Maroc le Kasbah, pt. 5

After our trip to the desert, Miles and I spent the rest of our stay in Morocco enjoying the city of Marrakech. We desperately needed to cleanse the sand from our pores, and so naturally we walked around the médina looking for one of the city´s famous hammams, or public baths. An armed guard at the bath recommended to us by our hostal explained to us in French, which we did not really understand, that the royal family was currently using this particular bath, and that nobody was allowed in. Although unsure what to do next, two Americans walking around in flip-flops, with changes of clothes in plastic bags and towels over their shoulders, can only make it so far before they are approached by a Moroccan eager to find them what they are looking for. An old man seemingly doing absolutely nothing on one side of the street called us over, then yelled in Arabic to a lanky teen who was seemingly doing nothing a little ways down on the other side of the street. A deal was quickly struck in which for the price of 100 dirham each (a little less than 10€), this kid would arrange for our baths. At the time, the specifics of the whole thing were left remarkably unclear, but we were assured by kid and old man alike that this is exactly what we should be doing. Of course we agreed, in spite of the drug-deal shadiness of the operation.


The young Moroccan, who despite his countrymen´s impressive showing of polyglotism did not speak English nor Spanish, managed to convey to us that we were to follow him to his house so he could fetch his soap and cloths. The errand turned inexplicably turned into an intense powerwalk through the médina´s streets which, if viewed from above, would probably resemble a stack of flattened spiders. After what seemed like way too long and winding of a trip, we got to the kid´s house and then to the bath.


There are seperate hammams for men and women. Nudity is prohibited in the men´s baths, but allowed in the women´s, which struck me as slightly ironic in light of the traditional Muslim attitudes on clothing, but it is a bath after all. There was a half-naked man near the entrance whose job it was keep an eye on the bather´s belongings. Other half-naked men collected our money at a desk inside the bath. Soon, we too were half-naked men. The space was surprisingly beautiful; the first, cooler chamber of the barely underground building featured traditional arabic arches, and columns of both smooth stone and star-shaped light pouring down from the dome above. Our guy lead us through this room to a smaller, brighter, steamier, and slippier area, which was obviously the preferred spot of the bathers. While Miles and I were the only foreigners (public baths are visted mainly by Moroccans), and were blatantly foreign at that, nobody there seemed put off that one of the last sanctum´s of traditional Moroccon life in Marrakech had been crashed by a couple of tourists, as I had worried might happen. We were welcomed (though thankfully in this case not with open, sweaty arms), and sat down on the sleek white floor in our already sopping wet underwear. Our Moroccan teenager friend filled up several five gallon plastic buckets with hot water, slipped on a scrubbing mitten, and got to work. I honestly would´ve paid 10€ just to sit in this hammam, but getting your skin scrubbed off by some naked dude in a mitten before he dumps dozens of gallons of water over your head is actually a lot more satisying than it might sound like. We walked out of the stone and tile sauna into the hot morning feeling like golden gods, and more than ready to drive a hard bargain.


The system of souks, the hundreds upon hundreds of tiny artisenal shops in the médina, is probably where any given visitor to Marrakesh will while away the most time. A significant factor is the incomprehensable layout of the place. Not only do there scores of packed and fragmented alleyways more closely represent the pattern on a broken windshield than a grid, but the possibilities of identification by landmarks are severely reduced because these hundreds of souks are all of generally the same appearance, and almost exclusively sell about five types of products: leather goods, clothes, metalworks, woodworkings, and antiques. There is some diversity within these categories, but the shops themselves are individually useless as points of orientation, especially when more immediate issues such as dodging motorbikes and charging men with double-wide carts of bread in tow monopolize your attention. It is in fact surprisingly difficult to find an appropriate time to stop walking, because as soon as you do it is imperative to remove yourself from a rushing Moroccan´s path. Nevertheless, when you find your happy place, it is time to choose an item and argue about its price.


Many people comlain about the bartering practice in cities like Marrakech. It´s a hassle, they say, why not just establish fixed prices and get on with it? Nonesense. It is a fundamental part of the culture. Why travel to an ¨exotic¨ destination only to complain that its customs are not enough like your own? I, for one, see two major benefits to bartering. The first is that it grants the customer the right to assign value to a product, a notion which is relatively lost on modern Western commerce. A vendor will never, of course, compromise profit, but a successful bargain will leave both parties more than satisfied. While a foreigner has roughly a 0% chance of coaxing a vendor´s price down as well as a native Moroccan can, the reasonable traveler will accept that their currency is undoubtedly at least 10 times stronger than the dirham, and will not attempt heroic feats of haggling just because they think they are getting the ol´ Yankee Special from a shifty belt salesman. That being said, the most sound approch to bartering is: 1.) choose an item you want. 2.) decide the highest price you would pay for it. 3.) ask the price. 4.) haggle until you get the price you want.


In theory these are simple steps, but as you can imagine, there is a lot of grey area between steps 3 and 4. Everybody´s game plan is slightly different, but what tends to happen requires a certain level of improvisational theatre. And this brings me to the second major benefit of bargaining: spirited and sometimes intense interactions with the natives. How many ¨tourists¨ are there who have visited a distant and exotic cities just to say they´ve ¨done it¨? All tourists interact with the physical spaces of their destination, and this can often lead to a false sense of connection with a place. There is nothing wrong with visiting the old churches and savoring the local gastronomy (at which white travelers apparently excel), but true culture is carried by people, not inanimate objects. The necessity of not just interacting, but actually reasoning with a native, is a curiously successful method of ensuring such an invaluable experience. To be certain, most negotiations begin in a loosely scripted fashion:


Buyer: How much for this little wooden turtle?

Vendor: 100 dirham.

B: Too much! That´s too much!

V: Ok, ok, ok. 80 dirham, that´s final price. Look, very nice turtle! Handmade!  You take it, no problem!


This is standard. Overblown price, immediate price drop. But this is just the beginning. In fact, a vendor would be insulted if you accepted the first offer. How the buyer argues down the price from this point on becomes a seamless mix of acting and feigned scrutiny of the item´s quality. Interestingly, both the vendor and buyer tend to know with some accuracy how things will stand when all is said and done. The question is precisely how to get there. It´s almost as if the interaction is the same mad-libs exercise being repeated all the time everywhere, and both people just fill in the blanks of the script with slightly personalized and usually laughable arguments, only the Moroccan will not always use the correct parts of speech. The rest of the conversation might go something like this:


B: Listen, man, it´s a nice turtle, but I just came from the neighboring wooden animal vendor and he was selling the same thing for like 30 dirham.

V: No, sir, I have best animals, best prices. We can find good price…what you pay for it?

B: Uh, I couldn´t give you more than 20 dirham.

V: (Appearing shocked) 20 dirham?! You are crazy. You are crazy American. Look at this turtle! Handmade, very good quality turtle! I tell you what, 65 dirham, final price, take it or leave it.

B: Very good quality turtle?? (Arbitrarily pointing to part of the miniature figure.) Look right here, see this? This turtle is scratched, how can you charge me 65, nobody would pay that much for a scratched turtle. (Emphatically pointing to a much bigger and nicer figure on the shelf.) I would pay 65 for that elephant, but 65 for this little scratched turtle? No way. 30 dirham.

V: Not enough. I have a wife, four children. I must feed them. This is fair price, I assure you.

B: (Pulling in beer belly and wincing slightly) And I am a poor student! I haven´t got any money. I can´t pay 65…I really can´t. Look, I like this turtle. It´s not perfect, but I like it, and I like you, you´re a good guy. So I´ll tell you what (taking out wallet), I will give you 35 dirham. I really can´t go higher.

V: I am sorry I cannot sell it to you for 35. Maybe this tiny fish here, but not the turtle.

B: I don´t want the fish.

V: (Placing turtle in buyer´s hand.) Yes, I know, ok, take it for 50. Great price! Take it!

B: (Returns turtle, begins to walk away.)

V: Sir, come back! Ok 40! Price is too low, but I do it for you!

B: Thanks, but no thanks. I will go buy it right here in the next stand.

V: (With resigned frustration, even though a significant profit is still being made) Yes, 35, I give it to for 35. Come back, please. Here you go, sir.

B: Thanks, it´s a nice little turtle.


And this is how I bought, among other things, a leather belt, a couple scarves, a Leo Messi (amazing soccer player on Barcelona) jersey, and yes, a couple small wooden animals.

~ by lincolnbrody on April 17, 2008.

One Response to “Maroc le Kasbah, pt. 5”

  1. Lincoln,

    I have been secretly lurching around your blog for a few months now and vicariously enjoying your (and Miles’) experience of Arcos, Morocco, the Easter bulls, etc. Having now become heavily addicted to your postings, I thought I should confess my presence. I am “Miles’ Mother” aka Nancy Batson and am probably your biggest fan in Chevy Chase, MD. However, given the quality of your writing, perhaps I should not assume that exclusivity. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that your have “readers” in all parts of the U.S.A and the world.

    Thank you so much for your wonderfully descriptive accounts of life in Arcos de la Frontera and of your trip with Miles to Morocco. While Miles has given my husband and me a verbal report on his travels via Skype, you have supplied some nuances in your blog that I might not otherwise have known about until Miles returns and I can grill him in person about all of his exchange year experiences.

    I also want to thank you for befriending my son during his year of living as an exchange student. You and the other American teachers in Arcos have been very kind to reach out to him and include him in some of your “American” celebrations. We did hear about how one of our family’s traditional Thanksgiving dish, “Green Glob” turned into the bottomless “Pineapple Glob” dish he brought to your dinner. I had doubled the recipe before I sent it to him and then he tripled it thus making 6x as much as we usually make to feed 12. I think they had quite a lot of it at his host family’s house for several meals! Perhaps it wasn’t the best side of American cuisine to show off to the Spaniards, but given Miles’ skills in the kitchen at least it was something he could make.:>))

    Miles speaks so higly of you, Lincoln, that I am sure he will remain one of your #1 admirers for life. His father and I are also grateful to you since you have provided a touch of home to our sometimes lonely (but very capable) teenager. I wish you all the best in the remainder of your year in Arcos and whatever wonderful adventures you find for yourself next. I hope to continue to be able to read all about them.


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