Close Reading One Block of the Salé Medina

By Jordan Cutler-Tietjen


45 minutes on Rue Zenata (between Aqbat al Maida and Derb Bouchaâra)

1:12 pm to 1:57 pm, May 15

A girl with brown hair down to her shoulders picks up a chunk of Styrofoam from the ground and rubs it against the wall as she walks down Rue Zenata, leaving a disappearing cloud of eroded plastic fluff in her wake. The walls on both sides of the street are teal as high as her head and white above that, reaching some 14 feet into the air. They are not just walls but homes: like many paths in the Sale Medina, Rue Zenata is a residential causeway, one channel in an interlocked community adjacent to Rabat, Morocco’s capital, and the sea. For almost a thousand years, Rue Zenata’s homes have born little girls and borne their impressions on their walls. But to me, its layers of history are invisible behind its peeling paint. I look around for a portal, some time-defying aperture into the lives of the people who knew this place better than and before me. All I find is the window above my head: glassless, girded with vertical bars, plastic bags brimming with melons just visible on the other side.

Now, the window looks down on a white van, turning onto Rue Zenata from Aqbat al Maida. Cars can’t fit in the narrow passageways deeper in the medina, but this block, near the medina’s entrance, is 12 shoe-lengths wide. So although it takes the van’s driver six back-and-forths, he turns 90 degrees and trundles along, sending passersby rippling to either side of the street, flush with the homes.

A man wearing a black and white Adidas shirt and a greyschale Adidas backpack carries several bundles of fennel up the street. He is one of 130 men who pass through the block as I watch. A petite man walks past with a burgundy kaftan that reaches from his heel to a conical point atop his head, perpendicular to the sky. Behind him, two bald men walking in opposite directions greet each other, exchanging “god be with you”s: as-salaamu-alaikum, wa-alakium-salaam, each block both a passageway and a town center.

Two women speak in Darija beside a tarp-covered motorbike and cart, a black interruption on the otherwise-pastel street. Two other women join them, and each newcomer shares a kiss on each cheek with the original two. Their words join the slight echo of lark squeals; the birds dart above and below the tops of the buildings, ignoring the geometry of the streets underwing. Around the corner of Derb Bouchaara, a woman in a lavender hijab is repainting a large door. Its wet smell competes with the sweet bread frying up the road and the sewer below. Beyond Derb Bouchaara stands a sun-yellow building, and crowning it, a potted fern bobbing in the breeze. 61 women pass under its fronds.

A girl no older than six drags a Disney-brand backpack along the block by herself. Around Rue Zenata’s bend, a graffiti portrait of Dora the Explorer is almost visible. 40 children pass by her gibbous eyes. They are often shepherded by their mothers but equally often alone;, the block as pedagogy, teaching independence alongside interdependence. A boy passes a soccer ball through his friend’s leg; a tween in a tracksuit asks everyone he passes how they’re doing: ça va?, ça va?, ça va?

I notice a trilogy: two girls laughing, then two bent women in all-black burqas, then two twenty-somethings sporting floral hijabs. The woman on the left of the last pair walks with a straight back, almost regal, so I don’t notice until she passes right by me that she is sobbing. The woman next to her is talking quietly and urgently. She nods up and down, perhaps in embodied sympathy, as they walk out of sight, but she does not reach her hand out to comfort her partner.

Down zooms a man on a motorbike, white tunic ballooned by his momentum. The growl of 28 motorbikes accumulate in and fade from the block. The man selling groceries down the road whistles at a half-dozen of them and scowls at one, which veers too close to his leg. A woman in a blazer clutches her folder and textbook tight to her chest as a motorbike with three boys, stacked with their arms wrapped around each other’s chests in descending age, bares down the block. No women pilot or ride the motorbikes.

Then a man in a red sweater and joggers approaches perhaps the strangest thing on the block: a white man with rolled up slacks and a blue notebook. The first man asks in English if he can take the white man’s picture. The white man, suddenly aware of his whiteness and his man-ness, shrugs. The first man pulls out his iPad and starts to take photos, or maybe films a video. He asks the white man to step into the light, and the white man complies. He stands near the white man for almost four minutes, recording both of their presences, like the white man has been with eyes and pen. This block surveils and is surveilled.

The two laughing girls return as the first man stops recording. They call up to the window above the white man’s head and another girl’s face appears behind the bars. They all laugh together for a moment; the girl’s face disappears from the window. Then she bursts through the partially-repainted door and joins the other girls, carrying a metal appliance. They walk to the edge of the block and pass around what she brought down: a hair straightener. They laugh some more. Then the two girls skip away, and the other girl retraces her steps, hair straightener still in hand. She waves at me. Above, the blue sky visible from this block we’ve all shared has not changed. It is only a portion, but it is cloudless and perfect.


Jordan is a rising junior in Jonathan Edwards College. You can contact him at