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How to Buy a Rug in Marrakech

As much as I like to bargain, I’m never comfortable when the negotiation doesn’t start with a price tag.
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June 23, 2023
Evgenii Zotov/Getty Images

On the fifteen hour flight to Marrakech, I made a short to-do list: the city’s famed gardens, the Yves St. Laurent museum, the old Jewish quarter and cemetery, and couscous and tagines every night for a week were a must. I also knew what I didn’t want to do. I did not want to buy a rug, a mistake I had already made in Istanbul years ago. I decided to avoid the medina (old marketplace) until I was ready to plunge into what had been described as a maze of alleyways packed with a mind-boggling collection of merchandise and snake charmers.

Marrakech cast its spell immediately. After I unpacked, when the riad’s (small guest house) manager told me that the room did not come with a key because guests did not need to lock, I tossed out any pre-conceived notions about security and slipped into my alluring new world.

That first morning, after a light breakfast of small breads, apricot jam, orange-scented honey and strong coffee, I met my guide. I was still in a stupor from the flight but nicely tranquilized by the beauty of bird song and the scent of white roses and jasmine in the riad’s courtyard, when Abdellatif introduced himself. He came with a plan for the day.

An erudite charmer with a degree in English literature, he suggested we spend the day meandering through the medina. When I protested that I was too jet-lagged for the sensory onslaught, he explained his rationale. On Friday, the next day, many sellers would be closed due to religious practice at the end of Ramadan, he said. Besides, with the current heat wave the shade of the medina was the place to be. The new flexible me acquiesced with one caveat. “I am not buying a rug today,” I said, giving him my most serious look.

I fell in line behind him as we plunged into the twisty marketplace. The stench of ancient commerce was baked into the atmosphere. After briskly walking past a universe of tchotchkes, mystery spices, remedies, tea kettles, oils and incense, soaps, scarves and rugs, we dipped into a sophisticated emporium that had an interesting array of jewelry, antiques and ceramics. It was well-lit, air-conditioned and the Diet Coke was flowing. While Adbel took the first of many prayer breaks, I browsed the merch, settling on a modest silver beaded necklace. When my salesman Mohammed (Mo for short) invited me to climb the staircase to view his rug collection, politesse demanded that I say yes. “I will not buy a rug today,” I promised myself as I followed him up three flights of stairs.

Ten minutes later, my resolve melted like so much honey. Out of nowhere, his minions started flinging rugs on the white marble floor like so many pancakes. Before long, we were engaged in the ancient dance of negotiation and pride that takes place between buyer and seller in a land where worlds collide. How could I resist? I played along, pitilessly eliminating many designs. Before too long, to slow the action down I told Mo that I preferred simplicity, blue and yellow, in the modern/antique Berber style. By then we were sharing pictures of our grandchildren and bantering in French like old friends. Then, as my mind left my body, I narrowed it down to two beautiful antique Berbers, still not knowing the price of anything. As much as I like to bargain, I’m never comfortable when the negotiation doesn’t start with a price tag. Where to begin?

Then, as my mind left my body, I narrowed it down to two beautiful antique Berbers, still not knowing the price of anything.

Mistaking me for a rich American, Mo started insanely high and I told him so. After several rounds, when the price was within the normal range, my guide returned from prayer refreshed and ready to help. “Was the current price fair or was it crazy?” I asked Abdel, who I had known for exactly twenty minutes and who was now my trusty financial advisor. He refused to take sides in such a delicate matter. Instead he gave me a wink that said, “Go for it.”

Not quite ready to surrender, I wondered out loud whether I should call my husband, knowing he wouldn’t hesitate to slap me back to reality. That thought stopped Mo in his tracks. “Madame,” he said puffing out his chest. “We all know that you are the boss. Do not speak to me about your husband. You decide!” He had me pegged.

In the well-lit room where we went to sign shipping documents, I pulled out my credit card. I felt empowered by my new identity in the intoxicating city of Marrakech but my hand was still a bit wobbly from the quickness of the dance. Sensing my ambivalence, Mo reassured me.

“Do not worry, Madame” he said. “If you get the rugs home and you are not happy, you can sell them to Bloomingdale’s. This is where they come to shop.”

To celebrate, Abdel and I settled into a shady corner of the marketplace to sip mint tea and nibble on almond cookies. I felt relieved to have gotten the rugs out of the way on my first day. As I felt myself slipping into the gentle world of the ancient city, I was happy not to be thinking about anything as real as a budget. The rest of the week flowed smoothly, like a dream filled with whispering voices, brilliant color, lots of mystery and great beauty.

As for my husband, he loves the rugs. In fact, he’s thinking of framing one to hang over the fireplace.

 


Los Angeles food writer Helene Siegel is the author of 40 cookbooks, including the “Totally Cookbook” series and “Pure Chocolate.” She runs the Pastry Session blog.

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