10 top tips for souk bartering in North Africa

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So many people get exasperated by a day in the souks, haggling in a different culture, and trying to negotiate a shame/honour culture, whilst having no experience in it.  Here’s a few top tips I’ve gleaned from locals over the years:

  1. Relax.  You’re there for the cultural experience and the fun of a holiday in another culture.  Only take what money with you that you’d be happy spending, and then you’ll not be too disappointed at over-spending!
  2. It’s not a competition (well, for most of us).  I’m super-competitive about everything in life.  I like to think I never settle for second-best.  But if you do that here, you’ll always live in the past with regrets and mentally will never be free to enjoy the day.  Let go of the thought of trying to get the world’s best ever deal.  If you’ve got a price that you think is worth it, accept it and enjoy it.
  3. The more you look like a tourist, the more you’ll be charged tourist prices.  The more you sound like a tourist, the same.
  4. Try to avoid the main branches of the souk off the main square/walkway.  They see hundreds of tourists a day, know every trick in the book and often charge more than those who see fewer tourists on the back streets and winding alleyways.
  5. If you see something you like, try bartering for it at a few stalls (not within eyesight of each other) to see what the best price is you can get, and then start with that price to drive a hard bargain at a final stall.IMG_0171
  6. A shame/honour culture dictates how things play out in the souks.  If the seller can tell you a long sob story and persuade you of its reality, he maintains honour and gets a good price (even if the story is not true).  If he tells you that you can look and not buy, he will maintain his honour but of course will draw you in for the sale with treating you admirably while you are in the stall (honouring you).
  7. You most likely are from a guilt culture and are thinking whether the things the seller says are true or not.   His sob stories convict you of guilt (it would be cruel not to buy).  His chat, winsomeness and maybe even offer of mint tea mean that your heart is feeling guilty by walking out on him without a purchase.  You take every word at face value.
  8. Depending on how much you believe you can or should play along with the shame honour culture, have some of your own stories up your sleeve for why you aren’t able to pay such high prices!  If you want to stick to a stricter guilt model of ethics, think of ones that are entirely truthful and feel guilt-free!  (see example below)  If you haven’t got a good price to start with, you’re unlikely to be able to wrestle it back mid-interchange, but it can be fun to try!
  9. If you’re outside of a tourist area, you’re more likely to be offered very reasonable prices, and driving them as low as you can may even not be the most friendly thing to do – remember you’re the rich western person (probably in the world’s top 1% richest) on holiday in a place where many aren’t so fortunate.
  10. If you really get infuriated by not knowing prices, most tourist markets have many stalls with fixed prices – just look out for things with price labels…you normally can’t barter in these.

And here’s one example for you!

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Seller (S): “Hello my friend!”

(I ignore English in the souks to get better prices and more real exchanges)

(S) “Bonjour Monsieur!”

(I respond by looking uninterested but willing to browse.  All interactions are then in French or Arabic, but here written in English)

(S):  “Look, no buy for you today.  Just come here”

Me: “Oh but your things are so beautiful.  I must of course look.”

“Yes, they are very authentic products made here in [insert place] by my family for decades.  If you tell me what you want, I will get one’s which are better than the tourist ones I have for sale here”

“Ah wow, your family must feel honoured that you continue to sell these things.  They are beautiful.”

(I browse for a few minutes, finally spotting what I fancy)

“I love the pattern of this.  So intricate and it blends so well!”

“Yes, that is one of our best things.  If you would like it, I can offer you a special Ramadan price”

“You are very kind.  The last time I bought one of these I got it for a very good price too, so that would be wonderful.” (getting the upperhand by making him nervous I know the pricing structure, which, so often is true, because I’ve been round all the stalls)

“Well for a great American friend like you, I will only charge 300 Dirhams”

“Oh, I’m not a rich American.  In my country, we do not have as much money and it is not as important to us.”

“Ah, so you must be English.  I will do a better price for you English because I like that.  People first, money after.  Perhaps 200 Dirhams for you then?”

“Oh 200 Dirhams is a lot for me, because I am not English.  I am a poor Irishman.  The English have oppressed us for 700 years and colonised us.  You must know what that feels like, no?”

(He smiles) “Ah, I see.  Good Irish price then.  What would it be for you?”

“Oh probably 60 Dirhams”

“60 Dirhams?!  I could not even do that for an Irishman, or else my family would not live”

“Well, how about 80 Dirhams then?”

“90 Dirhams and you will have had the best deal in all of [insert place name]”

“Well, I’ll tell you what, if I buy two of these, I’ll pay you 160 Dirhams and we’ll both have a great deal!”

“You barter like a Berber, my friend!  But I cannot take lower than 90 each”

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Such bartering style even must be deployed in the simplest of exchanges on the beach or anywhere!

(I look sad and start to go towards the door and signal my apology)

“Then I must thank you but leave, because I only have 150 Dirhams left to buy anything today, apart from some bread for lunch.  Look, that is all I have”

“My friend, do not tell anyone, but I will take it.”

“Thank you.  You are a generous man, and you should be proud of your family heritage.  These are the best in [insert place name].

*buys product*

Marrakech, souks and disgruntled tourists

“I’m never going back there again”

“I wouldn’t go there for more than 2 days”

“They were so aggressive”

“I felt so overwhelmed all the time and unable to escape”

Comments you wouldn’t expect to find on a holiday brochure for Marrakech, Morocco, but nonetheless ones that were the expressed sentiment as soon as Easyjet had shut the aeroplane door to Manchester and the tourist may as well have been back on his home turf again.

And yet they weren’t angry comments.  More just baffled.  Because the next sentence would always be one that would reaffirm that they did really enjoy their trip.  But did they?  Was this sadistic enjoyment?

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Why don’t I set the scene?  It’s 45 degrees celsius and you’ve headed out for the day in Marrakech.  Dressed in as little as possible for a conservative country like Morocco, you have a phone in one pocket for photos and your wallet in the other.  Apart from a few sights, mostly the main “attraction” for most people is spending the day walking quaint souk (market) stalls in tiny alleyways.

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The maze of tiny stalls, each repeating very similar wares, yet every one unique and with its own quirky personality that probably reflects the owner as he stands there.  A true joy to browse.

 

 

 

 

 

“monsieur, Monsieur!  Vien-ici!”  “Look, no buy.”

At which you are greatly pleased.  Aha!  I can look at all these things and not be forced to buy.  Perfect.  And so you walk in.

A few minutes of polite chit chat with the stallholder later, you start to browse.  Taking interest in a couple of things in particular, you discuss something and take a photo.  And the stall owner moves for the kill, with you their unsuspecting prey.

“You like?”

“erm…yes, it’s beautiful” (not meaning to offend)

“Well, I give you good price”

“How much is it?”

“A good price.  What would be a good price for you?”

“oh well, I don’t know.”

“well, I’ll offer you a special Ramadan price of 120 dirhams.  Normally I would sell it for 340 dirhams, but my brother especially made this one, and so I am able to get it for you far cheaper for you alone today.”

Wow, you think.  Such a good offer just for me.  And his brother made it….so it’s really authentic.  But 11.50 euros…just for that?  Oh but it’s genuine, and when else could you buy something like this?  And so the internal debate ravages on.

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“Oh I think I’ll think about it and come back to you later”

Sensing his prey moving onwards, the stall owner puts himself between you and the door and tries again.

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“Oh my friend, this is a one time offer.  My brother only made one.   Look at how bad the quality of the normal “tourist” ones are!  This is a special one for you.  You are English.  Cheaper prices than Asda for you.”

At which you’d love to still walk out of the shop, but you start to wonder whether he is in fact, very correct.  It does indeed appear better than the others.  And it would be fun to have.

And so as you pull out your wallet, you hesitantly try another ten dirhams off the price.  At which you feel stupid, as this poor man quickly says he couldn’t afford to sell them for that price, and reverts back to the original.  And the deal is done.  The robbery has happened.

And the only consolation….you probably could afford to be robbed for the joy of such an exchange.  A sadistic joy.  Paying perhaps more to experience culture than for the item you now walk out to try and squeeze into your hand luggage, that will soon sit in some cupboard, not in use back home.

And unless you understand the culture, this repetition all day will break you.

Anger.

Frustration.

How could they?!

As you walk into another stall determined for the same thing not to happen again.

“Bonjour monsieur!  Look, no buy!”

“NO!  JUST TELL ME HOW MUCH IT IS!”

“What would be good price for you Monsieur?”

The man looks so honest.  And somehow I spurt out a figure.  And in a split second of madness I wonder whether I’m dealing with a reincarnated man from the last stall.

And my Dirhams which once were a good exchange rate against the Euro, have just somehow vanished in Euro-like quantities.

Travelling to find a wife (!)

Travelling always lends itself towards one night stands and quick flings.  I walked in to my room at a rural youth hostel recently to find the other two occupants of said room, lying on top of each other, and quite shocked that they had company in the hostel (thankfully not just me).  With my appearing, they disappeared….off to find a scene where they could make out undisturbed and, let’s face it, probably in a more romantic setting than a shabby hostel dorm.

But much as travelling lends itself to such encounters whilst thinking that your sex goes unseen and without harm on anyone, I doubt that many people go short-term travelling to find themselves a wife.  Perhaps move countries to where you deem the people to suit you better, yes, but not short term travels!  In fact, from those who’ve done so (Rob Lilwall I think being one), most don’t recommend the messiness of distance and culture at all!

And so here is where some ancient middle eastern stories fascinate me, where we find some quite unusual scenes and ones probably not repeatable (some more than others!).  And so I invite you to come with me on a well crawl, regardless of whether you consider yourself religious or not – I trust that these stories will be top proposal story material.  Well, well, well.  Sorry…

So here we are and we’re sitting by a well (Genesis chapter 24 and verses 1-67, for those who want to find the ancient story themselves).  Beside us is Isaac.  He’s travelled miles to find this dating spot.  It’s a divinely ordained dating spot at that!  (Perhaps that takes all the fun away, but it sure might be handy)  He didn’t fancy marrying any of the Canaanites, not because of their looks, but because of who they worshipped and followed in life.  They didn’t worship the living God.  So in order to be faithful, God directed him back to a spot and gave him the conditions by which he was to know what lady to marry.  Bit legalistic from God?  I’ll deal with that soon on the blog.  But anyway…on with the story.

A while and later, and boom!  There she was, offering the symbol that God had given – not just offering him a drink (unusual) but offering to water all his camels (a huge job!).  Talk of female power!  And back he goes to her place…et voila.

Come with me to the next well…

One generation later (we’re onto Genesis 29 for any interested) and we’re sitting by another well with some shepherds when along comes Jacob.  “How’s it going boy?”  “ah grand – have you seen my mother’s brother around in your hometown recently?”  “well, yes, and here comes his daughter”.  And so off goes Jacob back to Rachel’s place to meet his mother’s brother.  Voila!  Another well made match.

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A well (in Israel)

And lest two of the central figures of Jewish history weren’t enough, we’ll add on a third well for the trip.  This time we’re sitting around and like so often happens, the women shepherds get hounded by their male counterparts.  This time it’s the Egyptians (of Exodus chapter 2).  They won’t let the Israelite women near the water troughs at the well.  But, wait, what’s this?  In storms the saviour of the day – Moses – to push them back and allow the women to access water for their needs.  The women arrive back early to their Father with their herds, he’s surprised and asks them why they’re early, and they tell of their great hero.  And you guessed it, it’s Moses married to one of this chap’s daughters.  Voila numero trois!

And I could go on…you see wells were pretty loaded locations in Israelite stories.  So when a well appears, you know a good proposal story is about to happen.  And that’s where we arrive at our final well in the eyewitness account of Jesus’ life in John chapter four.

Everyone sit on the edge of your seats!

Add on top of that history, the fact that men of that culture did not strike up conversation with women.  I mean, it just wasn’t done.  Go to the middle east and do that with a women, and well, erm, yes.  Now add to the fact that this women was of the opposite team.  It’s far worse than any Cork-Kerry rivalry.  It’s not even Ireland-England proportion.

And just to top it all off, Jesus is tired and travelling.  I mean, have you ever been on the road for a while?  When I’m travelling is normally when I get my head down, read a book or sleep.  And help the person who tries to have any meaningful chat with me!

But maybe that’s not it.  Enter stage right: a woman. Not only of a woman but one of a foreign sort.  A woman not even just of a foreign sort but the very least of a foreign sort.  In fact, so much that least that she’s so scared of the snide remarks, abuse and shame on her from her past that she is making her way to the well at the hottest part of the day.  If you’ve ever been in that part of the world, you’ll know how stupid a thing to do that is.

And so the conversation starts – one-on-one.  “Can I have a drink?”

*Twit twoo*

But (sadly, if you’re wanting some action!) all the controversy dies away when Jesus makes it clear what He’s after.  He could have launched in to criticise her and heap judgment on her like everyone else (for she’d had 5 husbands).  He could have made her feel really shameful.  It wouldn’t have taken much to do that.  But no, what does he say?  He can give eternally satisfying water.  He intrigues her.  This living water has been a theme throughout the prophets…everyone knew that!  (For those of you religiously orientated: Ezek 47:1-12; 43:1-12; Isa 44:3; Isaiah 55:1-3 ; Ezekiel 37:15-28 )

Even the best of wells couldn’t have done that (see – she remembers and mentioned those Israelite wells in the historical records of this story!).  “What do you mean?” she asks.

“Bring your husband and come back”

*gulp*

 

There it is – the same shame moment

 

avoid convoOnly…she doesn’t seem ashamed…she seems more excited about finding out about this water than she feels shame…because the conversation keeps going.  I don’t know about you, but I shut down convo pretty quickly when I feel shame or I babble on incessantly about something different and meaningless!

She’s amazed at what this prophet knows.  Likely in her culture, it’s five men who’ve treated her awfully in relationships and left her.  Women didn’t have much say in such things, yet still end up with a bad reputation from it.  “It’s normally their fault after all.” men might reason back then (and sadly too much today).

“But if this man is a prophet, he’s probably one of the wrong sort.” she thinks.  Imagine protestant vs Catholic.  “Oh yer one of them!  I mean to be Samaritan is to worship in your own place.  Not the Jerusalem temple like those Israelis.”  Or in terms, to be Irish is to go to mass.  Not a protestant church.  In fact, definitely not that kinda church.

But Jesus doesn’t take up the “them vs us” battle.  He rarely does.  He points past it to a day where everyone who worships in Spirit and Truth, will worship together at the same place.  It’s another thing the promised One would be said to do according to the prophets of old – everyone knew that – unite the nations – (Isa 49:6 ; 2:2-4; Gen 12)

And just when one bullet is dodged, the next happens…in walks his mates, to find him chatting one-on-one at a controversial location, in the tiredness of the heat with a saucy woman.

And just when one bullet is dodged, the next happens…in walks his mates, to find him chatting one-on-one at a controversial location, in the tiredness of the heat with a saucy woman.

But such is the purity and holiness of Jesus, that no-one asks any questions.  They all know nothing has happened.  (And perhaps that’s where it may differ to our situation in life)

Such love that goes far beyond gender boundaries.

Such love that goes far beyond cultural boundaries.

Such love that goes far beyond religious boundaries.

Such love that goes far beyond tiredness.

Such love that goes to the perceived most sinful.

Such love that helps her see her true state.

Such love that so intrigues and woos her heart spiritually, that her shame and conviction of sin are felt as nothing, compared to the all-surpassing grace that flows and points her to greater places to find joy.

Such love.

On such offers of love, CS Lewis, the Irish Oxford professor, once said:

“It would seem that Our Lord find our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

FatherTedCarefulNowSuch love that encourages us to not to hold signs saying “careful now” but “desire more” (in the right places, of course).

It’s not surprising then her response, is it? (to ecstatically tell others)

Or for that matter, those who gathered around to listen to Jesus’ words and went away changed by them?

And with that in mind, I might hope to wish the woman of my dreams on my travels (though I’m not holding out for it!).  But more so I hope to meet more of the travelling One who offers all-satisfying waters.  And perhaps those on the road with me will too, through my mouth and others.


This was an edited excerpt from a sermon I recently preached at several churches. in counties Waterford, Limerick and Cork.  Where does this fit into our theology of travel?  I’m not sure we can conclude huge amounts about travel from this.  Answers on a postcard and I’ll come back to it!

Shuma!

Travelling Morocco is a joy.

Arriving into Marrakech airport, I was soon picked up by a local family.  One of the advantages of travelling alone this time was going to be throwing myself head-first into culture.  But one thing I was told at the very start “if you get into trouble and you feel threatened, the word in Arabic to shout is “shuma!” and people will back off.  Now I’m not sure on the validity of this advice, and I didn’t intend on getting into trouble, so it went into storage at the back of my mind and basking in the 45 degree June heat took my attention away.  Little did I know that I’d use that little phrase “shame on you” before I left the country.

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The quiet waters of a beautiful Rabat, not the usual stop on the tour guide.

From the packed Jamaa El Fna Square in Marrakech, to the hustle and bustle of the souk stalls of Fes, to the wonder of the Atlas mountains, the barren majesty of the Sahara and the surfing spots of Agadir and the coast around, Morocco is worth a visit, even in the lesser visited spots like the financial capital in Rabat (see above).

It’s been one country largely unaffected in recent years by terrorist attacks, so I could imagine its tourist trade is rocketing, with it being one of the cheapest destinations to reach from Ireland.  Given the number of Moroccans leaving to fight further east, sadly I wonder whether it won’t come under the same fate soon.

Top travel tip: stay away from the tourist traps, and regardless of attacks, you’ll be fine!  And you’ll probably also have some more genuine experiences, unlike the one I’m about to describe.

Visiting quite touristy Marrakech souks, I was hoping to strike up conversation enough to get to know stall-holders and get a feel for life behind tourism.  Going to Fes, and I turned into a stallholder, with one of the most fantastic experiences ever, living in the medina with a local family and helping a man run his souk stall!  (My thanks go to: Fes Homestay)

But being a stallholder for a day or two and travelling the length of the country means that one tends to be alert to prices.  So when a market stall holder saw money (a westerner) walking towards his stall, he thought he was in for a treat.  Declining to speak in English, I thought I was on safe ground, but when the bartering price started at £400 for a small earthen vessel, I looked amazed and declared that I have the local price and not the tourist price!

“No, no, I’m not a rich American!” (*price gets lowered by a third*)

“No, no, I’m not English…the English oppressed us for hundreds of years and left us with nothing!” (*price gets lowered by another third*)

“I am a poor Irishman” (*we agree a final price, a fraction of the first*)

I’ve only once in my travels felt so threatened and surrounded by several stallholders, all pushing excessive prices and starting to corner me and grab me physically, that I had to shout “shuma”.  Shame on you!  The ultimate Arab public insult.  Later, having spent many more hours of life with Arabs, I wonder whether I over-reacted that day to cultural intensity and bartering banter.

But since my exposure to such cultures, I started to wonder.  Why is shame and honour such a huge thing in Arab cultures?  Why do I think more of guilt in western culture?  Is it a western/eastern divide?  Or perhaps an Islamic/Christian one?  Because whatever the answer, shame and guilt poke uncomfortably into every human’s life at many points.  And it’d be handy to know why to hopefully be able to start to remove them from dominating life!

I’ve been mulling over this a few months with folk and may pen a few thoughts soon.  But in the meantime, if you know of any resources to help us all think further on it, I’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime here’s some more of Morocco for those who don’t like to philosophically ponder as much!