Sunday, September 13, 2009

Learning to Barter

There are places in Casablanca where the prices are all set, but in the big markets where the local artwork is sold, the same piece of pottery can cost one person twice as much as it would another. The price is however low you can get it by haggling with Moroccan shopkeepers, who are seasoned veterans at selling their crafts for as much profit as possible.
Our first buy was two decorative plates, brightly colored, hand carved, and painted with intricate designs. Our shipment of boxes sent in April with our photographs were still sitting in port two weeks after we had arrived while the school tried to bribe them out from the hands of the port authorities, and so our walls at home were blank and white. We figured that the plates could help add a splash of color.
The setting of our first friendly battle with the salesmen was in the sprawling market just inside the boundaries of the old medina of Casablanca – a two-hundred year old section of town with winding crisscrossing alleyways and tall white plaster-looking walls of buildings that all connected to each other at strange angles. It is place I wouldn’t go deep into without a tour guide, because it would be so easy to get lost. But on the edge of the medina with four friends from the American School, we felt ok joining with the crowds to shop a little.
The bartering process started as soon as we paused from our walking to look at one of the wares on display. The shopkeeper quickly intercepted us with a “bonjour,” assuming that we were French like the average white person in Morocco. He also spoke English, and so he began offering to hold up various plates that we looked at, telling us how good our taste was and how we were looking at the best colors…buttering us up as much as possible.
When we found the two plates we liked best, we asked how much they were. The shopkeeper said because we were looking at two, he would give us a “really special discount” if we bought both. 500 dirhams he said (about $70US). I told the guy that it was too much. I had no idea what the going price was, and so had no idea how much he had marked up the price to start the bargaining. I responded saying that we’d pay 350, at which point he started going on about how there was no way he could sell them for that – that he couldn’t just give them away… all very dramatic. He offered to take the price down to 480. Looking for advice I went to our Sri Lankan friend from school, Ranmali, who had been in Casablanca for a year and had bought art all around the country. She said the price was definitely too high, as the shopkeeper was following me, telling me what a deal he was offering. I told him I would pay 380, which he complained was still way too low.
I said no thanks, and began walking away with Karissa at my side (we agreed that only one of us would try the bargaining at a time and the other follow the lead, in order to keep it a little simpler). “Wait, wait!”, the shopkeeper yelled and stopped me, agreeing with a handshake to sell the plates to me for 380, telling me with a big smile what a hard bargainer I was.
As we were walking off, I asked Ranmali what I should have paid, and she told me around 300 dirhams. I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about paying almost a hundred more than a good price. I had given it my best shot, and without knowing the price of things, I’m not sure I could have done much better. And though I paid about $10 US more than I had to, in the U.S. I probably never would have gotten two big pieces of hand carved, hand painted pottery for the price we ended up paying. At least that’s how I justified to myself losing badly to the market hagglers. I like to think that my bartering performance was somewhere between what a complete sucker tourist and what a native Moroccan (or my mother the master bargainer) would have done. And in the end, we really, really liked what we took home.
To top the night off, we bought some piping hot Moroccan flatbreads straight off of the market grill, drizzled them with Moroccan honey, had some drinks at Ranmali’s place, and ate a homemade dinner of Pakistani curry with a Sri-Lanken salad. We ended very happily, and only slightly ripped off.



  1. It looks nicer than China you could get in the United States!!!! I'm interested in hearing more about your bartering experiences. It sounds like you need to work on being more dramatic. Did you buy a car to get around Moracco yet, or do you just get rides from your new friends? I will send you an e-mail soon about my year.

  2. Those are pretty! I'm sure you'll get better at haggling!
    -Sarah Catherine