And That’s My Final Offer . . .
In Morocco, Shopping Can Be a Hassle Unless You Know How to Haggle
By Carol Kaufmann
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 8, 2004
We tried not to look American. We covered our legs and arms, despite the oppressive heat. We didn’t wear tennis shoes, T-shirts or baseball caps. We even had our “We’re Canadian” routine ready. Since 9/11 and the war on terrorism, we were prepared for a less-than-welcoming reception in a Muslim country. Nevertheless, our pasty-white faces and the Rough Guide to Morocco gave us away.
But here, Americans need only fear an irresistible sales pitch — and getting all the purchases home. Our anticipated introduction to Moroccan culture quickly morphed into a mini-seminar on perfecting the haggle. The start-up phase, however, wasn’t pretty.
Three hours in Marrakech and I was eager to take my new husband, Kevin, shopping, souk-style. We meandered to the Jemaa el-Fna, the square where locals gather to hear a story or watch a dance — and tourists gather to watch them. North of the square, miles of stalls organized by trade cover the ground.
We wasted no time getting hopelessly lost, and asking a local for directions, we learned, costs money. In our case, it meant a detour to the family spice stall. After buying two scented soaps for $15, we were shown familiar territory — for $5 more.
Our adopt-a-guide experience was a typical introduction to Marrakech, but it hardly compared with the first carpet sale. To escape the afternoon sun and the onslaught of donkey carts, motor scooters and carcass-lined butcher shops, we ducked into the Artisane di Tapis, an official-looking building with smiling hosts.
Inside, carpets, furniture, jewelry, brass, leather and pottery brush the tops of cathedral-high ceilings. We had entered a shopper’s nirvana, one of the largest craft stores in northern Africa.
A sharp-dressed man named Ben Allal explained that all employees were paid by the government regardless of sales. We could walk away with nothing, he insisted, and he’d still be smiling. His rapid-fire Arabic summoned glasses of sweet mint tea deftly poured a foot above the rims — “Tea with a turban,” Ben called the frothy brew. Carpets unrolled before us as Ben explained how to tell a rug’s origin by color and how Berber women can weave in tribal tales.
One hour and several mint teas later, Ben had gathered before us the five carpets we liked most. We were giddy from the sugar and caffeine and air conditioning.
“I give you one price for all.”
I knew what was coming. But like riding past a car wreck, I couldn’t turn away.
About $4,085. I had a price in mind for one carpet: $300.
“We can’t do that,” I said. “No buying today.” Ben would be fine with rejection; he was paid either way.
“For you, special price. Global price. All of it . . . the Berber, two small Arabs, the large Arab . . . ”
“How about just one shaggy Berber?” I asked.
“But I like the two smaller Arabs. And the big mauve Arab is gorgeous,” said Kevin. A man who never notices dust bunnies and clothes lining the bedroom floor has an opinion about carpets? Perhaps this was worth a haggle.
“Okay for all . . . I give you all . . . and this is truly special. 30,000 dirhams.”
I stared at him, not breaking my gaze. It was still too much. “Honey,” I said. “It’s great that you love these. But we can’t buy them all. One, maybe.”
“Yes, but when are we going to be in Morocco again?”
I sighed. That line always works on me.
“Ben, look. We love them but can’t afford them. Plus, we have a small house, there’s not room for all. How about the Berber and maybe two small Arab ones?”
“But someday you will have a bigger house, Inshallah.”
Inshallah: God willing. We would come to know the ubiquitous phrase well during our stay. Kevin looked at me hopefully. “True. Someday we’ll have a bigger house.”
“I know the manager. I’ll work it out with him. 25,000.”
“I’m so sorry. We have two weeks in Morocco.”
Kevin and I looked at each other. $2,250. “Deal.”
“Inshallah!” Ben exclaimed, bursting into a big grin and clasping our hands together in a firm shake. “You don’t take them right now on your travels. They stay here and you come back to get them.”
We watched Ben’s men roll our prize into tight burlap-covered bundles with my name on them. Receipts secured, we told Ben we’d be back in two weeks. Inshallah.
We left Marrakech in the dust for Ouarzazate, the gateway to the desert — a 350-curve trip on the Tizi-n-Tichka pass through the High Atlas Mountains. Along the way, villagers sell geodes and fossils on tenuous-looking tables along the cliff’s edge. Rustic cafes offer tagine, a Moroccan version of a blue-plate special cooked outdoors, and a bathroom stop, generally the hole-in-the-ground variety. Rising from the terra-cotta land are unpainted sandstone buildings, identical to the earth’s color but with sharper angles — a Berber version of “Where’s Waldo?”
We stopped in Agdz, an oasis along the Draa River. At a cafe, we asked if we could buy luggage, since our carpet purchases exceeded suitcase capacity. We were led to Hassan, a Berber merchant who spends nine months of the year traveling through southern Morocco, Mali and Mauritania bartering goods for materials to trade with big-city buyers, who then sell to customers like us.
Chest-high piles of folded carpets outlined his modest shop, about the size of our living room. In a closet-size back room hung daggers, leather pouches and silver boxes with inlaid stones that were filled with necklaces made of lapis lazuli, turquoise, coral and amber. I didn’t see any luggage. But the carpets’ indigo, saffron and henna colors had their own allure.
“Come. You will be Berber,” Hassan said to me. Over my head went a dress fringed with rainbow-colored baubles and a deep blue veil for my hair. Hassan gathered it beneath my chin and twisted it up around my head, so it looked like a giant doughnut. The end of the cloth draped across my face, leaving only my eyes visible. He adorned me with traditional Berber jewelry — a chunky sundial for the wrist, stone necklaces, a heavy amulet. The little room was warm without air conditioning and with added layers, but I liked my outfit.
Hassan eagerly displayed his wares, every new showing preceded by a “No buy — it’s okay! This from the heart. Look!” He held a flame beneath a carpet’s silk threads, woven so tightly that no air passes through.
For two hours, Hassan’s almond eyes danced and the lines of his desert-worn face broadened into smiles. With body forward and eyes locked, he frequently offered his handshake when we understood each other’s jokes. I didn’t want to leave his floor — or my Berber dress — and miss tales about his Saharan caravan. The longer we stayed, the more we wanted to retain a piece of his stories. Surprisingly, we had to ask if we could buy. We left with two carpets for $400, our best deal in Morocco.
Was he trying to sell to us the moment we walked through the door? Or did he really just want to chat away a hot afternoon? Perhaps both, but it didn’t matter. He made his living by talking and had offered a private tutoring session. Maybe purchases are also signs of gratitude.
Hassan clapped his hands. “Wait! I give you this. A wedding present.” Hassan put in my hand a silver and coral necklace I had admired. I thanked him with a double-handed handshake, hoping he understood my appreciation.
Kevin came down with the Moroccan flu in Zagora, the last stop before the Sahara begins. After surrounding him with bottled water and dehydration salts in air-conditioned hotel glory, I set out to discover whether an American woman alone would be a recipe for disaster.
A simple question or a stroke of the display gives a merchant permission to begin the dance, so I let my eyes shop and kept my mouth shut. With my hands full of scavenged goods from my suitcase, I went in search of a little horse-trading. I found Himi, no more than 25, happy to drown me with tea. Deliberately, I showed little interest in his jewelry, shaking my head and grimacing the whole time.
“One ring.” I held up my index finger. He showed me fistfuls of necklaces draped with jewels. “Just one ring.”
“Have anything to trade?”
“Yes, I have some things.” I glanced nonchalantly at my bag.
He gathered pieces I looked at longer than most. I fingered the lapis lazuli necklace. Mistake.
“How much for each piece?” I asked.
“No, I give you global price,” countered the Berber. “Then you give me yours.”
The “global price” topped $1,000, a deal going downhill fast.
“What would you take for these?” I held up my khakis and T-shirts.
Sixty-seven dollars seemed more than fair, but it still wouldn’t make a dent in the collection.
“I can’t afford it. I’ll be going.”
“No! How much?”
I understood. It was culturally unacceptable for me to have shown a hint of interest, say prices were too expensive and walk out. I must bargain.
“I have only 600 dirhams in my pocket. That’s it.”
“But how much for all?”
“No. How much?”
At the risk of completely insulting the fledgling tradesman, I took most of the jewels away, save two rings, some material and an amulet.
“950 dirhams,” Himi said. We were getting somewhere, but $95 was still too much.
“600, plus the clothes.”
“Clothes are part of global price. How much for all?”
“I told you — 600 dirhams, plus clothes for all.”
“No, how much.”
“I’m leaving. This is a fair price.”
Just like that, the hand clasps mine.
“600 dirhams! Deal!”
I couldn’t stop smiling on the way back, thinking my broken-in khakis and faded T-shirts would be making the rounds in the Sahara. And my ailing husband would get a ring.
The afternoon before our flight back to the States, we returned to Marrakech and tried to navigate our way back to our bundles and Ben. The walls of the city finally gave way to a familiar arched opening and we recognized the chaotic mobbed street.
We crept up to the Artisane di Tapis drenched with sweat, frazzled, ready to leave everything Moroccan behind. Except our carpets.
“Ben. Is Ben here?”
“Yes. He’s waiting for you.” Bet they say that to all the girls.
Ben walked over to me, arm extended. Two men followed, with our bundles in hand. “I was worried about you. Glad to see you, my old friend,” said Ben. “Where’s your husband?”
“He’s staying in the car.”
“Come. We park car. Drink tea. Tell me about trip.”
We retrieved a damp Kevin and made our way to the room with the carpet rolls. Mint tea was on its way. All was well.
“Morocco good to you?” Ben asked.
We launched into our surprise over the kind reception.
“Ah, yes. After 9/11, Americans stopped coming to Morocco,” Ben said. “They’re afraid to travel to Arab lands. But we don’t hate Americans. We know it’s politics. We’re all just people.”
Then, like every ideal salesman, Ben closed the deal.
“You come back to Morocco?”
I nodded with sincere enthusiasm.
“You tell all your friends?”
For general information on Morocco, contact the Moroccan National Office of Tourism, 011-212-48-846277, http://www.tourisme-marocain.com.Carol Kaufmann is a writer in Alexandria.
How to Haggle in Morocco
• Read guidebooks about shopping in Morocco before you go.
• Don’t ask about or touch an item if you’re not interested.
• Decide with your spouse, travel companion or inner shopping demon exactly how much you’re willing to spend on a piece.
Master the currency conversion rate before you venture out.
• Don’t dress in your Sunday best if you want a good deal. Conversely, don’t wear shorts or sleeveless shirts, no matter what the temperature. Respect for the culture breeds respect for negotiations.
• Take tea when it’s offered. It’s polite, and the tea is fabulous.
• Don’t walk out if the merchant offers an absurdly high price at first. Suggest an absurdly low counteroffer. Then the fun begins.
• Bring extra clothes for bargaining purposes. Jeans and athletic shoes are a big hit.
• Don’t let the constant catcalls pitching “good deals” dissuade you from experiencing famed Moroccan hospitality and the game of negotiating prices.
• Act vaguely uninterested or uncertain on items. Be ready to walk out if the price isn’t right.
Never pull out a wad of cash.
— Carol Kaufmann
© 2004 The Washington Post Company