“We don’t have room for any.”
That’s what I told the salesman more than once at a licensed carpet dealer in Fes. He was showing us Moroccan rugs. My wife and I were taken there by our local guide. There might’ve been a kickback involved.
“I want you to know that we have no intention of buying,” I said to the salesman at the start.
He probably heard this refrain countless times from tourists who wound up buying a carpet anyway.
“Pick out which ones you like most,” he continued as we sipped mint tea. Employees unrolled one carpet after another as he was trying to discern the preferences of my wife, whom he addressed as Madame.
“Which one do you like the best?” followed by, “which is the next best?” We favored the Berbers for their simplicity and resemblance to Native American rugs at home.
He was friendly but persistent, oblivious to our comment that we were downsizing and while we found everything beautiful, we had no use for them.
The salesman proceeded without missing a beat. “I will shock you with the price,” pointing to not one but two that we admired. He was sure to mention that the same pieces at Bloomingdale’s would cost thousands of dollars. “Allow me to shock you.” He punched in some numbers on his calculator and showed us the figure. We said no. He discounted the price even further. We said no again. He came back with yet another lower offer. Sticking to our guns, we declined and finally rose to leave. Sensing our resolve (more tellingly, we made no counter offers), he thanked us for coming and wished us good travels.
Shopping in Morocco involves bargaining (or haggling, if you like). It’s a pervasive cultural practice that takes getting used to since bargaining in the industrialized world is uncommon. The art of it involves offering much less than what is asked for and then going back and forth with the seller until a price satisfactory to you both is reached.
What if we had purchased a rug? Who stood to benefit most from the sale? My money is on the carpet dealer.
By Moroccan standards, what tourists spend on purchases is enormous. A 1000 MAD buy (a little over $100 US) would amount to a small fortune for a typical Moroccan. Therefore, how sale proceeds get distributed is an important question in a country where poverty is a big problem (the median annual income in 2014 was US $2,800). There are a myriad of artisans who struggle to eke out a living. They work hard to make exquisite things but lack the wherewithal to distribute or sell in quantity. They rely on middlemen who buy at negotiated prices. If the carpet dealer sells dearly to greenhorn tourists, none of the profits goes back to the artist. Where is the ‘fair trade’ in all this? I can see now where concerned buyers would want to do business directly with the producer.
It’s all the more encouraging and remarkable then that there has been a rise in women’s cooperatives that make a range of products—argan oil and cosmetics, rose water and oil, djellaba buttons, weaves and carpets. The proceeds get distributed back to their members.
There are many wonderful and world-famous things made in Morocco, including ceramics in Fes, leather products by the Chouara and Marrakech tanneries, thuya woodworks and silver jewelry in Essaouira, rose products in the M’Gouna Valley, argan products in the Souss Valley, fossil furniture in Erfoud and of course the carpets of the Moroccan nomadic and Berber peoples. We visited them all and wound up only buying small gifts for family members back home, little household things for ourselves.
Lest you think I’m a savvy bargainer, I offer this. I can only hope that what I spent on a camel-skin coat at a Marrakech tannery co-op, which I had no idea I wanted let alone buy, got distributed equitably to the people who had a part in making it. I’ve no idea if I was fleeced. The guy who sold it to me was most convincing.