A service culture

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One of the pleasures of visiting Morocco is the ability to indulge in experiences that the high cost of labour or changing customs have turned into rare treats in western Europe, particularly as the standards of service are so high. One example of this was my hammam. But I also treated myself to both a shave and a shoe-shine.

The barber’s shop near my riad was irresistible, with battered cabinets in dark-hued woods and advertisements for long-forgotten products such as Fli-Flap, a ”shampoo treatment”. Aged bottles of Christian Dior Eau Sauvage take me back to my 21st birthday when I was given one as a present.

The barber, moustachioed, neat and short, with long buttoned sleeves and an aquiline nose sets to work as four middle-aged men, who seem to regard the shop as a private sitting-room, converse earnestly in the background.

He slots a head-rest into the back of my chair, daubs me with shaving cream, then vigorously whips it into a foam with a well-used brush. The entire experience is much more tactile than a regular shave as he uses expert fingers to stretch the skin of my face and neck where the razor is passing.

He meticulously completes his task then astonishes me by applying more shaving cream and doing the job again. There is nothing more than a small hand-towel stretched across my chest, yet not a speck of foam lands on my clothes. I started with five days’ growth; by the time he finishes I feel, once the sting of his potent aftershave has worn off, like I need never shave again.

The next day I have 30 minutes to wait at the Marrakesh coach station. A thin old man gestures repeatedly that he would like to shine my neglected deck shoes. The charge is just 5 dirhams, about 30p.

As he unpacks his brushes, I notice that his legs seem crumpled, the legacy, I would not doubt, of a lifetime spent squatting at the feet of customers. But what a job he does, from the moment he places plastic polish guards around my left ankle and starts rubbing the shoe with half a bedraggled orange. I am flabbergasted when at one point he undoes the leather laces and polishes them, too.

Such pride taken in mundane labour is both unsettling, because in the west you encounter it so rarely, and profoundly humbling. I go on my way in my gleaming shoes scarcely knowing whether to feel gratified or embarrassed.

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