I Wouldn’t Send my Dog to Morocco

Trip Start Jan 28, 2012
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Trip End Jan 28, 2013


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Saturday, May 19, 2012

"I wouldn't send my dog to Morocco" were the words used by a travel agent that I talked to years ago when I first contemplated a trip there, another was “Morocco’s a great place, unfortunately its full of Moroccans.” Since then we’ve heard stories of scams, hustlers and aggressive dealers.  Is it just that the people are as weathered and hard as the Moroccan landscape and climate that bore them? Or may be its just a long standing western cultural fear of the 'Moorish Marauders’ from the southern deserts.

The die was probably cast right from the beginning when the Romans first set up their far flung outposts here. Over the next 250 years they tried to consolidate and ‘civilise’ the region, however it appears that this country was always a ‘wild card’, with semi-autonomous tribes playing strategic political games with shifting alliances, and a flagrant disregard for foreign law made domination of Morocco almost impossible. Out of frustration they named the local people ‘Berbers’ which means ‘Barbarians’ which stuck, whereas the Berbers prefer to call themselves ‘Amazigh’ which means free person.

Their reputation was cemented in the 1600’s to 1700’s when Moroccan “Barbary pirates” from the coastal ports of Rabat and Sale raided European shipping taking booty and prisoners for ransom who were eventually freed after serving a period of servitude,  white slavery, Africas revenge.

 The pirate ships have now all long gone……although the pirates still remain, they have just moved inland and set up leather and carpet shops.  How hard is it to buy a carpet in Morocco? Dead easy just try and stop it happening! There are many books devoted on what to buy, what to look out for, how to assess quality and determine regionality, but this blog is devoted to something much more valuable and informative I’ll call it “How to NOT buy Carpet or Leather in Morocco”.

This information was based on our experience in the medina of Fez with the characters reconfirmed from those we’ve met along the way ie Marrakesh and Turkish carpet sellers as one example. Fez is a fantastic city the old part is called the medina it’s a walled city (so you can’t get out) and is a rat maze of small streets and narrow alley ways that defy logic and probably renders compasses completely useless. Some of these alley ways are so narrow that I expected to find the bones of some fat American who had been wedged there from times gone past (see photo). In amongst this maze of 9,600 streets and thousands of vendors selling everything from buns stuffed with camel meat, to perfumes, brassware, silverware, magic remedies, in darkened corners lurk the carpet and leather shops. They strategically align around important historic sites (preferably you have to go through their shop to get there) and have built unholy alliances with tour guides (who ‘guide you to their shop).
 
  



 














 
There are two distinct species each with their own method of catching and devouring their prey. Both are high pressure salesmen you can feel the claustrophobic air around you as you enter their den, their smile and their capturing gaze (don’t look into the eyes). The first is the ‘Aggressive’ type I’ll name him ‘Abdullah the leather salesman’, very congenial at first, but turn your back on him and his mood rapidly changes. Requests change from “please choose something” (as you procrastinate) to “here I think you want this jacket”, to “put this on!” All before he reveals his very special discount price which isn’t based on last years fashion line, but solely dependent on what he thinks he can screw out of you. The final act in the play is to put down the guilt card and make you realise that you are solely responsible for his family’s welfare. To quote ‘Abdullah’ “Juuust looooking… doesn’t feed my children!!” When that doesn’t work and you leave the premises being gracious and thanking them for their time, to which Abdullah may respond… to quote “Thank you?.........” (as he looked skyward he opened his mouth and dropped the imaginative word in and said) “I EAT it….I EAT it !”.
 
The next species is much more dangerous meet ‘Ahmed the carpet salesman’, not only do these people sell ice to the eskimos, but they can do it at twice the standard rate.

Offering mint tea is a form of politeness and used to lure you into a false sense of security, its as sugary sweet as the saccharine lines and the dulcet tones that he is about to use on you, as if to put a comforting arm around you and say “Yes my friend I know buying a carpet is a hard and uncomfortable thing, so many tricksy false people out there, how fortunate for you that you have met a man with as much integrity and honour as myself, one who only wants to live a simple honest family life, not for money but to bring joy to peoples lives and what more joy can there be than being able to provide for somebody the life-long treasure of a beautiful carrrpettt…..….( a little laugh, flash teeth, hold eye contact and…. pour the tea)…..”

You may think of a protective defensive line such as “Were not really here to buy, were just interested in looking at some carpets” Ahmed chukkles and affirms “yes for fun” which really means “whatever makes you feel comfortable…and / or “yes that might work for you at home but now you’re in Morocco, in my shop where were play by my rules”.

Maybe I’m being too hard it is a relatively poor country, maybe I’m being too selfish, he probably is a nice family man……oops you’ve dropped your guard… AND that’s just what the eskimos also thought when they suddenly realised that not only had they paid twice the going rate for ice, but they had just purchased twice as much as they actually needed.

So how does the game start? After a period of introduction of the quality of the goods and the integrity of the lineage of his family it begins with a flurry of carpets laid at your feet. This is poker face time the price of the goods is not based on an average profit percentage but solely on how much you are willing (or manipulated) to pay for it. A lot will depend on the reaction on your face to one or more of the carpets, the more enthusiastic your reaction the higher the price.
 
Its all a game of poker, the next call is “which of these carpets do you like the most” a harmless question you suppose, but it’s the process of narrowing the field which will inevitably end up leaving you with one or two carpets that you have now told him you really like but you still don’t know the price of. Oops you’ve now backed yourself into a corner with not much space to move. You can think of phrasing a polite ways of getting out of the impending purchase without offending his good will and hope he notices your discomfort, he will notice your discomfort and politely won’t let you get away with it, but will instead sooth your concerns by plying you with positive reinforcement of said quality of carpets and family lineage.

So now you have no were else to go but ask for the price, which will be more than you hoped for. If you imply “that’s a lot more than I was thinking” the next question will be “well how much would you like to pay?” don’t answer that loaded question with a Freudian slip as you will have just flashed your cards and said I have $500 in my account that I’m prepared to spend. (Best to answer “I think to carpet to me is worth xxxxx”). But having just flashed your cards you have revealed what will now be considered your base starting price of $500 to be negotiated up. If you consistently refuse to raise your price any further a suitable option will be arrived at, you’ll magically be delivered an inferior carpet inflated to meet your said budget ‘at the special price of $500’ which carpet would you now prefer? Would you like some more tea to swallow while you consider your new purchase? 

You hear the words ringing in your head “GAME SET and MATCH Ahmed!!”  While you console yourself saying ‘I think I probably got a good deal’.

And that’s just what the eskimos were thinking when a voice over their shoulder whispered saying “My friend your feet must be awfully cold in this igloo filled with ice, perhaps you also want a carrpettt…..…”

Whats the conclusion? Street hustling in Morocco is part of the landscape and just the way it is, can you avoid it, No! Can you enjoy it? Only if you feel in control (which is less than more) ………. but the best way to deal with it is to consider it as learning another one of life’s skills.

As stated in the Morocco Lonely Planet guide;

“If you manage to return from Morocco without a carpet, you may well congratulate yourself on being one of the few travellers to have outsmarted the wiliest sales people on the planet.” But then it sets in; they’ve got piles of plush, one-of-a-kind handmade carpet underfoot, and you’re stuck with a faded acrylic bath mat. Hmmmmm………….”.

Well we’ve got 3 weeks to kill and that old air conditioner space on the wall could be covered by a kilim (carpet), may be if we could negotiate the right price?.......................

Postscript 1 to this unfinished blog;

How not to buy a carpet;

-         Never enter a shop with any cash, credit card, or give your hotel address (but they probably found that out already from the person below who was there with you.)

         Never go into a shop with any other Moroccan (hotel  manager / worker, young street kid helping you out, taxi / bus driver or tour guide showing you artisan skills) they all get between 40 to 50%* of your final purchase price as the tourist finder (*as quoted by a western tour guide we met posing as a tourist finder to a Moroccan carpet salesman).

         Never narrow your view to one carpet keep options open ask the price of a range of carpets and keep the one your really interested in once you’ve rejected the price of the others.

         Never start a counter offer after the initial price that means you want to bargain for the item, its game on.

         Never say you’ll come back tomorrow always ‘I’ll think about it’, otherwise you’ll find them waiting for you at your hotel for breakfast…. ‘but yesterday you promised!’.

         An OK price to finish on in Morocco is probably 50% of the initial asking price (see post script 2), which means you have to start bargaining from 25% (“How am I to feed the children!”) however that’s not always the rule. (Using my negotiating skills to buy a silver antique Moroccan coin I bargained it down by 40%, I had then realised I had still paid considerably more than I did a similar silver Nepal coin I bought, I comforted myself with the knowledge that silver was probably twice as expensive in Morocco as Nepal).

Post script 2

         Ahmed from Fez carpets were 5 times the amount we found at a regulated fixed price artisans workshop and his woven cactus bed spreads were 7 times the amount.

         And yes we did go into Abdullah and Ahmed’s shop with a guide, when he was supposed to take us on a tour of the Medinas historic sites.

         We did end up buying a lovely Kilim (carpet) for the old air conditioner slot from a quiet friendly old man at a regulated fixed price artisans workshop in Marrakesh outside the main tourist area, for one fifth of Ahmed’s quote (although in the back of my mind maybe this was too easy?).

         And yes I admit my memories and stories of buying goods in Morocco will be of salesmen like Ahmed and Abdulla, not the quiet friendly old man.
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Comments

Kath Jamieson on

Fabulous story. Here I was thinking you were just having a lazy year off but it seems you have aspirations as a witty travel writer! Felt like I was reading an excerpt from a novel - didn't know you had such literary leanings. Perhaps the romance of the "Exotique"(or the extra special herbs and spices they added to your mint tea) have unmasked your true calling….

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