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Mohammad the Cobbler and My $600 Shoes

This is one of my all time favorite Moroccan stories. I’m not sure why, except that I perhaps miss those shoes that were never quite right after Mohammad the Cobbler ‘fixed’ them and that these were the days when I finally started to understand Morocco a little bit. Enjoy.

(Originally posted on March 6, 2009)

cobbler in MoroccoAs some of you know, I set out on this journey with just one pair of shoes. A pair of Johnston and Murphy, Italian leather, Italian crafted brown dress shoes that I picked up in Hawaii for $5 at the goodwill but that retail for about $600 new. They were in perfectly new condition when I got them. Damn nice shoes.

In the USA, I had my shoes shined in various cities. Boston, New York, San Francisco, and without a doubt, the best shoe shine in the USA came from San Francisco. Boston ranked second and New York came in a distant third.

In Spain and Gibraltar, I didn’t find a shoe shine, and though I took care of my shoes on my own, the wear and tear of about 5000 miles started to show on them. By the time I arrived in Morocco, the upper had started to separate from the soul and I was using epoxy I had bought in Granada to hold them together, then the heel started to come off and the epoxy again saved the day. While there are numerous shoe shine guys in Morocco and lots of cobblers, I opted to go it alone with the epoxy swince I didn’t have a back up pair of shoes.
Then I met Hanane and ended up buying a pair of nice leather loafers for around $13 (100 dirham) . When I left Sefrou, I left my trusty shoes behind and Hanane told me she would drop them at a cobbler to be repaired. When I came back after a week, Hanane told me the shoes were at the cobbler and had been there five days.
leather shoes in the NetherlandsWe went there and nothing had been done. Hanane then told me that to get the shoes repaired, we would have to stand there and harang Mohammad the cobbler for the entire time. Indeed there was a crowd around his stall that was doing just that. And this sort of explained why my shoes had been ignored. We had no time and while he said it would take a half hour, I didn’t want to stand there for a half hour. So we left.

A week later, we went back. I had figured that even in Morocco, a week was enough time for him to glue and sew the soles on. This time there was a larger crowd around the stall than before. Mohammad expained that he had been sick and closed his shop for four days. After working our way to the front, we managed to get Mohammad and his son to start doing something to my shoes, but then a very huge Moroccan man came up and threatened to become very angry if his shoes weren’t worked on.

So his shoes were moved up the line. Then a shrewish woman came and began harping so much that no one minded that he move her shoes to the front of the line just so she would go away. The big man had had his shoes there for a month, so even without his size, I was understanding of his wanting his shoes done first and as to the shrew, well, she was absolutuly awful with a screeching voice and manner.
the cobbler of SefrouSo we stood there in the rain for an hour with a constantly changing cast of Moroccan characters coming and goiing, berating and joking and despite the fact that we were both cold and both have colds and that we would have preferred to be somewhere else, it was actually impossible to be upset with Mohammad who is quite the comedian.

His jokes kept everyone who stood there laughing enough so that we didn’t form a lynch mob. There are a huge collection of shoes sitting on shelves in his shop, presumably from customers who have either died before having their shoes fixed or just given up on them.

In the hour we were there, I learned quite a bit about how to fix shoes. I may know enough to open up a competing business across the street. At the least, I could open a cafe for his customers to sit, eat, and wait in, though, unless they stand at the door and constantly harangue, the work wouldn’t get done, so maybe it isn’t a reasonable idea.

At the end of an hour, we had to leave, but by this point the cobbler had undone my work with the epoxy on the front of the shoes, sort of badly glued the fronts back on with what I presume to be actual shoe glue, and that was about it. I suggested to Hanane that we take the shoes to somewhere else but she insisted that they stay there (and unfortunately, I hadn’t yet learned that the more she insists, the worse the idea -often anyway.)

I was actually looking forward to going back  and going through it all again. It’s funny, Moroccans don’t go to bars, most don’t go to restaurants because they would rather eat at home and hence there aren’t really many restaurants, especially of the types we have in the west where you go in, sit, order, hang out with friends, etc. The cafe’s aren’t really equivalent to coffee shops since they are mostly places where men sit by themselves staring outward at the world and the choice of coffee is a single shot espresso or espresso with milk. Movie theaters are few and far between. There are some arcades and pool halls, but these are places you find trouble.

The hammam seems to be a social gathering place, but how often can you really go without being weird. There aren’t stores with aisles you can wander down or through, instead you go to the door and tell the shop owner what you want and they retrieve it for you. You can wander in the souks and in the old Medina’s, but essentially, it is a matter of taking a walk through a crowded street unless you want to buy something.

So, yes, I felt anticipation to go watch Mohammad the Cobbler work on frustrated Moroccan’s shoes, bags, and leather goods again.  I returned to the shop of Mohammad the Cobbler where my shoes were in exactly the same state they were in when Hanane and I left two days later. As soon as we left, the work stopped. Amazingly predictable but still astounding.

I was with Hanane’s brother, also named Mohammad. He speaks some french, but I speak little and so when he and I wander around together we have conversations that are probably about two entirely different things, but he is a good guy and fun to pal around with. One thing to get used to is the affection between people of the same sex here, much different than in the USA.

Mohammad who is one year older than I, happily married with a son and another child on the way, likes to hold my hand while we stroll or to stroll arm in arm with me. This is fairly normal in the Arab world, but though I try to deal with it, I just can’t and so I’ve tried to explain the reasons I don’t like holding hands with a man. My best approach has been that it distracts me from seeing stray autos that might run me down or nabbing theives that are trying to pick my pockets.

I should explain here, that while I am sure there is crime aplenty in Morocco, I think the average Moroccan is much more concerned with being stolen from than the odds warrant. Nearly all of the Moroccans I have met (with a few notable exceptions) are more likely to add a few dirhams to your pocket when you aren’t looking than to take them. So it is a people who are always expecting to be robbed, but are not likely to rob you themselves. When I first arrived in Sefrou, the warnings of Hanane and her family made me neurotic.

So in any event, Mohammad, my soon to be brother in law, and I visited Mohammad the cobbler, and what I think the cobbler said to me was that he was terrified of Hanane and thought she was a homicidal maniac who would kill him.I wasn’t sure he was wrong.

In truth, in an average day she says she will kill me at least 30 times, so no doubt she also told the cobbler that she would kill him. She had definitely said if my shoes weren’t like new, she would destroy his shop, so he was joking, but yeah…

It took 15 minutes to finish my shoes. When I asked how much, the cobbler said, whatever you think is best! I offered him 20 dirhams expecting him to ask for more but instead he asked me for less and the grand total was about $2 u.s.


By the way, on my next trip out of the country, the soles of the shoes came unattached after walking no more than a kilometer. I ended up leaving the shoes in Bergamo, Italy in the hope that an Italian cobbler would find them and bring them back to life. Damn, I miss those shoes.

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Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook