An expedition to the ‘Souk’ (or ‘shabby marketplace’ as I think the translation goes) brings into sharp conflict two other staunch qualities of the English psyche – fair play and bargain hunting. Moroccan culture demands that a shopping trip to the Souk involve the age old tradition of haggling. To those unfamiliar with the principle it involves a shopkeeper helping a customer to choose an item then ferociously arguing with him over how much it should cost to buy. Invariably the keeper will start the bidding very high,
‘this pack of matches is very good quality, not fake, and it cost only two million pounds.’
‘…..er, that’s a bit steep. How about 50 pence?’
‘are you joking? Fifty pence? Do you not understand? These matches make fire! They will make you invincible!’
‘ok….how about seventy pence?’
‘seventy pence? You would have my children starve?’
These conversations can involve a variety of outrageous claims about the price these things sell for in other countries (including rather suspect ideas of how much they cost in your own), how the workmanship is top quality, and that the items are most definitely not cheap knock-offs from Chinese sweat shops, no, not at all. The dilemma comes in when you know that the guy is tying to get the best deal for himself and that you, a westerner, are obviously far wealthier than he. You applaud his courageous entrepreneur attitude, and feel obliged to support him in his endeavour, but then the idea arises that you could probably get a better deal if you pushed him harder. Thus begins an inner conflict that threatens to tear your mind in two. Each sob story he offers only provokes more determination to beat him down another 100 Dirham. Finally the conflict is over and you leave the stage carrying a bag filled with Converse and Nike shoes of dubious origin. The shopkeeper acts like you’ve sold one of his children into slavery, but you know that somehow he’s still managed to sell you the goods for about ten times the price he paid for them.
As I leave the Souk, trying hard to avoid the various Cobras that line the marketplace dancing for their charmers, I feel part of the history of the traveller. I have stood toe to toe with the merchants and not faltered, magnificently controlled my desire to scream and run from the wild snakes, and emerged withe new shoes. Today we shall count as a victory.