Shopping in Morocco
I find shopping at home to be incredibly mundane unless it’s at a thrift store or grocery store where I can peacefully stumble upon $2 sundresses, VHS tapes, and a closeout sale on granola bars. Shopping in Morocco, however, was not in the least bit boring. At times I genuinely had fun, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t terribly overwhelming at times. I did all my shopping with the school group at medinas and handicraft studios—
Wait, short vocab lesson:
“Medina” is actually the Arabic word for “town” and is used to describe various areas in each city I visited. However, it seemed like I kept hearing the word “medina” to describe the markets we went to. At no point did anyone refer to “that place where we buy all the things” as a “souq” (the Arabic word for “market”) or even a “market” (the English word for “market” . . . in case you forgot). The truth is that the souqs were in the medinas; the market was in the older parts of town. I didn't figure that out until after I had returned home, though. That means the entire time I was in Morocco, I had my words mixed up; I was basically referring to Cosco as Richmond City.
I will say, though, that despite the terminological differences it felt as though the idea of the market and the old town were intertwined, like one couldn’t quite exist without the other. As poetic as I want it to be, though, "market" and "town" simply have two very different definitions, and I hope I can spare you the confusion and vernacular embarrassment I felt.
As I was saying . . .
I did all my shopping at souqs and handicraft studios. The souqs were large, colorful, and crowded, while the collection of studios were small and blissfully quiet.
Let’s talk about the studios first.
The studios were often collections of small shops in a mid-sized complex where craftspeople made jewelry, clothing, woodcarvings, ceramics, tiles, metalwork, and so forth. It was incredibly exciting to see the artists at work and know that the object they’re making right at that moment could never be exactly duplicated or mass produced. The artist in me relished in seeing others work their craft with mad skillz.
Here’s a list of the studios I went to, though I must confess that a few of these places are a bit unidentifiable for one reason or another. After much research, I have provided you with my some educated guesses, but if you’d like a bit more detail about these places and what I found there, check out the post "Extreme Arts &Crafts".
List of handicraft studios and what the artists created:
Marylin Bottero’s pottery studio in Oulja Sale, Rabat
Clay pottery, ceramics, and sculptures
A leather tannery in Fes, called Chourara Tannery
Shoes, bags, belts, cushions, jackets . . . anything that can be made of leather was there in abundance
A metal workshop in Fes
Silver brass bowls, plates, and tea sets
A handicraft center near Fes, probably Ensemble Artisinal
Clothing, jewelry, and wooden kitchenware
A handicraft center in Meknes, possibly Pavillon Artisanal
Woodcarvings, embroidery, silver hammered vases & plates
A craft center in Marrakesh, possibly Moroccan Craft
Jewelry, clothing, woodcarvings, musical instruments, clay pottery, and ceramics
A craft complex in Marrakesh, probably Ensemble Artisinal
Musical instruments, leather shoes, clothing, tablecloths . . . there was a shop for everything. Plus, there was a little restaurant where I got an egg sandwich!
Yes, this has the same name as the one outside of Fes, but fear not! This one is in Marrakesh.
Now, let’s talk about the markets.
The souqs also had some stores where I found craftsmen crafting, but they were crammed in between shops that sold sheets, shoes, magnets, food; you name it, the souqs had it, like a medieval Walmart. The markets I went to in each city, however, were all very, very different though:
At the Oulja Craft Complex there were shops that sold tiled tables, fountains, lamps, pottery, baskets, rugs, woodcarvings, and jewelry. There were also some chickens and around the corner and a shopping mall with an ATM. The small souq was calm, quiet, and not the least bit crowded; I loved this souq’s atmosphere more than any other.
(The Blue Gate is where I began, but I walked all the way to that other red marker. I was only halfway through the souq).
The souq in Fes el Bali was intense. We started at the Bab Bou Jeloud (the Blue Gate), which is the entrance to the medina, but once you enter it completely sprawls out. Apparently, the medina has almost 10,000 streets and alleys with a vast collection of stores, homes, restaurants, and mosques. Here you can buy animals, snacks, dresses, pillowcases, jewelry, lamps, meat, tea, wedding amarias . . . the list never ends. It was incredibly exciting, but painfully overwhelming. You want to talk about sensory overload? Let me tell you about all the things I was hyper-aware of:
The footpaths all felt different under my sneakers. Stone, dirt, bumpy, wide, narrow, and they all had awkward stairs and slopes and plazas and very large trees just popping up out of nowhere. There were crowds of people, speaking French, Arabic, and English, plus animals, motorbikes, and wagons carrying people, boxes, and food. Every two steps there was a new store, shop, or cart selling clothes, snacks, jewelry, and junk. Imagine having 50 options of where to buy whatever you’re looking for, be it a necklace, a magnet, a dress, or a piece of bread. My decision-making process basically boiled down to whatever store was closest to me.
Shops could be downstairs—underground and halfway hidden—while others spilled out onto the crowded streets. People were shouting, advertising, offering me scarves and bracelets and purses. I heard “Pashmina, Madame?” so many times it became part of the chaotic rhythm of market noise, echoing through my head until I could politely spit out “no, thanks” a dozen times. There were chickens and eggs and turtles in cages. There were stray cats and flies and songbirds hidden among the congested walkways.
Some streets were shady—literally—with rooves and awnings, forcing the sun to cast patterned shadows through lattices and exaggerating every movement someone made. There was the smell of bread, animals, coffee, mint, sweat, spices, and blood from the butcher. There were voices overlapping in different languages, men shouting, fabric swishing, footsteps clunking, hooves beating, wheels rolling. There were rugs hanging from wires above my head and buildings with different textures, different designs, painted different colors. Everything I looked at seemed over saturated, like I was walking miles through an Instagram filter.
It was intense.
This is the souq where I bought some of my favorite souvenirs and gifts, though. From here I got some nice quality scarves, a silver bracelet for my grandmother, a drum for my brother, a cute wooden turtle, and the dress I later wore to my graduation. The salesman said the bracelet was real “Berber silver”, which is debatable, but the stones were definitely real, and it had yet to tarnish after a few months of wear. Even though the atmosphere was overwhelming, at least I can say I found some worthwhile stuff.
I went to two markets in Marrakesh: The Medina de Marrakesh and Jemaa el-Fina. At the time, I had no idea where I was, but after some Internet snooping and intense zooming in on photographs, I figured it out.
(Left to right: Max&Jan, approximate location of Herboriste de Paradise, main entrance to the the Medina de Marrakesh)
Aside from an absurd amount of motorbikes, the souq in the Medina de Marrakesh was quiet and spacious compared to Fes, and had plenty of very cool stores. Like Fes, it was exciting and colorful, but much less overpowering and I wish I could have spent more time there. I didn't have the opportunity to buy anything from this souq having that I left my purse in the van, not realizing we were actually touring the place. However, but there were plenty of shops including the boutique Max&Jan and Herboriste du Paradis. Granted, those stores were notably pricey, so even if I had had my wallet I still would have been hardcore window shopping.
The red marker is where the GPS said I was. To the left is my hotel and to the far right is souq Jemaa el-Fina.
The other market in Marrakesh, Jemaa el-Fina, was my least favorite. To be fair, though, I may have been on the wrong end of it because the images of Jemaa el-Fina on the Internet don't resemble where I was shopping save for the mineret in the background. Where ever I was, I thought the souq was crowded, overpriced, and touristy. It had performances, perhaps snake charmers or dancers or musicians, but the crowd was so large it was hard to tell. It seemed like most of the objects being sold were part of the tourist trap, objects of cheaper quality sold for higher prices. It was also difficult to haggle because, unlike in Fes, there weren’t many options. Sure, the market was large, but instead of 50 stores selling the same thing at different prices, it was more like 3 stores selling the same thing at a consistent $20 or more. There were also more stores that sold western clothes and expensive gowns, which was not on my shopping list. Instead I bought a pair of earrings, two decorative pipes, and a very comfortable jumpsuit. I was able to lower the price on the jumpsuit only because the student shopping before me seemed to exhaust the salesman with her tiresome and slightly insulting haggling attempts.
I've got a few more things to say . . .
It’s totally a thing.
I felt uncomfortable doing it, especially as an American, as a woman, as an English-speaker, and as someone who doesn’t always feel comfortable with monetary interactions anyway. I’m that person who feels bad when I refuse rewards cards at Macy’s or panics when trying to gather the money out of my purse in a timely manner. So, trying to convince someone to sell their necklace for $5 instead of $20 was a lot for me to suddenly become accustomed to. I didn’t haggle much, only when the price was outrageously unfair. The conversation usually went like this:
Not too bad, right?
There was only one occasion where my haggling didn’t go over too well, in part because the salesman was speaking too fast and I couldn’t keep up with the math. I’m a very smart lass, but verbal instructions can be a bit slippery, especially when I’m already being barraged by all that’s happening in the new environment I’m neck deep in. I’m sure rushing and speaking over me was part of his sales tactic, but in the end, I decided to give up and pay what he wanted. Every other time I haggled, though, I got the price lowered by at least 25%, so it’s definitely worth the try.
Pressure to buy things
Don’t be startled if salesmen shout prices at you as you walk down the street. I had men offering me shoes, bags, sunglasses, hats, bracelets, boxes, scarves, whatever, as I made my way down various paths and alleys. There were also people encouraging me to come into their stores, and though I typically declined, when I didn’t I found myself being led up and down flights of stairs into rooms filled to the ceiling with leather jackets, dresses, and keychains. This always made me uncomfortable, not only because I was a good distance from the group, but because I had no intention on buying anything they were showing me.
Walking into a store and browsing—knowing I wasn’t going to purchase a dang thing—felt overwhelming sometimes because the shopkeepers continued to offer me more and more options. No matter how many times I said “No, I’m just looking,” they would always find something else to show me and I began to feel like I was being rude to keep refusing them. I know I wasn’t being disrespectful, but it all felt very uncomfortable. After all, shopping in America is rather antisocial; you can come in, browse, pick something up, put it back in the wrong spot, and walk out the door without a second look. I simply wasn’t accustomed to people trying to service me.
I will say, though, that when I told salesmen I didn’t have any money, they left me completely alone. It wasn’t a tactic of mine, I wasn’t trying to shoo them away. It’s just that I genuinely didn’t have any money sometimes. I will admit, though, not having any cash gave me a wonderful opportunity to just look at stuff.
Safety while shopping
My experience in Morocco was not incredibly dangerous, not by far, but I was told to be wary of pickpockets. The closest call I came to some manner of danger in a market was when my group encountered some boys on roller-skates one evening. Otherwise, I say just use common sense and maybe try to minimize the amount of bags you carry. If you go to five stores and come out with five bags, combine them into one or stuff the small stuff in your purse. If nothing else, it will help you keep track of what you’ve bought.
Boutiques and chain stores
There are plenty of boutiques, malls, and chain stores in Morocco. Some of the boutiques, like Max&Jan, were found more or less in the markets. Others were in malls or scattered about the cities. I even encountered my first Zara, a fast-fashion, mega popular chain store I had never heard of, much to my peers’ surprise. I can’t say I found much interest in these types of stores, though; after all shopping for western-styled clothing and overpriced décor just isn’t my thing.
That guitar looked cool, but was it really going to fit in my suitcase? Though others in the group had the ability to buy large items and ship it separately, I was extremely aware of the fact I was going to have to bring back whatever I bought in my extra-large purple Protocol suitcase. That sounds like a “well, duh” kind of thought process, but it was all too easy to get swept up in the incredible variety of stuff that crossed my path. Couple that with the list of people back home I wanted to share my adventure with (in the form of said stuff) and I suddenly ran the risk of buying things that simply wouldn’t fit in my suitcase.
In hopes of preventing overweight or ill-fitting luggage, I did three things:
Packed light initially. So what if I had to wear the same shirt twice? It gave me ample space in my suitcase to bring back the souvenirs I knew I was going to buy.
Limited my souvenirs to small items and clothes. If it’s small, it will fit anywhere. Things like jewelry could be wedged in between shirts, brought onto my carry on, or even stuffed in my jacket pocket. Even the drum I bought had the dimensions of a personal pan pizza box; it was a small flat square that fit wonderfully amongst my other junk. Clothes, of course, could be rolled, folded, or just jammed into a sneaker that’s taking up valuable luggage space anyway. I was also advised to bring my own bubble wrap in case I bought something fragile, but heck, a sneaker worked just as well for that too.
Limited the amount of money I allotted for shopping. I figured I couldn’t bring back what I couldn’t afford.
And lastly . . .
Hanging out in the souq made for some pretty badass photoshoots.