Playing the Game in Marrakech

We don’t often get to bargain for goods and services in the States. I cannot remember a time in my life where I have bargained for something while shopping in the streets, corner-stores, and malls of California. These shops have set prices. If something is listed as $20, then that is the final price (unless, of course, there is a sale). The demand to sell things is great but not ever great enough to reduce the price of an item on the spot. Such is definitely not the case in Marrakech, Morocco.

In Marrakech, bargaining is an integral part of everyone’s lifestyle. Vendors expect their customers to bargain, and customers expect the same in return. In a sense, it is a game. Who will come out with the better deal when it is all said and done? Can someone less experienced outdo a veteran in getting the best deal? I have even heard a rumor that the vendor will reward the customer with a cup of tea if they bargained well. Such a climate for interactive shopping is very intriguing for an American like me.

When I entered the medina of Marrakech I was uncertain of what to expect with this whole experience. I was curious to see how I would handle bargaining for clothing and whether or not I would land a good deal. Would I feel bad for asking less and settle on a price of their choosing or leave with nothing? Would I get in a heated debate with a local vendor? These questions were soon answered with my very first bargaining experience.

I wanted some Moroccan garb. Something I could wear the rest of my trip during my stay with the Berber Villagers in the High Atlas Mountains (this was a trip through Semester at Sea in which we lived with the indigenous mountain people for two days following our time in Marrakech). Soon enough, I found myself at the entrance of the alley leading to all the vendors in the medina. After only a couple paces, my friend turned and pointed to some white clothing hanging on the wall to a shop. We were caught. The local man who owned the place saw my friend pointing and rushed up to us, spraying words so fast that I wasn’t sure if he was speaking English or Arabic. After we urged him to slow down, he gave us his price for the shirt and pants we were looking at: 150 dirham each. And so the bargaining began.

My friend backed away to a different shop, but I stayed, ready for this moment and excited to see what kind of deal I could get for this outfit. I immediately told him “No way!” for that price and exclaimed that I would pay 50 dirham for both. He shook his head in absolute disagreement to that offer and acted as if there was no way in hell he would accept anything close to that. So I said that’s fine and started to walk away. Immediately he called me back and said, “Ok, ok, 100 dirham each.” I replied emphatically that there was no chance for that price and that my final offer was 100 dirham for both. He shook his head and again I began to walk away. Predictably, I was called back and given another price slightly lower than the last price he offered me. I replied that all I had on me was 100 dirham and that I was going leave unless he accepted that price. Knowing that I was not going to budge, he reluctantly gave in and handed me the outfit for 100 dirham. I started to walk away, palms sweating, heart thumping. I was a rookie, a beginner in this game of bargaining. And yet, I had won. I could sense defeat as the vendor handed me the garb. His head was down and a slight frown grew gently over his face. He was beaten by a foreigner. I was shouting inside, but outside I kept my cool. I could not celebrate after one win. The season of bargaining had only begun and one win would not put me in the playoffs.

I continued to stroll down the market alleys, smelling the scent of crisp air and dirt muddled together like the back of a dirty restaurant. I was running against the clock, but I wanted to bargain once more before I left. I saw a beautiful scarf that I could get for my sister and streamlined right towards the vendor. Without hesitation I offered 50 dirham and pointed to the scarf I wanted. He laughed and said that it was worth 200 dirham. I snapped back with 100 dirham, proclaiming that it was the last of the money I had on me (which was true). He said no and I rushed off, only to hear him call me back less than a second later, a slight hesitation in his voice. I had him. He tried to get 125 dirham out of me, but he knew there was no chance. I had 100 dirham and he was going to get that or nothing. After prying a couple more times, he settled on 100 dirham and I left feeling as if I had just won the Superbowl. I wanted to shout, but I knew that was inappropriate. As in any game, if you want to achieve greatness, you need to act like you’ve been there before in these situations. I was happy, but boasting about it would not get me anywhere.

After that we had to leave. I shared my excitement with a few friends, showing them the items I bargained for and at what price. The walk back to the entrance of the medina was very pleasant. My chest was raised, my steps heavy and strong. Confidence emitted from all over my body. I had developed a strong affection for the art of bargaining that is imbedded in the culture of this Moroccan city.

— Joshua Kohansamad

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