In Marrakech, haggling is an art form. The first time I visited, I spent hours wandering through, exploring the souks of Djemaa el Fna Market. I found myself accosted by dozens of vendors, all eager to sell me their wares. You’ll enjoy the experience, at first. However, by the time the tenth Moroccan had tried to sell me ‘authentic’ Calvin Klein jeans for less than five British Pounds, I was beginning to get frustrated.
Of course, it’s not all suspiciously branded clothes and perfumes here. There are countless stalls selling spices, cloth and household furnishings, as well as some examples of Moroccan fast food that are not for the faint-hearted! Deep-fried eels, anyone?
I soon found myself lost in a foreign world. Shoulder to shoulder with vendors, donkeys, other tourists and the Moroccan people themselves, it was like letting go of everything you know, and stepping blind into another dimension… one in which grilled snails make a great snack, and haggling is a way of life.
I guess the reason so many westerners find it difficult to haggle, is because we come from a world where the price tag is God. Catalogs, tariffs and barcodes – these things don’t enter into Moroccan culture, and getting a good price for an item involves engaging in a battle of the wits!
Rules of the Haggle
My first haggling experience came when I discovered a stall of music instruments, hidden deep within the labyrinth of Djemaa el Fna Market. I was looking for a souvenir, and my eyes had fallen on a peculiar instrument, something like a mandolin but with only three strings. I pointed to it, and asked the vendor, ‘how much?’
‘One thousand four hundred,’ was the reply – that’s over a hundred British Pounds.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning a few of the rules of the haggle. I had read a guidebook on it, but nothing really prepares you for the real thing. According to the guide, you should keep your cool, and don’t be afraid to put on an act. Don’t waste your time on the bad-tempered sellers, either. Pick someone who seems friendly, and the chances are they’ll enjoy the game. Remember that the first price a seller gives you is generally nonsense. Of course, there are still some tourists who’ll pay this happily, which is why they try it.
So I thanked the vendor and made to walk away.
It was only the beginning
‘Wait,’ he says. ‘You are English?’
Here we go, I’m thinking.
To my surprise, I’m suddenly offered a stool to sit on, and a cup of sweet, fruity tea. He asks me,
‘Do you mean to do business today?’
This is an important question for the vendor. While they are generally happy to sit and negotiate a price for a long period of time, no-one wants to have their time wasted.
So I tell him I do, and he makes me a new price. It’s ninety Moroccan Dirham, which is somewhere around seventy Pounds.
‘Just because I like English people,’ he says.
This is still too much for me. I feel awkward and embarrassed now, as I sit drinking the man’s tea. Before I can say anything though, he drops the price again.
‘Six hundred, this is my last price.’
So in the space of about five minutes, we’ve gone from over a hundred to about fifty pounds, and a cup of tea thrown in for good measure! Trying my luck a little, I offered the man forty pounds (five hundred Dirham), and we shook on it.
Haggling is a complex game
Since that episode, I’ve learned a lot more about the art of haggling – by the end of my weekend in Marrakech, I was generally paying around a quarter of the initial asking price for items! Looking back to that first encounter, I’m quite sure the instrument seller would have gone lower still, but it can be difficult for foreigners to get the hang of this approach to commerce. Often vendors will look putout, offended, or even angry at your offers. Nevertheless they expect it, and it’s all part of a complex game.
Marrakech is an incredible destination, offering a wide variety of heritage sites, historical monuments, street entertainments and markets… and if you’re looking for that authentic Moroccan experience, then haggling is a must.