What You’ll Find in This Post:
A list of places to shop in Marrakech
The experiences I had in these places
A few friendly reminders for Americans
A handmade leather journal bought somewhere on Liberty Street
I have expressed on more than one occasion that I am not a huge fan of shopping when there isn’t a specific goal in mind. However, all that changes when I am exploring a new country. Wandering around foreign markets and malls without a specific shopping list is fun because I never know what I will stumble upon. Sure, usually I do have a rough idea of things I may want to purchase – a hat for my brother, a scarf for my sister, a turtle for myself – and I always try to stick within a budget, but this kind of shopping still offers lots of room for surprises.
So, like I did the last time I was in Morocco, I am dedicating a post exclusively to shopping. First, we’ll start with a big one:
This is a huge market in the Marrakech medina, and you will find all kinds of things here. Desert roses, antique knives, clothing, dishware, jewelry, silver, leather, tiling – I think this place may genuinely have everything. The stores on the outskirts of the market are generally more expensive than those further in and I think that the stores deeper in also sell higher quality goods. There are also a few boutiques scattered around; the one that I know best is Max & Jan, a business that was also selling some of their merchandise in my hotel’s lobby.
There were also many solo salespeople walking around the market, offering things like tissues and shirts, and sometimes they could be pushy. One young salesman – coincidentally one of the few Black people I saw in the city – kept accosting me after I repeatedly told him that I wasn’t interested in what he was selling. It got to a point where my friend stepped in, putting a barrier between me and the salesman with his folded umbrella. Thing is, the umbrella popped right off its hilt, flying into the sky and apparently scaring the man, who proceeded to run away. This all happened in less than a minute and the thing I remember most about it was silence, then a boom of laughter from all us. We then renamed our group chat Umbrella Academy.
Also, while Jemaa el-Fnaa is not as winding as the medina in Fes, it is still important to stick close to your travel group if you have one. While you may not lose anyone around a collection of zig-zagging corners, it was still easy for our group to get separated by sheer distance. The marketplace is enormous, large enough for me to have memories of three distinctly different markets only to discover that they were all a part of Jemaa el-Fnaa. That said, let’s talk about the next place…
The souqs near El Badi Palace
Market near El Badi Palace
While visiting El Badi Palace, there were two souqs. One was a small market alley, a collection of shops and grilled meat stalls on the path to the palace. We didn’t stop here to shop, though one student did take the time to try on an incredibly large hat. The shopkeeper had a bit of trouble getting the hat from its rack, and because of that I understand why he was annoyed when the student ultimately didn’t buy it. However, none of us knew the hat would be a challenge to retrieve and no matter the situation it was in the student’s right not to have purchased it. I bring all this up just because I still feel two ways about this situation; it’s uncool to put someone else to work just for a photo op – and maybe an apology should have been offered – but it was also uncool of the shopkeeper to try and guilt the student into buying the object, despite the validity of his feelings.
The hat was easily four or five feet wide
The other souq was a proper collection of tiny shops selling a variety of items alongside a few dine-in restaurants. The thing is, this souq may have actually been a part of Jemaa el-Fnaa! I walked traversed this market for three hours, fully believing I was in a new place until the moment I stepped out into the familiar herb stalls of Jemaa el-Fnaa. It was like I had walked through a space time portal.
Where I began and where I ended up
While I can’t describe how I got from Point A to Point B, I can definitely say that this souq – whether it was its own market or a part of Jemaa el-Fnaa – was really nice. It was not nearly as packed as the parts of Jemaa el-Fnaa near the square and all the goods were priced well. It was at this souq that I purchased a turtle and had an interesting encounter with the salesman. I remember him trying to sell me the turtle for some exorbitant price and my friend asked him to lower it. So, let’s say he was trying to sell it to me for $70, a price that my friend refused, asserting that there was no way this item costed so much. The man insisted it did and my friend jokingly asked him to show them the receipts.
The salesman next pulled out his shipping receipts for the product and, wouldn’t ya know, it really did cost $70. The catch is that he paid $70 for three turtles, not one, meaning that one turtle cost about $23. I pointed this out and was about to offer him at least $30 for it, but then he suddenly decided to sell it to me for the $23.
I accepted this but didn’t know how to feel about it. Why was he so willing to sell it for the same price he purchased it? Was he still making a profit that I was unaware of? Should I have been offended that he was initially trying to sell me one turtle for the price of three? Should I be appreciative that he chose to show us the receipts in the first place? Should I have insisted upon giving him the $30 I had planned on? I knew that a $7 profit wouldn’t have been a lot, but it was what I could afford and knew it would have been better than just breaking even.
I probably will never have clear answers to these questions, but they all do remind of me something I want to share with my American readers:
Respect salespeople’s’ businesses.
Take haggling, for example. It’s okay to do in a place like a Moroccan market, but don’t take it to the point of insult; don’t insist paying $10 for something that reasonably costs $50. I feel like we as Americans are encouraged haggle with the underlying expectation that foreign salespeople will attempt to rip us off or that it’s some kind of fun, exotic game to do for novelty. On top of this, we as Americans have a funny relationship with handmade items because we are so accustomed to mass production. When we hear “handmade” in the U.S., our first thought may easily be a whitewashed boutique, not a traditional handicraft.
As an American, I think one of the biggest challenges when shopping abroad is actively working to break away from these kinds of expectations and biases. I think it helps to look at the situation for what it is: They are a business; you are a consumer. They have money to make; you have a budget. If they are charging a price you don’t want to pay, ask yourself why you don’t want it to pay it. Is it because you can literally see the globby remnants of hot glue and don’t think the price matches the quality? Is it because you are an expert metalsmith and know the true amount of labor used to create that bronze candleholder with the tools the artisans had access to? Is it because you assume you’re just entitled to a discount?
Remember, you are not just paying for a TSA-approve dollar store tchotchke, you are (at the very least) paying for the object, the labor used to create it, the materials used to make it, and the shipping used to put it on the shelf. Make sure they respect you as a consumer, but also make sure you respect them as a business.
Souq near Bahia Palace
Near Bahia Palace was a small market, essentially an open-air path with stores, vendors, and maybe a café on either side. For a shopping center so near a major tourist attraction, the salespeople were chill, the products were great quality, and the prices were all very reasonable. This area was the only place I saw Moroccan buttons for sale and the magnets I got here are some of my favorite that I have ever bought on an international trip. What made this even better was that at the time I was working on my own magnet-making project and seeing these examples was so awesome and inspiring. This area also had a store that sold a variety of oils, specifically argon oil that they pressed on site. They even let one of the students try to crush the seeds and it was incredibly cool to observe.
One of the funniest moments of the entire trip occurred in this market. There was a salesman who was talking to me about a dress in his shop. Sure, he was trying to sell it to me, but he wasn’t trying to sell it to me, he wasn’t being pushy. We were really just having a conversation and I told him that I actually already had a blue version of the dress he was showing me. Next, he told me I could try on the dress and he offered to help me put it on because, in all fairness, putting on this one-piece dhoti-shalwar-jumpsuit-jacket-dress with a belt is tricky to do alone. So, the salesman wrapped me up in this dress and then proceeded to try and tie a purple tagelmust around my head and then, in an epic conclusion, he declared, “You are now Aisha!” It was a playful experience and the salesman said if I wanted to buy anything later, he’d be there, no problem – and you know what – if I had had the time, I would have bought something from him later just for the experience he gave me.
Centre de Formation et de Qualification dans les Metiers de L’artisanat
Front of the building
This is both a place to shop and a center for training artisans on traditional Moroccan craft. The talent here is incredible and that alone makes you appreciate the products even more. Here you can find a lot of things: ceramics, jewelry, leather, weaving, woodworking, lamps, even ouds and molding for your house. I really suggest going here, not only to shop, but to see how these objects are made. The people who run the place are passionate about what they do and seem very open to guests, tours, and school groups like mine. In my next post I will write about what it was like working with some of the artisans to design a collection of brass lamps.