Seeing ghosts has never been a major preoccupation for me, but if ever I find myself frightened of phantoms I know exactly where to go – Marrakesh spice souk, where Ahmed will consult his ancient recipe book to create a secret blend of dried chameleon, iguana foot, sea urchin, hedgehog and fish bones. I’ll grind them, throw them in fire and breathe in the cleansing fumes.
Dried chameleon and hedgehog may be some of the more obscure ingredients on offer at the Berber pharmacies, but for whatever ails you they will have something to swallow, breathe, rub on or wash in. Too much stress and not sleeping – an infusion of nutmeg flower. Trouble with migraine or sinus – a few tiny black nejillia seeds wrapped in a cloth and inhaled after a quick rub on your palm will blow your head off, make your eyes water and instantly clear your head. It’s also great for snoring.
Ahmed spots a shaving cut on my face and gives me a piece of alawn stone to rub on to aid quick healing. With a side-long glance he tells me that it also ‘creates new virgins’, a topic I prefer not to pursue. Continuing with the theme he suggests that should I ever need help in the ‘men’s department’ he’ll mix me a concoction of Moroccan ginseng tea with just a smidgen of Spanish fly, a tiny insect so toxic that they are sold in the most miniscule quantities imaginable, but even so, Ahmed assures me, ‘all the night gymnastic, by morning’s man’s dead’.
A visit to a Berber pharmacy is as much ceremony as shopping. With a grin they will offer you a glass of ‘Berber Whisky’ – mint tea – while they discuss what ails you, let you sample a little of this, smell a soupcon of that, before mixing your potion, overcharging you and then try to sell you something else. But it’s all part of the game.
When I first visited Ahmed almost ten years ago I bought three small blocks of concentrated ambergris, jasmine flower and musk, which still perfume my home and never seem to fade or reduce in size. But after setting fire to a piece of gourd and inhaling the smoke to try and cure a headache, the stench was so bad that I decided that perhaps modern-day pharmacy does have something to offer – and swallowed a paracetamol instead.