Rules for rug shopping in Morocco and other advice from a seasoned shopper who admits to being a naive novice when it comes to bargaining in the Land of a Million Carpets.
Carpet merchants fill the souks in every Moroccan city. Then, there are the random carpet shops on high traffic tourist pedestrian avenues. There was one store I visited in Marrakech that was filled floor-to-ceiling with at least three thousand carpets. How many carpets are there in Morocco would you say? I asked the proprietor. Five million? Maybe more, he answered. I imagine the weavers in the High and Middle Atlas Mountains are busy night and day!
The weaving and carpet culture in Morocco is totally different from that of Mexico, where the original purpose of wool woven textiles was for blankets or serape to cover horses and humans. The nomads of Morocco use carpets to cover the floors and walls of their tents for warmth and comfort. Some Moroccan carpets have longer wool weft threads so they can be tied as a shawl in winter. Many also cover the backs of camels, horses and donkeys to cushion their riders. I saw lots of Boucherouite rag rugs (below left) sticking out from under camel saddles.
In Oaxaca, the weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle is conveniently located just 40 minutes outside the city. A trip to the weaving villages of Morocco requires an expedition of several days from either Marrakech or Fes.
In both Mexico and Morocco, cheaper knock-offs from China inundate the market. Buyer beware!
In the High Atlas Mountains the carpets are knotted, a heavy sheep wool pile. In the Mid-Atlas, the carpet design combines the knotted higher pile with flat weave or kilim style using camel-hair. Some have added embroidery for embellishment and include the symbols of sun, moon, animals, fertility, womanhood, and water. At lower elevations near the Sahara, the carpets are all flat and woven from camel-hair.
Why? Sheep only prosper and develop a thick coat at colder, higher elevations while camels are desert animals who love the heat.
Most carpet traders have an inventory of old and new rugs. Carpets are everywhere. The older rugs cost much more because more likely the older wool fibers were prepared with natural dyes. It’s hard to tell if natural dyes are used for newer rugs, although, as in Oaxaca, most here claim it is so. I’ve heard that some dealers will put a rug out in the sun to fade and look older to sell it at a premium.
Natural dyes, I’m told, include saffron, henna, cinnamon, wild mint, kohl and indigo. The color is fixed with vinegar and the wool is washed in mountain snow. Over-dyeing is employed to get a wider color range.
Carpet shopping in Morocco is tricky. Anyone is capable of taking the vulnerable tourist on a magic carpet ride. It is difficult to know who to trust. Referral is the best guarantee that you won’t be ripped off. Luckily, I got a referral to an Essaouira carpet merchant from a friend who worked for the U.S. State Department in Rabat for over 12 years. I visited this man a week into my trip and got a great carpet at a fair price. Who can leave Morocco without a carpet? Only the most disciplined. (See contact information below.)
Based on advice from friends, I made the huge mistake of hiring a guide to take me through the souq on my first day in Marrakech. He led me into a carpet store that I could not escape from. Honest. And, of course, I realized later that I overpaid because I was not yet familiar with the local currency conversion. Yep. Buyer beware!
Carpet salesmen are determined. They have it in their blood. They have the genetic instincts of thousands of years of being at the trading center of North Africa — Morocco. They hang out on sidewalks, street corners. Some will even say, Have you seen the painted ceiling of this historic building? The rabbi once lived here. Once you enter to see the intricate work, the rugs start to unfold. Tourist beware. What is your best price? they ask. Customer responds. Salesman says, Oh, I need a little more. Can you get a little closer? And you come closer, and the next round continues. After buying my first rug on the first day in Marrakech, the salesman said he would offer me a really special price on a second rug because I was the first customer of the day and that will bring him good luck.
You can’t believe how many times I heard that in the weeks to come. Then, I heard, You are my last customer of the day and the last customer brings good luck for tomorrow. By that time I said, you’ve got to be kidding me! It took me about a week to learn to be a skeptic.
As I said in an earlier blog post, nothing, I mean NOTHING, has a price tag. Food, taxis, herbal medicine, carpets, clothing, jewelry, nada. This is the land of bargaining and you have to be good at it to play the game. It is wearying and that’s the idea. Who has more stamina?
So, I ended up overpaying on some things until I got the hang of it, and then I did a little better. Rule of thumb — be willing to walk away. It is not offensive.
Rules for Souq and Rug Shopping in Morocco
- Never hire a guide.
- Go into the souq on your own. You won’t get lost. There are plenty of signs that direct you back to Jemaa el Fna — the central square.
- People are friendly. Even shop keepers will give directions, although they will try to get you into their shop after that.
- Never buy anything on your first day. Get the lay of the land. Practice negotiating. You need practice. You need to feel confident. You need to start at a price less than half of what they first name.
- Take your currency converter and USE IT.
- Stand your ground. By the second week, I could respond to What is your best offer? with the first price I named and not budge. Not even 20 dirhams higher. When the merchant got too pushy, I said thank you, and walked out.
- It’s hard to know the REAL PRICE. You can test the real price by always naming a low price, lower than mid-point and then see the response.
- A friend coached me. The real cost could be 6 dirham but they ask 50 dirham, you respond with 25 dirham, they go to 30 dirham and you say yes, thinking you got a great deal. Maybe!
- Do your research in advance. Shop around.
- Be patient. The negotiating and buying process can take at least an hour or two and at least 2 glasses of mint tea. Maybe more! If you are in a hurry it will cost you more.
- Don’t be impulsive. Shop around. Be sure to see many styles and colors before you buy. Have the mint tea if you are somewhat serious. If not, politely say no thank you.
- Always be courteous. You are in a Moslem country and people are respectful and gracious. Say no thank you– merci beaucoup — with a smile.
- People welcomed me when I said I was from the USA. We’re glad you’re here, they said. I believe they meant it.
By the time I returned to Marrakech after ten days in Essaouira, I was ready for the souq on my own. I ventured in with some trepidation, I confess. The passageways are narrow, most are obscure, shadowy, there is the unfamiliar, and the crush of stuff and people.
It is daunting, the labyrinth of winding, narrow alleys lined with leather goods, painted furniture, Berber jewelry, textiles, dried fruit stands, brass and copperware, cooking utensils and turbaned men who speak Arabic and French. I got lost. I wandered. I meandered. I discovered hidden courtyards. I was alone. I found my way around and out.
My huge camera was slung around my neck. I never felt fearful though I did encounter a few unexpected turns and dead ends where I met some amazing craftsmen and a snake charmer with cobra in hand.
And I discovered treasures that I could digitally capture and bring home to share with you. But, not before finding a good glass of Moroccan red wine, available to visitors at selected hotel bars. Saha: to your health.
Rug Shopping in Marrakech
- Chez Laarabi, Arset El Maach, Rue de La Radeema, No. 41, 1st floor, ask for Mohamed Twarig, Tel 06 66 09 11 59 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Rug Shopping in Essaouira
- Maroc Art, 3 Rue el Hajali, ask for Abdullah Imounaim or Abdoul Gnaoui, Tel 04 44 47 50 50
Morocco Journal 6: Essaouira Faces and Places
The melting pot of Essaouira attracts Anglos and Moslems from throughout the western and African world. This week I met a Parisian couple, both professionals, whose parents immigrated from Tunisia and Algeria. Their gorgeous children captured my eye. The mom of these children, Saoud, speaks four languages fluently — French, Arabic, English and Spanish.
We are meeting people who have left France and the U.S. to find comfort and an easier lifestyle in Essaouira. Many have been here since the 60s and 70s when pop-rock stars like Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens visited. Stardom is not far.
I also found delicious Italian food prepared by a Moroccan who has a 10 seat restaurant called Vague Bleu. It’s on a little side street off the road to the Bab Marrakech (the Marrakech Gate) and recommended by ex-pats who have been living here for years — he from the U.K. and she from Long Island, NY. The gnocchi topped with a pesto spinach sauce was heaven. So was the aubergine (eggplant) rolls, tender melt-in-your mouth morsels of puree.
And, the fresh fish topped with curry spice couldn’t have been more tasty.
Our lunch companions included Parisian antiques collector Richard, local resident Rachid whose father was a silversmith, and a young woman with a great smile. Je ne parle pas francais, I say, and launch into Spanish only some understand.
Henna painting is a big thing here. Street corner artists set up shop to paint fantastical designs on any part of your body. Or, pick up a tagine clay cooker to bring home to prepare one of Morocco’s most famous pyramidical foodie dishes — veggies, seafood, chicken, lamb or goat — seasoned with cumin, coriander, cinnamon and peppers.
Along the early morning avenues before the shops open, the egg man pushes his cart to vend brown, fresh from the hen goodness as shopkeepers sweep the 17th century cobbled streets to prepare for the tourists who are the town’s economic lifeblood.
Our favorite morning past-time is to take a seat at a cafe, sip a rich cup of fresh ground and brewed Cafe Americano and people watch. Maybe accompanied by a croissant filled with chocolate, too!
About 70,000 people live in Essaouira and they need to eat. (Once, 40 percent of the population was Jewish.) There are thriving fruit, vegetable, fish and meat markets intermingled with tourist shops selling Berber jewelry, handwoven rugs, antiques, pottery, and organic argan oil. Everywhere is a hammam or spa.
On every corner there seems to be a patisserie or bakery offering delectable French and Middle Eastern treats made with figs, dates, honey and pistachios. The French influence is strong. You can’t go more than 20 feet without coming upon a creperie stand turning out handmade delicacies drizzled with chocolate.
The people are warm, friendly and helpful. We met Nora at the local coffee shop owned by her family. In addition to serving an incredible cup of cafe Americano, she led us to her favorite hammam where we made an appointment for the real deal — the traditional communal (same sex) experience with body scrub, sweat bath, masque, massage and hair wash for under $25 USD. My skin is now soooooo soft.
What’s a babouche? Pointy-toed shoes of course! The traditional style for Moroccan women and men. The original ones intended for outdoor wear are treaded with car or truck tires, I’m told, and last forever. The ones for inside the house are more like slippers. Then, of course, there’s the jewelry shopping and this happy salesman (above right) made the sale of a lovely Tuareg silver and carnelian pendant and was eager to show it off.
I’ve not succumbed to the many sweets yet, but the temptation is very strong. Now, I’m off for my morning cup of coffee. Only one or two required.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture
Tagged Essaouira, food, markets, Morocco, shopping