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*

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!