Entering the souks in Marrakech feels a little like preparing for battle. Among the ceramic tagines and the leather mules, you’ll find vendors hawking almond pastries and syrupy dates by the vat. You’ll side-step motorbikes and inhale clouds of turmeric, armoring yourself against the the drone of shouting hagglers. When you locate something you’re willing to fight for, you’ll have to do just that: fight. Bartering is a local tradition and a cultural idiosyncrasy — it’s part of the game here, and tourists are not excluded.
On my 6th day in the city, I found myself in Marrakech’s central carpet bazaar, bickering with a bearded man over a hand-woven wool rug. “You will never find a husband with an attitude this stubborn” he told me, throwing up his hands. “Such a shame.”
Well. I have yet to find a husband, but I am the proud owner of a stunning Moroccan carpet, for which I paid approximately 250 Dirhams ($25) after 45 minutes of high-stakes negotiating. It is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful things I own — and it would have cost a small fortune at Anthropologie. But that’s not the point, here. Rug aside, there is a certain pride that comes along with the act of bartering on foreign land. However hostile it may sometimes feel, it remains a powerful means of immersion.
“[Haggling is] part art and part science,” says travel reporter, Suemedha Sood. “Participating in the tradition can make travelers feel accepted — like they’re in on the secret.”
Bartering is a little bit like dancing. To use a cliché, it takes two. But it also requires a certain rhythm, a focus on conversation, and some sense of mutual respect. In the states, we attribute value to things based on price tag, but any country that relies on a system of negotiation allows folks to assess the quality of an item based on the circumstances. And by the same token, it allows vendors to name prices on a case-by-case basis. It’s a mutual exchange, and it's always fluid.
“Exchange is personal,” says David Graeber, a professor at the London School of Economics. “If you’re trading with someone you care about, you’ll inevitably also care about her enough to take her individual needs, desires, and situation into account.”
We’re not typically opposed to a system of bargaining (think eBay), but some of the magic is lost when we do so on our own turf. Negotiating your salary is not quite the same as talking shop with a Berber ceramicist. I fell in love with the art of haggling in Marrakech, specifically, because it was the most direct and open line of communication I had to local culture. It was my way of pushing through discomfort and emerging on the other side, carpet in hand, plus an excellent travel story to go with it.
For most, the biggest turn-off in bartering is merely the fact that it’s a form of head-to-head combat. “Not only does this process take time—both the actual haggling and the research required,” says financial journalist Timothy B. Lee. “But many people (including me) find it unpleasant.”
At it’s best, however, travel requires a little piece of that discomfort. To barter is to declare your value to someone, and in turn, to allow them to dictate their own — equal parts humbling and empowering. It’s a form of candid, open engagement with locals in their own context, and often times, they enjoy it as much as you do. You’re not observing from the outside, you’re participating.
“Now you go home and you have a beautiful thing,” a souk vendor in a long white caftan told me, grinning, having sold me on a pair of leather sandals. “And when you wear your beautiful thing, you will think of the Moroccan man who gave it to you.”