“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, he thanked us for coming and wished us good travels.
Shopping in Morocco involves bargaining. It’s a pervasive cultural practice that takes getting used to since bargaining in the industrialized world is uncommon. The art of it requires that you offer much less than what is asked for and then settle on a final price after going back and forth with the seller.
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. 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 are struggling 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 likely extract concessions. Where is the ‘fair trade’ in all this?
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 tribes. We visited them all and wound up only buying small gifts for family members back home, little household things for ourselves.
One final note. I can only hope that most of the money I spent on a camel-skin coat in Marrakech which I had no idea I wanted, let alone buy, got back to the people who made it. I’ve no idea if I was fleeced. The guy who sold it to me was most convincing.