Souk. And ye shall find.

Car­pets in the Magic Souk

Archi­tec­tural Antiques

The rea­son we all go, is because Morocco is sunny and exotic. If shop­ping at Wait­rose tests the outer lim­its of your courage, Mar­rakech is not the place for you. But if you go for the rich tapes­try, like a bit of chal­lenge, can swag­ger with panache and nego­ti­ate with elan, you’ll have a won­der­ful time and make real friends, who will joy­fully shout your name a decade down the line.

Inside the Souks

They don’t play by famil­iar rules: that’s why you’re here. I mean, not only is the sun shin­ing, not only is every­one dressed like extras from Lawrence of Ara­bia, not only are you dip­ping a toe into the (actu­ally shal­low and safe) waters of extreme weird­ness, but you are just THREE HOURS from Gatwick and have landed in 1432 — check out the cal­en­dar on the bank manager’s desk and you will find that dur­ing those three hours you have time-travelled 600 years or so.

How much you pay?’

Mar­rakech is one vast empo­rium, whose male pop­u­la­tion has a thou­sand years of sell­ing exper­tise. Every­one will sell you any­thing — shirt off back, house, used chew­ing gum — you will find your­self being seduced into think­ing ‘Yes! That’s it.’ They gaze at you beseech­ingly and call you ‘gazelle’, caus­ing a momen­tary, thrilled tach­yarrhyth­mic fris­son, which the tirade of invec­tive that fol­lows if you don’t buy swiftly expunges. You are also accu­rately pin­pointed nation­ally and socio-economically. Marakchi sales­men know where you come from, and pre­cisely how much money you have in your bank bal­ance. They can see into your heart and know that what you really want is a love potion, a glit­ter­ing feline-green peri­dot ring the size of a Bel­gian endive, or a devore vel­vet kaf­tan pat­terned like a shower of autumn leaves. The object of your desires does not have a price — it is your price that the ven­dor is calculating.


The wise old men who have spent half a cen­tury watch­ing the mot­ley just sit in their tiny booths, and barely look up as you pause. They just get on with stitch­ing orange leather onto another pair of babouches, and when you ask, do not harass you, empty the entire shop at your feet, offer you mint tea or oth­er­wise bully you — they sim­ply pick up a card upon which is writ­ten 800 dirhams, smile despite rheumy old eyes, and carry on stitch­ing. In his youth, sales­men would grab your arm — which put off every right-thinking vis­i­tor from ever return­ing to the coun­try. Now the ven­dors are not allowed to touch you, on pain of some­thing, prob­a­bly medieval.

Rugs, car­pets, dhur­ries, flatweaves.…

You should be aware that there is a range of cajol­ing tech­niques known to the locals as ‘Dje­maa el Fna tricks’, which have to do with unset­tling you into unex­pected expen­di­ture. Brits are per­fect prey for this because we are obsessed by our DEFENSIBLE SPACE, and panic when approached closely. One of the most suc­cess­ful ploys is the jos­tle and res­cue — which is quite alarm­ing until you are wise to the pathetic object of it — sim­ply to get you into a shoe/rug/jewellery shop.

Aloe silk

It goes like this. You are ambling mind­lessly — sated by the rain­bow over­load — along Souk Sma­rine on your way to kebabs and salad at Chegrouni. Sud­denly two youfs, hands in pock­ets, one with unfairly white teeth (given the quan­ti­ties of Coke he drinks), the other a hoodie bear­ing the leg­end ‘Niker’ on his bob­bly grey poly­ester zip-front, biff into you with their shoul­ders — not painfully, but annoy­ingly — come up too close, and bar­ing every bril­liant incisor, hiss ‘Inglees? Where you from? What you want?’ mak­ing you feel quite claus­tro­pho­bic and sur­rounded, though there are but two of them. So there you are, clutch­ing your pos­ses­sions and whim­per­ing. Being British, you are not mak­ing a fuss, scream­ing or call­ing the police (All per­fectly legit­i­mate tac­tics — there will be a plain clothes tourist police­man within five yards ready to spring to your assistance).

Tea Glasses

At this point the suave, urbane mem­ber of the trio shim­mies up and ‘res­cues’ you, keep­ing a respect­ful dis­tance, ask­ing politely whether you are all right, and send­ing off his broth­ers with a splat­ter of insults, involv­ing many a glot­tal stop. He then shep­herds you gen­tly into his shop to recover, sits you down, and brings you mint tea to calm your nerves — you are put­ti­fied and do not leave until you have bought the gar­nets and the sil­ver ear­rings, hap­pily grate­ful to the gen­tle­manly shop­keeper whom you rec­om­mend to all your friends.


Theirs is a dif­fi­cult job. There are maybe 500 shops, all sell­ing EXACTLY the same wares. Some­how they have to get you into theirs, and blind you to all the oth­ers, block­ing your exit and woo­ing you with the qual­ity and vari­ety of their mer­chan­dise. ‘Yes, 100 per­cent silk/cotton/linen’ they will swear, as the poly­ester in ques­tion spits with sta­tic. “how much you pay for three?’ they ask in des­per­ate times, ‘What do you want to pay?’ Be pre­pared for the­atre. You will name your price and the guy will look tragic. He will say qui­etly, ‘no, be seri­ous. Seri­ous price.’ He doesn’t have to sell, you don’t have to buy, just try to remem­ber that when he’s blam­ing your tight-fistedness for the mal­nu­tri­tion of his entire family.

Hats and Henna

In my expe­ri­ence, you have to know your tex­tiles (Moroc­cans are BESOTTED with poly­ester) and glued shoes are best avoided. Stitched soles may get you home, but glued soles part com­pany from their uppers well before you’re out of the souk. And the ‘Con­verse’ that Dan bought for 500 dh had card­board soles that did not cope well with rain.

Dan buys a Carpet

It’s not all tat in the souks. Hand­bags, belts, backgam­mon sets made of deli­cious scented thuya (check that the hinges are up to the job), glazed ceram­ics, pierced tin lanterns — there are loads of good things. Decide what you want before you go into the melee, decide how much you think is fair, be ready for the cal­cu­la­tion from dirhams to some­thing man­age­able, name your price, stick to it, and walk away if the guy goes into the harangue-dance, know­ing that the same object is repli­cated in its thou­sands up and down the souks. My oth­er­wise won­der­ful friend Nan brought me to the brink of Nanocide by want­ing to buy a par­tic­u­lar scarf she had seen three days pre­vi­ously on the way to the square. Say, 50 scarf shops, each of which has prob­a­bly 500 scarves. She couldn’t remem­ber which shop but had total recall of the scarf. ‘No, it was like that one, but there was more blue.’ HOURS. If you love it, buy it. Right there and then.


Use a bit of com­mon sense. If you send Nourre­dine out for a pot of honey and it costs you £20 con­sider that maybe a) you should do your own dirty work, and b) in this desert coun­try where are the flow­ers? where are the bees? It’s just pos­si­ble that that is what honey gen­uinely costs. Though unlikely, I admit.

Berber Herbs

Talk­ing about food­stuffs, argan oil is quite deli­cious, fab­u­lously ben­e­fi­cial, and does not, as I used to believe, come out of a goat’s bum. That was once the tra­di­tional way of gath­er­ing the argan nuts, using the goats that skit­ter up those twiggy trees as a mobile col­lec­tion ser­vice, but these days the women sim­ply put the nor­mally (as in olives) har­vested nuts out on a rooftop to dry and then crack them by hand. BUT accord­ing to G, our friend from Essouira where the things grow and the oil is made, the argan oil you might buy in Mar­rakech is not fresh or 100%. Best to take the trip to the won­der­ful wide-open beaches and buy from one of the women’s coop­er­a­tives en route. Famil­iar­ity is no safe­guard — Dan’s really good (but quite often stoned) friend from the magic souk sold him a Fanta bot­tle of argan oil. It turned out to be eight drops of argan oil — enough to give the char­ac­ter­is­tic fra­grance at first sniff — rest­ing on a base of cook­ing oil.

Berber Phar­macy

You may well leave the Berber phar­macy or the spice souk, stunned that you have just parted with the equiv­a­lent of £30 for SPICES. You never use spices. You haven’t a clue how to use them. Two things here — learn how to use them, they’re good, fresh, deli­cious, and many have med­i­c­i­nal pow­ers about which you may be igno­rant. The other is you’ve got HALF A POUND of corian­der — not some pid­dly lit­tle ten grammes in a super­mar­ket bot­tle. Be prof­li­gate, throw them into every­thing and cure your inflamed hip joint (turmeric) or your husband’s lack of Whoopee (galan­gal) or share them with a friend.

Painted Wood

Don’t whinge, observe.

Cute Metal Basins

Don’t bleat. Celebrate.

Beau­ti­ful Bone Inlay

If you want to do seri­ous shop­ping, to go beyond gew­gaws and mixed kitsch into the realm of seri­ously desir­able, I rec­om­mend that you allow ‘Shop­ping in Mar­rakech’, by Susan Simon and Nally Bel­lati to be your guide. Their shop­ping routes — in pur­suit of taste­ful mer­chan­dise — take you to the derbs less trav­elled where get­ting lost is part of the buzz, and the book illus­trates what you will find.

Intri­cate Carved Fountain

Much of the wear­able stuff comes from the French part of town, where more sophis­ti­cated cafes line the moped and caleche choked boule­vards. You might stum­ble across the haven of calm and san­ity that is the Lit­er­ary Café where you could open your lap­top and try being J K Rowl­ing for an afternoon.

Posh Ceram­ics

Pro­fes­sional mav­er­icks can fol­low their hunches, and go way out of the main souks to try their luck — of course prices come down dra­mat­i­cally the fur­ther from Djemma el Fna you go. On the other hand, if bar­gain­ing brings you out in hives, you can just go straight to the gov­ern­ment prix fixe place and pay some­what over the odds.

Carved African Door

Dan thinks the above is very neg­a­tive and will put you off the whole place. I hope he’s wrong — if your dna has a shred of feisti­ness about it, you will have a great time. The kalei­do­scope city of Mar­rakech is an invi­ta­tion to adven­ture, and to explore it, and your­self a bit. I want you to go home happy — all I’m say­ing is that you have to be obser­vant and crit­i­cal, you have to know that the rules are dif­fer­ent, under­stand that they’re just try­ing to sell some of their Al Addin’s Cave of STUFF, and don’t take it too seri­ously. You set the lim­its, only you know what that pur­ple leather rhino is worth to you. This oper­atic mer­ce­nary dance is mind-expanding, and you might go home with a shim­mer­ing Chagall-blue bed­spread that you gaze upon there­after with a heartlift of pure exhilaration.

Metal Work

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