Even before I had tasted Moroccan cuisine, I had heard about the souks. I’m sure you have too– most people’s images of Morocco involve these fabled markets, where you can buy everything from freshly butchered meat to handloomed rugs. Perhaps the most famous souk is the one in the medina (old walled city) in Marrakech, where labyrinthine passages selling all that you could imagine (and much you’d never dreamed of) lead up to the square, Jemaa el Fna.
Jemaa el Fna is a story and a world unto itself, starting out sedately in the mornings with stalls hawking freshly squeezed orange juice, and gradually expanding into the night with food vendors, performers and hucksters of all varieties. There are old Berber women with designs to tattoo any passing female with henna. There are snake charmers and their snakes. There are monkeys, in various costumes. There are impromptu boxing matches. All of this can be had for a price, which at times might start at even 100 times the rate which might be eventually accepted. It’s not a place for the timid. It’s probably safe, but it’s not the kind of place where you can stroll casually and expect to be unaccosted. One business plan involves a local asking a lost-looking tourist if they need directions, then taking them in the wrong direction, then when they are finally able to bring them to their desired location, demanding payment.
Another traveler had the unfortunate experience of having her hand grabbed for a unwanted henna tattoo, while simultaneously having a monkey placed upon her shoulder, both unrequested, both requiring payment. Our riad hosts advised us: “Don’t be polite, do not answer them at all. That will only encourage them. Just ignore.” Oh, but how to browse when there are all these considerations? My husband and I spent our first souk trip walking swiftly, not making eye contact, and actually not stopping. But once we got a feel for the place and the characters and the rules of engagement, we felt much more relaxed. We paused when we were interested in buying something, tried our best at the bargaining game, and were able to enjoy the spectacle without undue fear.
That said, most of our actual purchases were in the much more laid back souk in Essaouira, a seaside town that is one of the world’s windsurfing capitals. Perhaps the biggest sign of my rapidly improving souk shopping prowess was at the rug sellers’ in Essaouira. We had first seen a hand-loomed rug in a Berber village in the High Atlas mountains. We learned that Berber women make these rugs by hand, taking up to half a year per rug, and that these family heirlooms would constitute the dowry for the girls in the family. These rugs are traditionally decorated with Berber symbols meaningful to each family and use natural but surprisingly bright dyes. I didn’t expect I’d be able to purchase one, but one struck my eye when I first glimpsed it in Essaouira.
We had the rug seller bring it down, I caressed it, I sat on it to feel the pile. In other words, I broke the number one rule of bargaining– showing extreme interest. The price was beyond our budget, so we left. We went to a few other rug shops, bargaining until we felt we understood what a fair price might be, and left without purchasing. I decided to sleep on it. I woke up the next morning, heart stubbornly fixated on the first one I had spied, festooned as it was with auspicious God’s eyes. So we returned to the first shop. My rug was still there. (A sign!) I bargained, bargained, bargained, in English and in French, until the seller looked pained, but accepted my offer. He said to me: “You are like Berber woman.” I took it as a compliment.