Shopping tips for Morocco
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Souks (markets) are a major feature of Moroccan life, and among the country’s greatest attractions. They are found everywhere: every town has a souk area, large cities like Fez and Marrakesh have labyrinths of individual souks (each filling a street or square and devoted to one particular craft), and in the countryside there are hundreds of weekly souks, on a different day in each village of the region.
When buying souvenirs in Morocco, it’s worth considering how you are going to get them home, and you shouldn’t take too literally the claims of shopkeepers about their goods, especially if they tell you that something is “very old” – trafika (phoney merchandise) abounds, and there are all sorts of imitation fossils and antiques about.
Some villages are named after their market days, so it’s easy to see when they’re held.
The souk days are:
Souk el Had – Sunday (literally, “first market”)
Souk el Tnine – Monday market
Souk el Tleta – Tuesday market
Souk el Arba – Wednesday market
Souk el Khamees – Thursday market
Souk es Sebt – Saturday market
There are very few village markets on Friday (el Jemaa – the “assembly”, when the main prayers are held in the mosques), and even in the cities, souks are largely closed on Friday mornings and very subdued for the rest of the day.
Village souks usually begin on the afternoon preceding the souk day, as people travel from across the region; those who live nearer set out early in the morning of the souk day, but the souk itself is often over by noon and people disperse in the afternoon. You should therefore arrange to arrive by mid-morning at the latest.
Moroccan craft traditions are very much alive, but finding pieces of real quality is not that easy. For a good price, it’s always worth getting as close to the source of the goods as possible, and steering clear of tourist centres. Tangier, Casablanca and Agadir, with no workshops of their own, are generally poor bets, for example, while Fez and Marrakesh have a good range but high prices. In places like Fez and Marrakesh, different parts of the Medina produce specific goods, from furniture to ironwork to sandals to musical instruments. Jewellery and carpets tend to come in from the countryside, where each region – each village even – has its own style and its own techniques. Shopping in a big city, you’ll have a wide range to choose from, but there’s a very special pleasure in tracking the souvenir you want down to the place where it’s made, and even seeing the artisans at work making it. A good way to get an idea of standards and quality is to visit craft museums: there are useful ones in Fez, Meknes, Tangier, Rabat and Marrakesh.
Morocco produces some lovely carpets in wonderful warm colours – saffron yellow, cochineal red, antimony black – that look great in any living space. Nowadays most carpets are coloured with synthetic dyes, but their inspiration remains the natural dyes with which they were traditionally made. The most expensive carpets are hand-knotted, but there are also kilims (woven rugs).
Knotted carpets are not cheap – you can pay €1500 and more for the finer Arab designs in Fez or Rabat – but rugs and kilims come in at more reasonable prices, and you can buy a range of strong, well-designed weaves for €50–70. Most of these kilims will be of Berber origin and the most interesting ones usually come from the High and Middle Atlas. You’ll find a big selection in Marrakesh, but if you’re looking seriously, try to get to the town souk in Midelt or the weekly markets in Azrou and other villages in the region. The chain of Maison Berbère shops in Ouarzazate, Tinerhir and Rissani are good hunting grounds too, but one of the best ways to find carpets is to wander around villages or parts of town where they are made, listen for the telltale sound of the loom in use, and ask at the weavers’ homes if they have any carpets for sale.
On a simpler and cheaper level, the Berber blankets (foutahs, or couvertures) are imaginative, and often very striking with bands of reds and blacks; for these, Tetouan and Chefchaouen, on the edge of the Rif, are promising.
Pottery is colourful if fairly crudely made on the whole, though the blue-and-white designs of Fez and the multicoloured pots of Chefchaouen (both produced largely for the tourist trade) are highly attractive. The essentially domestic pottery of Safi – Morocco’s major pottery centre – is worth a look, too, with its colourful plates, tajines and garden pots. Safi tajines are nice to look at, but for practical use, the best are those produced by the Oulja pottery at Salé, near Rabat, in plain red-brown earthenware.
Arabic-style gold jewellery tends to be a bit fussy for Western tastes, but silver is another story. In the south particularly, you can pick up some fabulous Berber necklaces and bracelets, always very chunky, and characterized by bold combinations of semiprecious (and sometimes plastic) stones and beads. Women in the Atlas and the Souss Valley regions in particular often wear chunky silver bracelets, belts embellished with old silver coins, or heavy necklaces with big beads of amber, coral and carnelian. Silver brooches are used to fasten garments, and many of the symbols found in Moroccan jewellery, such as the “hand of Fatima” and the five-pointed star, are there to guard against the evil eye. Essaouira, Marrakesh and Tiznit have particularly good jewellery souks.
Marquetry is one of the few crafts where you’ll see genuinely old pieces – inlaid tables and shelves – though the most easily exportable objects are boxes. The big centre for marquetry is Essaouira, where cedar or thuya wood is beautifully inlaid with orange-tree wood and other light-coloured woods to make trays, chess and backgammon sets, even plates and bowls, and you can visit the workshops where they are made.
Fez, Meknes, Tetouan and Marrakesh also have souks specializing in carpentry, which produce not only furniture, but also chests, sculptures, and kitchen utensils such as the little ladles made from citrus wood that are used to eat harira soup.
Moroccan clothes are easy to purchase, and though Westerners – men at least – who try to imitate Moroccan styles by wearing the cotton or wool jellaba (a kind of outer garment) tend to look a little silly in the street, they do make good nightgowns. Some of the cloth on sale is exquisite in itself, and walking through the dyers’ souks is an inspiration. Women will find some sumptuous gowns if they look in the right places – Marrakesh in particular has shops selling beautiful dresses, kaftans, gandoras (sleeveless kaftans) and tunics. Brightly coloured knitted caps are more likely to appeal to men, and there are plenty of inexpensive multicoloured silk scarves on offer too. Even ordinary jackets and trousers are often on sale in the souks at bargain prices.
Morocco leather is famously soft and luxurious. In towns like Fes, Marrakesh and Taroudant you can even visit the tanneries to see it being cured. It comes in a myriad of forms from belts, bags and clothing to pouffes and even book covers, but Morocco’s best-known leather item is the babouche, or slipper. Classic Moroccan babouches, open at the heel, are immensely comfortable, and produced in yellow (the usual colour), white, red (for women) and occasionally grey or black; a good pair – and quality varies enormously – can cost anything between €5 and €25. Marrakesh and Tafraoute are especially good for babouches.
You’ll see a variety of semiprecious stones on sale throughout Morocco, and in the High Atlas they are often aggressively hawked on the roadsides. If you’re lucky enough to be offered genuine amethyst or quartz, prices can be bargained to very tempting levels. Be warned, however, that all that glitters is not necessarily the real thing. Too often, if you wet the stone and rub, you’ll find traces of dye on your fingers.
Fossils too are widely sold in Morocco, and can be as beautiful as they are fascinating. The fossil-rich black marble of the Erfoud region, for example, is sold in the form of anything from ashtrays to table tops. But again, things aren’t always what they seem, and a lot of fossils are in fact fakes, made out of cement. This is particularly true of trilobites, or any black fossil on a grey background.
Some Moroccan food products would be hard to find at home, and make excellent and inexpensive gifts or souvenirs (assuming your country’s customs allow their importation). Locally produced olive oil can be excellent, with a distinctive strong flavour, and in the Souss Valley there’s delicious sweet argan oil too. Olives themselves come in numerous varieties, and there are also almonds, walnuts and spices available, notably saffron from Taliouine, and the spice mix known as Ras el Hanout. A jar of lemons preserved in brine is useful if you want to try your hand at making a tajine back home.
Whatever you buy, other than groceries, you will be expected to bargain. There are no hard and fast rules – it is really a question of paying what something is worth to you – but there are a few general points to keep in mind.
First, don’t worry about initial prices. These are simply a device to test your limits. Don’t think that you need to pay a specific fraction of the first asking price: some sellers start near their lowest price, while others will make a deal for as little as a tenth of the initial price.
Second, have in mind a figure that you want to pay, and a maximum above which you will not go. If your maximum and the shopkeeper’s minimum don’t meet, then you don’t have a deal, but it’s no problem.
Third, don’t ever let a figure pass your lips that you aren’t prepared to pay – nor start bargaining for something you have absolutely no intention of buying – there’s no better way to create bad feelings.
Fourth, take your time. If the deal is a serious one (for a rug, say), you’ll probably want to sit down over tea with the vendor, and for two cups you’ll talk about anything but the rug and the price. If negotiations do not seem to be going well, it often helps to have a friend on hand who seems – and may well be – less interested in the purchase than you and can assist in extricating you from a particularly hard sell.
Fifth, remember that even if you’re paying more than local people, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being “ripped off”. As a Westerner, your earning power is well above that of most Moroccans and it’s rather mean to force traders down to their lowest possible price just for the sake of it.
The final and most golden rule of all is never to go shopping with a guide or a hustler. Any shop that a guide steers you into will pay them a commission, added to your bill of course, while hustlers often pick up tourists with the specific aim of leading you to places that (even if you’ve agreed to go in “just to look”) will subject you to a lengthy high-pressure hard-sell.
An approximate idea of what you should be paying for handicrafts can be gained from checking the fixed prices in the state- or cooperative-run Ensembles Artisanals, which are slightly higher than could be bargained for elsewhere.