Photo: marketplace balloons Marrakech Morocco
Bargaining is part of the shopping experience in a Marrakech market.

Photograph by Chris Rainier

By Andrew McCarthy

From the January-February 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

“Bezaf!”

Sam barks.

The soft-featured merchant cocks his head. He looks over to his shop assistant. A smile plays on the corners of the younger man’s lips.

The merchant turns back to Sam. “What did you say?”

“Bezaf”—too much—Sam repeats, shaking his head and looking down at the small chest the two are haggling over. It is perhaps 18 inches by 9, decorated with henna-dyed camel bone, trimmed with an ornate copper border. It’s a beauty. 

Sam begins to sway side to side. He lifts one foot, then the other.

“Okay. Then give me 2,500 dirham [$310] for it,” the merchant says. He is wearing a pair of bright yellow, point-toed babouches—traditional Moroccan men’s slippers.

Sam’s swaying turns into twisting, then squirming. He looks over at me. He shrugs. I shrug. He shakes his head. Without another word he marches his four-foot-three-inch frame past me and out onto Rue Riad Zitoun el-Jedid, deep in the Mellah section of Marrakech. Once safely away from the shop he stops, turns to me, and lifts his blue eyes from under his bangs. “That was a good one.” Sam has had his sights on that type of chest since he saw one days before in the suq, or marketplace.

“It was a nice one, Sam.”

Sam considers, nods, and walks on. I follow close behind. Sam is my son. He is eight.

We’ve come to Marrakech, the swirling heart of Morocco at the base of the Atlas Mountains, at the urging of Sam’s friend Mohamed. The two met when Sam became entranced with a lamp that hung in the window of Mohamed’s New York shop, which sells all things Moroccan. Sam went in for a closer look. The two got to talking—and then haggling. “Make me an offer, Sam,” Mohamed told him. Sam bounced all over the shop, touching everything as he shouted out prices. “He reminds me of myself when I was his age,” Mohamed told me. “With a little practice he could become a good haggler.”

The lamp now hangs in Sam’s room. We read the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba under its glow. We’ve become regulars at Mohamed’s shop, where Sam often can be found negotiating with his friend. When they’re not bargaining, they’re chatting about swords, or camels, or the desert. “You need to come to Morocco, to Marrakech, to the suq,” Mohamed told me. “I go often to buy. I’ll show you around, teach Sam my tricks. Let him hone his skills with the professionals.”

And so we do.

We rendezvous with Mohamed over a cup of mint tea at a table outside the tiny Café ben Youssef, tucked deep in the medina, the old city of Marrakech. It was around this labyrinth of narrow lanes that the kings of the Berber Almoravid dynasty established their capital in the 11th century, thereby transforming this dusty spot of land into the center of the Almoravid Berber Empire.

How we found the café in this warren of twisting alleys and pathways I still don’t know. Getting lost here is standard operating procedure. Mohamed, however, grew up on these mean streets and knows them well. “I started working in the markets when I was just your age,” he says to Sam, explaining that his father’s death forced him to work to support his mother and three sisters. “It was good to have the responsibility,” he adds. “If I had not had to help my family, who knows what would have happened to me.”

Mohamed shouts something to a man in a small shop across the way. The man responds. Mohamed throws his head back and laughs; he’s always laughing. “I was like an octopus when I started out in business,” he says. “‘If you can’t find something,’ I told customers, ‘come to me; I will find it.’ I was very determined.” He shakes hands and exchanges greetings with someone else walking past. He always seems to be doing three things at once. “My mother used to say that I was born in a rush.” He displays a wicked grin. Street savvy with one eye always on the action, yet an innocent full of openhearted generosity, Mohamed is Marrakech in microcosm.

We’re sitting in an area bordering the exotic stalls that make the suq, along with the back-alley workshops that supply the wares, a world-famous marketplace. Across the wide lane sits a shop overflowing with all varieties of greasy used tires, forcing an old man out into the alley to patch an inner tube for one of the ubiquitous mopeds that rip through the city. Next door is a shop barely big enough for the man hunched on a stool sewing yellow lace on a purple dress. Yet another man scrubs down his bicycle over an open drain. People storm past in both directions.

Behind me someone shouts, “Balek!”—Watch out! In mid-sentence, Mohamed leans across the table and gently guides my shoulder toward the wall as a donkey pulling a cart of oranges charges down the lane, missing me by inches.

Mohamed jumps up. “Let’s go, Sam. We have work to do.”

I chase after my loose-limbed son and this olive-skinned man with the salt and pepper hair. Mohamed darts like a shark around corners and into dark doorways that lead to more winding lanes and literal hole-in-the-wall shops. Sam shadows his every move. Mohamed introduces us to weavers and olive sellers, tile makers and rug merchants. His bargaining tutorial begins in earnest as we amble along.

“Everything in Morocco is open to negotiation, Sam. When you hear a price, the first thing you say is, “Too much—bezaf—then walk away.”

“But what if I want it?”

Mohamed stops at a stall selling musical instruments and pulls down a thin, square, “storytelling” drum, which is made of goatskin stretched taut over camel bone. He shows Sam how to tap it on both sides to create the beat and continues the lesson.

“When you see something you like, maybe a lamp, you inquire about something else. Then, as you walk out, you ask, ‘And how much is that lamp?’ as though you just noticed it and don’t really care.”

We duck through a low doorway. In a dim, soot-covered den maybe six feet square, a man stands waist deep in a narrow hole. Only the upper part of his body is visible. A pile of hot embers glows to his right. It’s as if he’s buried alive in a tiny Hades. On the ground in front of his mid-section rests a small sheet of metal. With hands gnarled and scarred, the man pounds a red, glowing spike into the sheet with a hammer, forging. Mohamed has known this rope-thin man with the mustache his whole life. “Ahmed stays in this hole 12 hours a day, seven days a week,” he tells us.

“Whoa,” Sam exclaims.

We turn a corner and are greeted with the sweet scent of orange blossoms mixed with the stench of decay. Mohamed leads us into another dark recess. In the shadows, an unshaven man leans over a large dyeing vat, dunking a heavy swath of fabric with a long stick. He stirs the mix, then hoists the cloth up. Dark liquid runs off. He lowers it again, swirling his wand. Across the alley, freshly dyed cloth hangs to dry, billowing in the breeze, draping the suqs in a rainbow of hopeful color.

“And wear something Moroccan; it lets them know you’ve been around a while,” Mohamed says, returning to his tutorial.

“I want to get those pointy slippers I saw,” Sam says.

“Babouches. We’ll get some. Now, sometimes try not giving a counter offer. Make them continue to lower the price.”

“Then how do I ever buy what I want?”

Eventually, Mohamed leaves us to hone our new skills on our own and vanishes into the crowd. Unescorted, we’re easy prey; Sam is a magnet. Merchants beckon; many offer him small gifts. Wide-eyed, he accepts them all.

“Come. Look. Buy, no buy—is all same. Come, come.” We enter a fairly large stall. Most shops here specialize in one thing, but not this one. Swords, decorative and lethal-looking, hang beside soft fabrics; large camel bones covered in writing sit beside massive copper lamps.

It is here that Sam spots his first ornate box. “Look, a treasure chest!” It’s made of wood and painted red and gold. He opens the lid, then closes it. “Cool.” Then he spots a tall, cobalt blue, tear-shaped vial trimmed in tin—an old perfume bottle.

“Four hundred dirham,” Abdul, the shopkeeper, pronounces. Fifty dollars. Sam nods, says nothing. Whether he’s struck shy or is employing Mohamed’s rope-a-dope technique, I can’t tell. Abdul takes off his glasses and cleans them on his shirt. “Give me 300,” this merchant in a blue knit cap says. Sam begins to fidget.

He eventually agrees to pay 200 dirham, about $24. I’d say the bottle is worth $10, at best. Clearly, the negotiating skills need a bit of work. “Just to get started, Dad,” Sam reassures me and hands the money to Abdul.

“Yours is my first sale today.” Abdul says a quick prayer, kisses the cash, and puts it in his pocket. “There is old Berber saying: ‘First customer of the day get the best deal.’” Then Abdul leans in and winks at Sam. “Last customer of the day get a better deal.”

The two shake hands, and Abdul looks over at me. “He a good boy, relaxed. This the best gift for life.”

Relaxed he may be, but Sam is a kid who needs room to move. After another hour in the claustrophobic marketplace, he spins on me and announces, “I’m feeling trapped.”

Beyond the adobe walls that ring the old medina lies a different Marrakech, a city of wide avenues laid out by the French during their colonization. In this ville nouvelle, or new town, traffic moves with an approximation of order, and several large parks break up the pervasive ochre-colored architecture.

Marrakech has no park nicer than the Jardin Majorelle. The garden, designed by French landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, opened to the public in 1947. Designer Yves Saint-Laurent acquired it in 1980; his ashes were scattered in an adjacent private garden after his death in 2008. In this oasis of calm, we race past ponds and yucca trees and beneath canopies of swaying bamboo, cascading bougainvillea, and palms, swerving to avoid cactus and security guards (“invisibility cloak on, Dad!”). After an hour, we’re ready for refreshment. We find our way to Avenue Mohammed V, Marrakech’s attempt at Euro sophistication, where Mercedes sedans mingle with mopeds, and cafés cater to upscale Moroccans sipping coffee and reading the Al Alam newspaper. After our days of shopping in the unregulated suq, where everything is negotiated, it’s both a relief and a disappointment to see fixed prices on the delicate items neatly displayed in the upscale shops here and on nearby Rue de la Liberté.

A few blocks away, up a flight of stairs, lies yet another world. Café du Livre is a Western wonder, down to the copies of the New York Review of Books and the Joe Jackson song playing on the radio. Initially a comfort, this well-studied re-creation of America becomes disconcerting by the time I check my e-mail on the free Wi-Fi and we finish our cheeseburgers and fries. We’re ready to beat it back to the medina quarter.

It doesn’t take long to thrust ourselves into the fray. We just hail a cab.

“Fifty dirham,” the unshaven man with the baseball cap shouts through the window.

“Twenty,” I yell back.

He smiles. His teeth are shards, rotten and black. “Each.”

I shake my head and turn to walk away.

“Okay, okay,” he concedes. We climb into his flimsy Fiat, and he makes a wide U-turn across the avenue without looking. He then swerves to the side of the road for a quick chat with two women in head scarves. Farther on, a man on a moped pulls up next to us and deftly grabs the driver’s door handle. The two friends talk and laugh as we drive in tandem until the scooter angles away. Arabic music blares on the radio. Sam nods his head along with the chanting.

“Is that gnaoua?” I ask. A few nights earlier, Mohamed had arranged for us to attend a performance of this spiritual form of music. To hypnotic strains played with sintirs and karkebs—Moroccan versions of guitars and castanets—performers in traditional dress stomped and spun in a dance intended to placate evil and cure psychological ills and scorpion stings. The infectious rhythms had Sam moving in lockstep with the performers.

“No, this music is malhun,” the driver replies. “Is poetry text, from Morocco. Gnaoua come from Senegal. Is more mystical.” Sam closes his eyes, his head nodding, as the wind whips through the unair-conditioned taxi.

Most streets in the medina are too narrow for cars, so we’re dropped off at Djemma el Fna, Marrakech’s main square, a teeming crossroads that is part marketplace, part open-air theater. Everyone in Marrakech passes through Djemma el Fna, which translates to “assembly of the dead,” for, some say, public executions that took place here as early as the 11th century. These days, pretty much anything still goes. Both Sam and I are silenced by the appearance of belly dancers clad head to toe in black djellabas. Elsewhere, circles of listeners form around storytellers. Vendors with carts offer fresh-squeezed orange juice for a quarter; others sell dates or figs. Food stalls send forth a riot of competing smells that entice and repulse. Then we spot a man sitting behind a folding table neatly arranged with a display of hundreds of human teeth; a pair of pliers sits on a dirty white plate, waiting. The dentist waves us over, smiles, encourages us to take his picture. His teeth are rotten.

But Sam really has eyes for only one thing. Every day we return to Djemma el Fna, following the sounds of oboes and drums to the snake charmers. These men coaxing cobras and pythons into action transfix my son. They are quick to offer him a two-foot snake to hold, then a larger one. Seeing his delight, they keep the serpents coming. Before long, he has three, then four snakes slithering over his shoulders and down his arms. Next, a man in a white djellaba approaches, a gray-black snake tensing in his grasp. Watching this six-foot-long cobra coil itself around my young son’s neck doesn’t seem the best time for me to wonder, “Am I being a good father?”

Late one afternoon, again lost on our way back from Djemma el Fna, we happen on Rue Riad Zitoun el-Jedid in the old Jewish section of town. It’s here that Sam spots his treasure chest, the one he’s been after. Once again the merchant, who introduces himself as Khalid, tries to entice Sam to overspend. My son walks away. And it’s then, on the street, that Sam stops. “No, that’s the one,” and back we go.

“You have returned. Very good.” Khalid opens his arms. He pulls the chest back down from its perch and places it on the floor. Sam opens the lid. Blue velvet lines the interior. He runs his fingers over it.

Khalid speaks. “Give me 2,500.”

Sam shakes his eight-year-old head. “Eight hundred.”

Khalid nods slowly at Sam’s opening salvo. “You’re very good.”

Sam stares back at the merchant. There is no fidgeting, no swaying, no twisting now.

“I like your babouches,” Khalid says. “They are very handsome.”

Sam doesn’t fall for the flattery.

“I’ll take 1,800 dirham,” Khalid announces.

“One thousand.”

Both are silent. Neither blinks. What happens next happens fast.

“Fifteen-hundred, and it’s yours.”

“Twelve-hundred.”

“Thirteen-hundred.”

“Yes!”

Khalid sticks out his hand. Sam grabs it. The deal is done. Mohamed will be proud.

Award-winning travel journalist Andrew McCarthy is a contributing editor. Photographer and contributing editor Chris Rainier directs National Geographic’s All Roads Photography program.

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