Are Moroccan Carpet Makers Getting Fleeced?


“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.

Advertisements

Images to Remember Morocco By


This post has only images. They reflect the personal wonder and beauty I felt about Morocco’s diverse landscape, architecture, craft and food. They were photographed in and around Casablanca, Rabat, Chefchouen, Volubilis, Meknes, Fes, Erfoud, Erg Chebbi (Sahara), Todra and Dades Gorges, Skoura, Taroudant, Essaouira, Marrakech and El Jadida. (Click on the first to start the slideshow.)

White Storks of Morocco


I’m not a birder. But when an interesting bird appears in my travels, I take note and try to find out a bit more about it. In several places throughout Morocco, I saw the white stork (Circonia circonia) that builds its large nest in high places, atop roofs, walls, even ancient Roman columns. The one above was seen at the ruins of the Chellah necropolis near Rabat. The storks apparently migrate to and from Europe depending on the time of year.

White stork at the ancient ruins of Volubilis

Follow Your Nose—the Scents of Morocco


I experienced Morocco through my nose. Not intentionally. It just happened. Morocco’s scents and aromas accumulated in my mind subconsciously until it dawned on me that smelling should be as important as seeing to have an appreciation for the country.

It started with mint tea, the beverage that Moroccans drink in gobs. It’s consumed as much as coffee by Americans and Europeans, usually with lots of sugar. When we arrived at our first riad (in Rabat), mint tea was offered with cookies while we filled out travel registration forms.

Mint tea

All riads thereafter did the same. Serving tea is a gesture of hospitality. The preferred though not necessarily practiced ritual is the same. Tea is poured from a considerable height, easily 3 meters or so, into tiny glasses to aerate the hot liquid of boiling water steeped with Chinese green tea and fresh mint. A variation involves putting mint directly in the glasses.

mint tea

A frequent trio of containers (here, behind the teapot) contains sugar, milk and more mint

I loved the beverage (without sugar) in no small part because of the refreshing scent. All the produce stalls sell bushels of fresh mint to satisfy Moroccan passion for tea.

Mint

The faint perfume that I smelled in the courtyards of many riads came from a basket of dried rose buds. They’re sold in bulk at all the spice stalls (image above). Originally from Syria, the Damascene (Damask or Damascus) rose is an important crop grown commercially in the M’Gouna Valley. Berber women manage the rose co-ops. Our driver Mustapha took us to a shop in Kelaât M’Gouna where the process from picking to distilling the petals for making rose water and oil was explained. The backroom had faint hints of rose attar. I was fortunate to see the flowers in full bloom, which happens in April and May, bushes growing in almost every conceivable corner.

Freshly picked Damascene roses

Rose buds drying in oven

Strolling through Jardin Jnane Sbil and the garden of the Dar Batha Museum in Fes, I caught the heady fragrance of orange blossoms, which has a jasmine-like bouquet. Not surprisingly Moroccans try to capture it in the production of orange water.

The fragrance of orange blossoms is incredible

Spring is the time for oranges. Vendors in carts everywhere peddle freshly squeezed juice. Grown mostly in and around Fes, the fruit is sold widely in markets and souks. I had orange juice for breakfast every morning no matter where I was in the country, surprising because I don’t normally have juice when at home.

Carts offering orange juice

Freshly squeezed orange juice

Lavender was just beginning to flower in the country. It wasn’t a flower that I associated with Morocco, but they were growing in significant amounts.

Lavender in Fes’ Jnan Sbil garden

Moroccan cooking is known for its use of aromatic spices like cinnamon, cumin, coriander, ginger and paprika, especially in tajines, which are made everywhere by virtually every restaurant that serves Moroccan cuisine. Tajine may just be its national dish. The other popular items are couscous and brochettes, as is Moroccan salad made with cucumber, tomato and red onion. The fragrances of these spices along with lamb, chicken or beef, hit me when the tajine vessel lid was lifted.

The vessel and dish are both called tajine

Tajine with chicken brochettes

I find it hard to resist the aroma of freshly baked bread. It’s as likely to be coming from a commercial bakery as a eucalyptus or olive wood-fired communal oven (faraan) where women bring their unbaked goods. Bakery stalls in narrow streets of the medina are difficult to walk past without getting stopped dead in your tracks by a tantalizing whiff. The display cases or shelves are piled with freshly baked bread. Moroccans consume mountains of bread, especially khobz that always accompanies tajine. No meal would be complete without bread. Breakfast at the riads in particular were showcases for all manner of bread, flatbread and pastries. Besides khobz, there could be msemen, batbout, harcha, meloui, beghrir, small Napoleons filled lightly with chocolate. As I’m not partial to high-carb breakfasts or of yogurt, it became a challenge for me to eat contentedly in the mornings, unless there were eggs or cheese.

Khobz

Msemen

Typical riad breakfast

I saved the ‘best’ for last—the tanneries. Both Fes and Marrakech have them, though the former is much more famous and easier to find. The odors have been described as a retching stench, of cow, sheep, goat and camel hides being treated in stone vats of pigeon dung, cow urine and quicklime solutions. Tourists are encouraged to hold sprigs of mint under their noses to mask the smell. It’s true that the tanneries reek but I didn’t find them overly offensive, stinky but tolerable. Still, I can’t imagine being exposed to this every day as are the tanners who follow a tradition that dates back a thousand years.

tannery

Chouara tannery in Fes

When you go to Morocco, keep your eyes open but do pay attention to your olfactories.

What Is a Berber Pizza?


“You want to eat something different?”

This is a thorny question that depends on who’s asking and why. Mustapha, who’d been driving us throughout Morocco, found out early that my wife and I were willing eaters. Maybe not willing so much as open to trying local food. To a point. We’re not Andrew Zimmern after all. In researching Moroccan food before the trip, I drew the line at eating sheep’s head in Marrakech.

“Like what?” The question was pregnant with doubt.

“Berber pizza.”

“What’s in it?” Again, hesitation. Crap, why can’t I just go with the flow? Carpe diem.

“You’ll find out.” This was not the answer I was hoping for.

We were in the Ziz Valley on the edge of the Erg Chebbi desert. Towns here are spread out among wind-blown sand dunes and palm trees. The entire area is famous for its Paleozoic and Mesozoic fossils. We had just completed an overnighter in the Sahara.

I said to my wife out of earshot, “It’s probably camel.” She nodded hesitantly. Even our local tour guide in Fes (Idriss) didn’t like the taste.

We had just finished visiting the mausoleum of Moulay Ali Cherif and the 17th-century ksar in Rissani. It was time for lunch.

Mustapha led us past restaurants along the main street and into an alley. “Rissani is known for its Berber pizza.”

Upon entering, he seemed to know the proprietor of La Baraka and introduced us. The dining room was hung with Arab carpets, the columns wrapped in Berber fabric. Some of the diners, probably guides, had on Tuareg robes and turbans.

La Baraka in Rissani

We ordered a Moroccan salad and the ‘pizza’ (called medfouna or madfouna), which is more like a calzone but filled with minced beef, onion and aromatic spices. The yeasty crust was crispy and chewy, like a traditional pizza, a combination of semolina and regular flours. In all, a tasty meal.

“What did you think of the pizza?” asked Mustapha. We told him we enjoyed it. “It doesn’t have cheese and tomato sauce. I hope you didn’t mind. I like it better,” he said.

Then it struck me. He wasn’t trying to be coy about the meat filling but was concerned we’d be disappointed with the lack of Italian flavors. We breathed a sigh of relief that the “something different” wasn’t camel.

Brilliant Cooking at Riad Boussa and How It Made Me Re-imagine Fruit Ingredients


It consisted of simply orange juice and shredded cucumbers. This unlikely pairing, a combination I’d ordinarily skip over in a cookbook, made a sublime cold soup, the beginning of a superb three-course dinner at Riad Boussa in Marrakech.

Cucumber and orange juice soup

In keeping with Moroccan tradition of having it on Fridays, the next course was a couscous. The riad’s was served in a tajine. Its talented young cook presented hers fringed with carrot, squash, eggplant, zucchini, turnip and fava beans (pictured above). Tucked underneath a compote of sultanas and onions were chicken and lamb that together with the vegetables flavored the incredible sauce, served separately in a bowl to spoon over everything. Real couscous takes time to make that requires triple-steaming; it doesn’t come in a box with 15-minute instructions. The grains were fluffy and tender. I’ve had couscous at home many times but I never imagined it could be this wonderful.

Dessert was another unexpected combination. Shaped as a five-sided rosette (which intentionally or not conjures up the star of Islam’s five pillars), sliced avocado crescents sprinkled with sugar were filled in the middle with strawberries. The dish changed how I now look at avocados—as a healthful way with a touch of sugar to satisfy a sweet tooth.

Only two nights previously, the kitchen produced the best tajine I had on the trip, chicken with dried apricots and walnuts, and a trio of cold vegetable salads among which was to-die-for zaalouk (made with eggplant and tomato).

Moroccan salad, pickled green peppers, zaalouk (clockwise from top)

Chicken, apricot and walnut tajine

Dessert was poached pear with a cinnamon-infused syrup.

Pear compote with cinnamon syrup

My tour operator (Experience It Tours) believes that the best meals in Morocco are served in riads. After having spent 17 days throughout the country, eating in many dining establishments, I agree. My wife and I ate our finest meals in riads. As a bonus, they have the most pleasant ambience.

And so it was during our journey, a completely vegan dinner at Riad the Repose in Rabat and organic dinner at Dar Jnan Tiouria in Skoura where the proprietor is his own chef. And I’ll not soon forget the chicken pastilla at Dar Hatim in Fes. They were all gems.

Unlike restaurants that regularly serve scores of people every day, riads only have a handful of guests who may or may not choose to eat there. I suspect this is the reason why some riads welcome diners who are not lodgers. You won’t usually find professional chefs in riads but rather talented locals. So it’s all the more extraordinary and fortunate to come across great cooks in these ranks. Riad Boussa has one of them and, as exceptional as it is in every other respect, shines even more brightly for the cook who runs the kitchen.

Do Moroccan Goats Fly?


We all know pigs can fly. But goats?

Argan trees only grow in Morocco. Morocco also has lots of goats. Have some goats evolved the ability to fly? You might wonder that when you see a tree filled with them along the road between Essaouira and Marrakech. Seeing this unusual sight was one of the things I had to do in Morocco.

Kidding aside, goats of course don’t fly. The usual story is that they climb into them. Exactly how they do that isn’t clear. In fact, you might become skeptical when you see acres and acres of argan trees in southwestern Morocco, not a single one hosting a goat, except for the lone tree filled with them along the roadside. Why that tree and not another?

There’s no question that it’s a great tourist attraction. So is that it? A busload of tourists were gathered around the tree when I approached. A young man was encouraging them to take photos, pick up a 10-day old kid—in exchange for a few coins. There are stories on the internet that the tree-borne goats consume the nuts of the trees. Whether they excrete or expectorate them is a matter of dispute, but the former definitely has the yuck factor that captivates people, especially if the oil from the argan nut is going to be used on your face or in your cooking.

The goats’ chewing away the fruit pulp supposedly does the hard part of processing the nut, but doing this on a wide scale obviously doesn’t happen. It’s much more common for men to pick the nuts by hand and women, typically in co-ops, to process the nut to make the acclaimed cosmetic and culinary products. Still, tourists love this stuff. Is it a coincidence then that a lone tree that happens to be close to the highway is teeming with goats, none of whom seem to be chewing anything?

Goats can’t take flight but your fancy can.