottom prices, but none of that ever really interests me. Sometimes, though, I find good cook books and even if I never cook anything from them they still help to complete the look of the kitchen, containing plans for feasts of the future on the second shelf below the potted herbs.  Good quality literary fiction is admittedly hard to come by, but crime, there's always more than enough crime.
I never buy clothes in a second hand store-it's a hygiene thing, besides,  they never seem to have my size, but I do like looking for ornaments or curios to brighten up where I live: objects conveniently subsumed  from another's life, patina and ambiance gratis.  I've an impressive collection of old naturalists' prints of flowers, plants and birds-things with Latin names on them.  They hang understated on the walls of my rooms and make my place look stately.  
The bowl caught my eye in the window of one of the charity shops on the original medieval street of the city, a street that retains much of the dank meanness of those times. I was taken by it immediately.  Its sheer size, about two feet across, impressed me first.  I admired the intricate ochre patterns, evocative of fruits growing; vines; vitality. 
 The boldness of the colours made it look so brave that grey day. It looked Moorish but I wasn't sure.  It might have been from Portugal, I thought, Arab influence there, Andalusia even.  It was hand painted and glazed. I didn't know where it was from but I knew where it was going.
 "Do you work here?" I asked a woman hanging blouses onto a turning rail inside the door of the shop.
"I don't", she said.  "I'd love to work here, but they won't take me on-couldn't afford me, they say."  
She laughed first, then spluttered a bit and pointed towards a counter further down the shop. 
 The manager told me about the bowl. It was among the household contents left to them by a woman recently deceased. It wasn't on sale yet.  He did not know where it came from or how much it would cost. I could not place a deposit as the window display items would not be on sale until Friday week and only then would the price be decided.
I passed the woman hanging blouses on the way out and she confided something to me, "Foolish. You've shown too much of an interest and now they'll put up the price. "
That Friday morning I made sure no one else could have the bowl by being first outside the door at nine o' clock.  The window display had been changed, the rotating heirlooms broken down into smaller and smaller lots. I was vexed for a while by a woman who approached the shop and stood right in front of the door. Surely she's seen me standing here, queuing, waiting for the bowl, I thought.   What if she wanted it too?  Does she look like the type of person to be interested in such a bowl?  Would there be a disagreement, or worse still, a row?  
 The manager opened the door from the inside, looked out and beckoned the woman to enter.  "She works here," he said. "We'll be opening soon."  
He let me in at exactly half-past nine. He told me the bowl was on a table in the back of the shop.  I went down and picked it up and checked it for cracks or other possible flaws.  Nothing. It was perfect.  I turned it over; some Arabic script and the word "Safi".

Photo © 2014 Martin Rea

I brought it to the counter and asked for the price.
"Forty-five euro", said the cashier, my rival from the queue.
It was a lot more than I had reckoned with, more than seemed appropriate for a charity shop in such an age of austerity.  Had the spluttering woman been right? I physically felt my enthusiasm for the bowl dampen, my attitude towards it change.  
"Would you not take thirty for it," I said.
"No. Sorry, the price is forty-five.  There's been a lot of interest in this bowl."  She and the manager exchanged glances.
When I got it home I dusted it down and placed it on the coffee table.  I turned on the computer, typed in "Safi" and discovered a Berber city of 220,000 inhabitants in Western Morocco; a Portuguese outpost until 1541, now most famous for its pottery, especially large distinctly shaped bowls which can also be hung on the wall.  I went on to find many sites that sold such bowls.  I opened different windows and tabs, comparing my bowl against those that I saw, checking sizes and prices. I factored in the price of shipping. Only after some time searching was I satisfied that my bowl was a good purchase and that the price I paid had not been excessive. 
The bowl holds pieces of fruit, packets of nuts and diverse confectionary on the imitation pine coffee table in the centre of my living room.

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