Talking shop

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Shopping leaves me cold. In the normal scheme of things, I would rather run through a nettlebed naked than spend the day at a mall. I will make an exception for Morocco though.

You know the score in the mysterious, colourful souks: store after store crammed with leather goods, lanterns, spices, mounds of dried fruit and nuts, tiles, carvings, gemstones and, of course, rugs and carpets.

By western standards, there is a good chance that anything you buy may be a bargain. Plus, you know that from time to time you will turn a corner and stumble upon something really arresting. Like the vendor of live baby tortoises, sundry skins and what looked like dessiccated chameleons I came across in a small square in Marrakesh.

But this is not what most appealed to me about shopping in Morocco. After all, though much on display is highly desirable, these are not items, on the whole, that will strike you as indispensable once you get out of the sun and back home.

No, what made the experience for me was less the goods than the exchanges with various shopkeepers.

I would recommend to any visitor that they fixate less on how they are going to drive the hardest bargain and more on tapping into the local knowledge and natural wit of those they are buying from. If you do, you may end up spending a few more dirham than you could have got away with. But it may enrich your stay in unexpected ways.

Tahir Shah uses his preface to a collection of writings about Marrakesh* to tell the story of a shopkeeper called Omar who caught his attention by claiming that everything in his establishment was free. What is more, Omar had a problem: he could not help but tell the truth. ”When you’re a salesman here in the Marrakesh medina,” writes Shah, ”lying is the first thing you learn. It’s the secret ingredient, the frame for a salesman’s life. Lie well and you can make a fortune every day. Only then will your wife be happy, only then will your children walk with pride.” Of course, there was a catch: though the goods were free, each came with a story - and the stories you had to pay for.

I was reminded of this when I walked into a small jeweller’s shop in the Essaouira on the Atlantic coast.

”Hello, sir. Everything is free today.”

”I see. Everything is free, but.?” I gesture for him to explain the catch.

He smiles. ”Everything is free until you reach the cash register.”

I tell him about Tahir Shah’s story. He speaks gravely about the importance of telling the truth. Of course, I take this, perhaps unfairly, with a pinch of salt, but the more important point is that the ice is broken and the conversation starts to range far and wide.

We talk about his family in the south; his father is from Mauritania. We touch on traditional uses of different gemstones. It seems, for example, that amber is bound to the jaw to help infants with pain from teething. And he tells me that in the south children are not given medicinal drugs until they are 10 years old ”so they don’t get stomach problems”.

We discuss those afflicted by ”couscous on the ears”, a local term for stress. And, finally, Hassane, as I now know him, tells me about his sideline offering desert tours (a lot of people seem to have sidelines in Essaouira) and that he is known at home as ”Shalala”, meaning he who is always happy.

By the time we part, I have bought some Berber ear-rings and a lapis lazuli necklace - and have not the faintest idea of whether or not I have got a good price. But I am happy enough. And as Hassane says with the sound grasp of psychology that the most memorable shopkeepers’ remarks betray: ”The price is in the customer’s head.”

*”Marrakesh: Through Writers’ Eyes”, edited by Barnaby Rogerson, selected by Stephen Lavington (Eland Books, 2006)

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