Sophia Haddad tells The Gap Year Travel Guide about the trials and tribulations of haggling in Marrakech. Her account is sure to help any readers planning on visiting the lively city.
New kid on the block
Having visited Bruges in October with my boyfriend, we planned to have another mid-term break abroad at Easter to fill our time off with another holiday (rather than the third-year course work that eagerly demanded our attention). However, we did not just want another European city break and with a distinct, but not surprising, lack of British sunshine around, the destination had to be warm.
So with a 5 day gap between working in London and returning to Newcastle, we thought of somewhere not too far away but still exuding a sense of adventure, an unfamiliar culture and a vibrant reputation—it had to be Morocco.
Marrakech situated in the north, nestled between the majestic Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert, is thriving with magic; Aladdin’s lamps, exotic spices, witch doctors and belly dancers—it is a maze of wonderful things to see and buy. But haggling in Marrakech is a verbal boxing match that requires more than a tightly zipped purse and a firm “la shukran” (Arabic for “No thank you”)
Within my first five minutes in the main square of the city, Jemaa el-Fna, I became subject to a brutal henna attack—that is a woman drew a flower on my hand. It did not matter that I had been told a mere ten minutes before not to make conversation with ladies selling henna tattoos unless I actually wanted one, my awkward English politeness (“Hmm yes well that one looks nice, maybe later…”) resulted in being held in the grip of the persistent henna artist.
Upset that she had done it against my will, I flatly refused to pay. Unfortunately, this led to the natural dye being scraped back off into a tube and my hand being left with a dodgy orange fake tan mark, which I referred to as ‘the scar’ for the rest of the trip.
Having walked away and digested the morning’s event I thought myself a traveller with a heightened sense of awareness; less naïve and ready to take on the tourist traps. So I was taken aback when one quick glance at a snake charmer escalated into me having several photographs with dancing men and a friendly reptile wound round my neck.
Although again not a service I had explicitly asked for, I found the whole experience a novelty and was in no position to argue against tipping the snake-brandishing man.
Haggling in Marrakech
It is important to find the humour in the hassle in order to make your time in Marrakech enjoyable. If a street performer requests unreasonable amounts from you do not feel any obligation to pay him that much. For example, after my photo shoot with the snake, its owner demanded 200 dirham from me (around £16). He and I both knew that it was a ridiculous amount, and when I offered a few coins and walked away he had nothing to complain about.
The same applies with haggling in Marrakech; the merchant’s offer will always start ambitiously and so should yours. By each beginning at an unrealistic price you will eventually meet in the middle at one you are both happy with—do not be afraid to stand your ground, no one will sell anything for a loss. After the initial wariness, bartering eventually turns into a fun exchange and will almost always end with hearty handshakes and smiles, both parties getting what they want.
So long as you do not succumb to the pressure to empty your pockets, you will not feel affronted by the people. After I had been in Marrakech for a day, I learned not to turn my head at every call and spent more time marvelling at the place itself and having decent conversations with the locals instead of haggling. After all, it is the hectic atmosphere that makes the city buzz; without the hustle and bustle of tradesmen, walking through the chaotic souks would be reduced to strolling in an outdoor shopping centre.
There is much fun to be had with the people in Marrakech, my favourite place for night time entertainment was the food market in the Jemaa el-Fna. Rows of identical pop-up restaurants suddenly appear around 7pm full of the sound of clambering pans and waiters vying for your attention. Most of these establishments offer a similar deal of skewered meats, vegetable cous-cous and fried fish so in order to tempt you in to their particular stall, the employees use innovative ways to entice you over.
Night after night I heard typically British catch phrases shouted to amuse passers-by: “Taste the difference!”, “Eat here, don’t be Jel be Reem!”, “You, Slim Shady, come dine with me!” (aimed at my unsuspecting blonde boyfriend). A meal in the food market is sure to provide you with a taste of mayhem.
Another unforgettable experience was going for a traditional Hammam. These local spas offer a well-deserved rest after a day in the souks. Prices vary between establishments but whether you are looking for massages and facials or just a basic scrub there is something for every budget.
Besides from fresh food and friendly faces another local charm readily on offer to tourists is Moroccan Hashish. Don’t be fooled by people claiming to sell this on the street – what may appear to be a sound exchange could leave you in the hands of the police. Or, perhaps even more disappointingly, with a lump of chocolate wrapped in cling film—a trick the younger generation are audaciously practicing.
On my last morning in Marrakech I spotted a similarly rushed henna ‘scar’ across the breakfast table and decided I would like to get one done properly before I left. After enjoying a chat with two Moroccan women, and having a lovely pattern traced up my arm in henna, I came away knowing I had mastered my Marrakech haggling skills. Five days in the city and I was nobody’s fool, the final price was mutually agreed on—half of my remaining taxi money, a pack of cigarettes and a pot of face glitter I dug out of my bag.
Leaving Marrakech I felt that I had had anything but a relaxing holiday—the city is too full of life for it to chance being boring and I certainly had not held back from embracing it’s manic nature. Endlessly wandering the glittering souks until I got lost and being bathed head to toe in a Hammam remain as my most treasured memories from the trip. The important thing for travellers is to welcome the intensity of this place and to learn to be comfortable in and amongst its commotion. My misendeavours had been as much a part of experiencing the city as my adventures—one thing is for sure that you will not come home from Marrakech without a story to tell.