By Zoe Hu
Photographs by Eloise Schieferdecker
RABAT, Morocco — They know when to expect him. Among the stuttering moped engines and the rumbles of street-life in Rabat’s traditional medina, Abdelatif Reda’s customers wait.The small cart before them stands unmanned. Its owner, they speculate, must be out for his afternoon prayer. But Reda will return — as he has done for years, every day after 5 p.m. — to sell his homemade cheese.
Rabat’s medina is a pastel-washed huddle of squat shops and alleyways, fortified by walls that stand on 17th-century lines. Here, soap is sold in re-used water bottles. Vendors’ blankets display lamps, utensils and pots in rusty sprawls on the ground. The community’s residents function on a intimate system of commerce, moving through the same time-tested rotations of their favorite store-owners. And though nearby chains like Carrefour offer chilled dairy selections of their own, Reda’s cart is, for many, the go-to source for good cheese.
“Competition is a fact,” said Reda, 30, whose daily inventory fits onto a single rolling cart. “But quality is a question.”
With 17 years of experience, Reda claims he has mastered every fickle ingredient and potential recipe tweak. He began making cheese when he was only 13, learning from his father and older brothers. Unable to pursue an education while upholding the family legacy, Reda dropped out of school to make his cheese full time.
Over the years, his cart has attracted regulars and converted supermarket-goers. Some visit several times a week for his brand of DIY dairy, with customers traveling from places as far as Casablanca or Meknes. For both neighbors and out-of-towners, a stop by Reda’s cart is grocery list checkbox-turned-tradition.
“[Reda’s cheese] is the first thing that I opt for with ghraif [traditional Moroccan pancake],” said Badrdine Boulaid, 35, a customer who brings his purchases back home to Meknes. “It’s becoming the most important thing served at breakfast and tea time.”
Reda refuses to disclose his recipe, though many have asked him to share. He will only say that his process is a complex one, requiring fine manipulation of many different factors that include even the weather.
The cheese itself comes in quivering white domes, which Reda separates into chunks with quick flicks of his knife. Each thick, buttery crumble tastes like a lucky meeting between mozzarella and Greek yogurt. Prices are determined by the final say of Reda’s old metal scale; and customers accept their bags without argument or attempts at haggling.
“We prefer certain vendors because we know the source of [their] product,” said Yahya Boutaleb, 24, on his family’s medina shopping circuit. “In souq ar’bea, we know the produce comes from good farms.”
This familiarity with the medina can lead to almost neighborly relations with its store-owners. Boutaleb’s father, for example, receives a text from his fish vendor whenever a particularly good catch comes in.
“The day before yesterday I went to buy fruit, and it was from a guy that I know personally,” added Boutaleb.
Yet such market camaraderie must compete with the Rabat outside the medina, where cool, fluorescent supermarkets sprout into superblocks, and chains like Marjane beg comparisons to American Wal-Marts. Unlike the medina’s clumped knot of alleyways and twisty roads, these mega-stores are large, air-conditioned and organized. The Marjane empire is particularly formidable, with a total of 32 branches and 183,000 square meters of space in Morocco. Its website counts 38 million clients.
Reda, however, is not concerned with the newer shopping opportunities beyond the walls of the old medina.
He refuses to eat any cheese that he hasn’t made himself. There is no time to check out the competition, he claims, when he must spend the first part of his day making his product and the rest of his time selling it. Instead, he will simply focus on bringing his cart to the same street at the same time every day — not for passion or hobby, but for livelihood.