More Moroccan culinary artistry, smelly tanneries and Fassian Carpetbaggers

Walking through Fez is like watching an old movie from my childhood. I remember the biblical epics starring Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas and Lawrence Olivier, with the backgrounds of tiny streets, tons of busy people, laughing children, layered aromas of manure, kafta kebabs, mer and incense complete with donkeys wandering around. Well walking today was no different from those scenes, except that the donkeys are carrying LPG gas containers, the children have jeans and the men wear Nikes with their Jallabas.

Nothing I’ve seen in Trinidad could prepare me for the activity and scenes in a Moroccan souk or the markets. We simply do not have the mass of people or labyrinthian web of tiny streets to provide the context and the scene, nor do I think Trinis could be cramped up in the tiny spaces that Fassians seem to live in.

After walking up and down through the Medina, it was time to head over to the Chouwara tanneries, one of the Medina’s most iconic sights (and smells!), through the entrance of a multi-level shop with narrow, winding mosaic staircases, leading up to a high terrace and this was an education in many things:

  • The art of salesmanship : Where else would you get a tour, excellent English explanation of the leather processes, sprigs of mint to combat the powerful “aromas” in the tanneries and a negotiation for an item that ended with smiles after I pushed the price of an item from 800 dirhams to 250 dirhams
  • Health and Safety standards : There are none. Men are working in the tanneries knee deep in chemicals, and pigeon “manure” without gloves, boots or masks for pittances.
  • Complexity of the leather making business : So many steps go from the cowskin to the final fabrication of a quality leather item. The tour guide explained to us that little has changed in the tanneries process since the beginning – donkeys still labor through the narrow Medina streets, carrying skins to dye pits; the skins are boiled, and washed many times through a water-generated wheel, and then soaked in various substances (like ash, pigeon poo, and cow urine!) over and over; and later, the skins are dyed in indigo, saffron, and poppy for added color
  • Types of leather : Goat, Sheep, Cow and Camel leather all have different textures, grades and prices. I had a fascination with a beautiful Camel leather jacket that felt like silk in my hand, but then I realized that I would rather eat a Camel than wear one.
  • Rain doesn’t always purify : Going to a tannery after a fresh rainfall, does not make sense, if you can help it. If you’re aren’t accustomed to country odors, then gas masks are in order.

As part of the other Health and Safety standards issue, throwing saw dust into an open flame to heat the water in the Hammams, might be also hazardous to your health, but Hammams are for later discussion.

Tips for finding the right guide in Fez:

For anyone coming to Fez, a good guide is not optional, it is absolutely essential for your sanity, safety and pleasure. Today, around 150,000 Fassis (of Fez’s total population of around one million) still live within this maze of twisting alleys, blind turns, secret and low-ceilinged tunnels, and souqs/marketplaces. There is no possibility of navigating the Medina without a local person to guide you.

Finding the right guide shouldn’t be a difficult task, there are tons that will come up to you, if you wander through the Medina by yourself, but if you start wandering by yourself, this can be a recipe for disaster, since you have no choice or conversation to guage the person helping you around. The right guide can make or break a trip through Fez. By managing a tricky situation in the train the night before, I ensured that my guide Abdul understood how I operated and he adapted to suit and we had a brilliant day walking around.

Some tips in helping your guide help you:

  • Be clear in your price and negotiation of their rate : Business is business. They are there to guide you and you are there to pay them.  Negotiate a fair rate in the beginning over some tea that you are both happy with. Everyone wins, when this occurs.
  • Be clear in what you are interested in : A guide doesn’t know you from a dead dog in the road, they are not mind readers, they are don’t care about your past and they don’t care about your problems. If you are clear that you like Mosques, then they will take you to Mosques and nothing else. If you let them choose your paths, hence saying things like ” you know best, show me the best things of <insert city>”, they will show you what interests them or show you places that offer them the best commissions. Nothing more, nothing less.
  • Be clear in your time : Set clear times that you want to tour, or communicate when you want a break or to head back to your hotel. Your guide has a family and a life also, they don’t exist to serve your entire whims and fancies. It’s amazing that people forget to respect their guides and have terrible experiences or don’t have as full an experience as they should have.
  • Buy a gift for their family : Respect for family is essential. Spend $3 extra dollars for something for their children or wife – chocolate, sweets or candy. They will not only respect you, but they will help your cause in bargaining or even take you from a place, if you’re upset.
  • Be prepared to laugh and swear to God : Abdul was either the most truthful man I ever met or it is a Fassian thing to say, “I swear to God!” with hand over the heart.  He is good friends with some Chinese people from Trinidad, “they were such nice people, I swear to God!  The price you got from the traders was the best, “I swear to God!”. I heard this phrase too many times to count throughout the day. Be prepared to laugh along.

After wandering the Medina in the rain, it was time for lunch. My Moroccan food extravaganza continued with another spectacular meal in a beautiful restaurant set in an old Riad. Abdul took me to Restaurant Asmae, but instead of sitting at the ground floor with the tourist horde, we were escorted to private rooms on the third floor of the restaurant. 

This is a “some what” pricey tourist trap restaurant with a set menu for tourists, but having been escorted by Abdul, we both headed upstairs and collapsed into soft brocade cushions in a private tented alcove and looked down at the people eating below. This restaurant while a “tourist trap” experience for those people downstairs was completely different for us upstairs as lunch was a good 3 hour experience with unlimited drinks.

We had the entire top floor to ourselves and in true Riad style, the private court upstairs opened out. Eating under the beautifully painted ceiling hung with antique lanterns, our waiter arranged before us 12 plates of delicious Moroccan salads, cold and hot – like cinnamon-infused beets, garlic white beans, curried lentils, Pepper olives, zucchini with honey and a great and salty harissa (Tunisian/Moroccan style hot sauce).

Did I mention the Pepper Olives?

Oh yeah and Baigan Choka … oh sorry … Aubergine with Cumin

Our entrees were Tagines of chicken and Lemon, Beef with Prunes and Raisins and tons of preserved Lemon and Olives. I cannot say how much I love preserved Lemon and Spicy Olives. I would come back to Morocco just for this treat. 

 The combination of all the salads and appetizers with the entrees, mint tea, coffee was enough to cause some serious “-ITIS” as we Trinidadians say.

Moroccan Rug Shopping – or at least playing the game for sport (Not for the weak or weak willed) :

After all that food, it was time for some tea and then the challenge of the day, negotiating with a Moroccan carpet salesman. One would easily ask, “Why bother with negotiating with such an ‘animal’?” and that is an easy answer … no one can outsmart a Trini unless we deliberately let them. That being said, venturing into a Moroccan carpet shop with absolutely no intention to buy is a very dangerous sport, since you don’t need desire to buy to be taken for your money.

If you are in the market for a fine rug, there are few places you can get something better, however, you’ll have to bargain and bargain hard. The average Moroccan salesman puts any Sikh/American/Indian used car dealer to shame – in fact I would dare say that in Trinidad, we do not have salesmen that can match them, for the simple reason that a Fassian carpet merchant, draws on a lifetime of salesmanship and could truly sell a ice to an Eskimo.

The custom and process is well known, well documented, well chronicled and yet everyday in Fez, tourists are parted with their money for a rug they didn’t really want, or was sold a dream that could make tons of money on eBay or some garbage about reselling the rugs. Mohammed was the salesman of choice, and Abdul warned me that he was one of the finest/toughest/hardest salesmen in Fez. Upon walking into the shop, which was a huge store complete with multiple rooms, numerous handlers and huge shelves of rugs, the mint tea was rushed out. 

As is typical, he started slowly and asked where I was from, what I did, why I was in Morocco. At no point, did he ask why I was in the store. After 5 mins of careful jousting, then he started the press, he started calling for the rugs and they were being rolled out of everywhere, all at once, there was a flurry of activity and within a minute there were 13 rugs of various quality being shown to me. He kept barking at his assistant to pull down more carpets. When I showed interest in a teal one, the assistants pulled down a dozen teal rugs. Eventually, with a pile of 30 rugs on the floor, Mohammed motioned to have the assistants remove rugs that weren’t teal, one by one, until I was left with two really beautiful pieces. It was a veritable modelling show of rugs. Now I don’t like carpets/rugs etc … they are a goddamn waste of money in my opinion, but he started pressing harder about the one I should take home to Trinidad.

I resisted and tried to slow things down, asking him to tell the 5 men modelling carpets to put them down, while I sipped my tea. He obliged but then started talking about knowing Canada, since he went to Laval on a vacation and bought clothes at Value Village … it’s one thing to build rapport, but it is another thing to bullshit a bullshitter. However, I resisted and told him I need to think … of course his response was “Real men, don’t think, they act” … to which my response was “Does your woman say that?”. Mohammed was clearly accustomed to being in control of the sales process and he really didn’t like being pushed back. At this point, he was clearly becoming irritated at my nonchalance, since he viewed it as a challenge, but as I pushed back each barb …

  • “You like the colour we picked together, so we can ship to your parents in Trinidad”
  • “You don’t have your money here, no problem … we can charge it to your hotel”
  • “Big man like you comes to Morocco and you can’t make a decision”
  • “People from Canada come here and make tons of money selling carpets in Toronto”
  • “Your guide Abdul has a large family and sometimes he can’t pay for their food, this rug will help them”
  • “This is a work of art, art has no price”

It got harder and harder … he obviously knew the buttons to push for each customer. He was very skillful and very clever and very, very persistent. Then thankfully, he made a critical mistake

  • “Are all people from Trinidad poor?”

To which my reply was quite curt … “You’re a disrespectful salesman and this discussion is over. Thanks for your tea, since you obviously got rich offering tea to Westerners, but I’m from Trinidad and salesmen like you disgrace all salesmen” – I’m glad he made that critical error, since it reset my brain.

Thinking about the whole affair, I was amazed at the ease at which I was manipulated by a repeated and documented, tried and true process, and  by the mastery and skill of Mohammed. The miscalculation on his part was that while he played on my pride, I don’t have the guilty conscience about drinking his tea, wasting his staff’s efforts and not giving them any money (since it is their job) and really wasting his time for sport. That being said … dealing with carpet salesmen is not a sport for the weak of heart or pocketbook and in retrospect, I will definitely NOT play this game in Marrakech.

The other problem I have with the whole affair is that no matter what a salesman tells you, there’s no objective way of figuring out what the carpet was worth. A $200 rug can be fabulous, a $2,750 one can be rubbish.

My advice for anyone coming to Fez, is to see the carpet stores, but if you don’t plan on buying anything like me, then my recommendation is to decline the offer of tea and do not let any rugs be rolled out, with the sales promise of “no problem, just take a look”. IF the tea and the rugs are rolled out, SIMPLY LEAVE … since for all the ceremony, you are not his guest, you’re a walking bank machine built for him to extract cash until he determines you’re not. If the salesman/owner continues to insist that you are his guests and that you must sit down with him, simply walk out of his store. It’s not rude since he doesn’t pay your credit card bill and you’ll never see him again, when you leave Fez.

Some other great tips I’ve found at :

* never ever EVER buy anything in a shop that somebody has taken you to (bus driver, friend on street or from hotel etc). These people are commission parasites & NOT the brother etc of the carpet seller. Your price will be inflated to cover their commission.

* relax & take it easy. the chitchat & constant tea are part of the way of doing business. you MIGHT get a better deal if they like your relaxed, non-western approach. remember that part of the psychology is that if they offer you something for free, you are more likely to feel obliged to reciprocate with a purchase.

* if you see something you like, try to be noncommittal & a bit evasive. if they know you really really like one particular piece, they have you by the balls, price-wise. see if you can get your preferred piece into a displayed shortlist of maybe six or so, then kinda tut-tuttingly ask “and how much for *that* one? hm, tut tut. i mean it’s OK & all…but…”

* do not feel obliged to buy just becoz they’ve pulled out 1000 carpets for you to see. that’s also part of the obligation-creating psychology.

* never answer questions like “how much you expect to pay for something like this in your country?”. there isn’t such an easy way out of this one, but “we’re not in my country, i am more interested in the local price *wink*” (with humour, not aggression) is an ok way out. best not to admit that you are not an expert buyer.

* try to avoid the situation when merchants display a few pieces & ask “which one you like (/most)?”. this establishes an implicit agreement that you really do like it & hope to buy it. take your time. “i dunno, they’re all ok. can i see some others, please?”

* avoid appearing too committed ever. interested, but not hooked

* try to enjoy the bargaining & interaction. it can be pleasant, friendly & fun. don’t treat it too much like a competition. a game, maybe. but not life-or-death.

* don’t listen to a single assurance that something is hand-made, natural-dye, antique, a billion knots per square inch, etc. it may or may not be true, but is kinda likely to be on the false side. defuse these by saying that you are not so interested in such matters. you are more interested in designs that suit your house (or similar excuse).

* watch for the bait & switch upsell. you’ll be shown some pieces, made to go “oooh, aaah” then they’ll pull out a really “special” piece, of finer quality. it will be finer & a big temptation for you to buy above what you initially wanted.

* never be afraid to walk away. sometimes, the merchants switch & become hostile & aggressive. it’s all act. emotional blackmail. don’t argue. be polite & walk away.

* if there are plenty of shops, walk away anyway, after some casual haggling over price. this is a bit of a dirty tactic, but they’ll often shout a pretty reasonable last-price after you. there are always other shops to visit.

* one rule: if you state a price, you are more-or-less obliged to honour it & buy. be careful of being tricked into making an offer (or something that sounds like an offer) on anything if you are not sure you want it. the “how much you expect to pay for this?” is often twisted by the merchant into “but you said you would be willing to pay $x”.

* don’t be too afraid to offer an outrageously low price, even something like 1/5th of what they initially quote. you might be greeted with outrage, but it’s all mock. they will be glad that you’ve “settled down to business”, ie started talking about money. customers who run away at first mention of the opening price must be as frustrating to merchants as timid virgins. it’s all just an opening gambit.

* don’t be afraid to be firm on price, after some intial haggling. if you reach a level that you think is enough, stick to it. see walking away, above.

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About Rishiray

Rishi Sankar is a Cloud HRMS Project Manager/ Solution Architect. Over the past 15+ years, he has managed to combine his overwhelming wanderlust with a desire to stay employed, resulting in continuing stints with 3 major consulting firms (IBM, Deloitte, Accenture). He documents his adventures around the world on "Ah Trini Travelogue" with pictures and stories from the road/tuk-tuk/camel/rickshaw. You can follow him on Twitter at @rishiray and on Facebook at "Ah Trini Travelogue . He doesn't like Chicken Curry but loves Curry Chicken and is always trying to find the perfect Trinidadian roti on the road. He also doesn't like cheese and kittens ... and definitely not together. E-mail from his blog is appreciated like a 35 yr old Balvenie at

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