Wandering the incomprehensible tangle of alleys and squares in Marrakech’s souks is as exhilarating and extravagantly sensuous as ever. Shopkeepers mostly refrain from hectoring passersby, as many once did, but their stalls — overflowing with jewel-toned leather goods, thuya-wood marquetry, intricate brass lamps and lavishly embroidered caftans — call out to potential shoppers just the same. The smells of leather, wood and spices still permeate the air, though the exhaust of buzzing motorbikes is an unfortunate modern addition. Shafts of light stream through breaks in the roofs of the alleyways, briefly illuminating stylish Parisian travelers, as well as djellaba-clad men carrying chickens by the feet. Despite their differences, neither looks out of place.
Guidebooks and travel magazines offer all sorts of advice about how to explore the souks, much of it anxiety-provoking and misguided.
Most articles suggest that if you look lost, even for a moment, you’ll be beset by locals wanting to be your guide. Don’t engage with these people, they advise, because they’ll end up demanding money. But don’t ignore them either, because it will only irritate them, making matters worse. Once you’re in a shop, if you don’t bargain ferociously, but with good humor, and ideally in Arabic, you’ll be vastly overcharged and made to look the fool. And if you’re cowardly enough to book a guide to prevent appearing lost, he’ll pressure you into shopping, and the shopkeepers will overcharge you even more in order to give your guide a commission. It’s a no-win situation.
Fortunately, you can ignore almost all of this advice and still have a marvelous time in Marrakech’s souks. Let’s address all this wrongheaded advice piece by piece.
If it’s your first time in Marrakech, it’s only sensible to book a guide for your first day or two at least. When you have a guide, you can stop worrying about navigating and just enjoy the atmosphere of the souks. A guide can also show you places you might not find on your own, like a traditional bakery or the souk’s best leather soccer ball maker (that’s Kamal Boukentar of La Clinique du Ballon). If you’re shopping for inexpensive souvenirs, a guide’s potential commission will be negligible. Does it really matter if you pay $14 instead of $12 for a pair of babouche? If you want to purchase a more expensive item like a carpet or some furniture, return another day to shop on your own. A guide arranged through a good travel agent or a high-end concierge likely won’t be a guide who pressures you to visit stores in which you’re uninterested. But to rectify even this worst-case scenario, a simple “no” is all that’s required.
I see this unfortunate advice about all sorts of destinations, but everyone seems to say it about Morocco. In Marrakech, you simply will not look like a local, no matter how confidently you walk. I’ve been to Marrakech several times, but I still have to double-check my map of the souks from time to time. And, yes, on a couple of occasions, young men did approach to ask if I required assistance. I politely declined, and that was that. Trying to “never look lost” only causes anxiety. Don’t let that fool’s errand dissuade you from exploring the souks on your own, which is a great joy. Nothing bad will happen if you look lost or indecisive. If you really get lost, ask a shopkeeper for directions. He may ask you to browse his merchandise, which you can do, or not.
This happens less often than it used to, because the police have cracked down on unlicensed guides. Still, it’s likely that you’ll encounter an offer or two. Every guidebook recommends turning them down. It’s good advice, especially in the most touristy areas. But I decided to test that wisdom, twice, and both times I was glad I took up the offer. On a quiet street near the Bahia Palace, a man approached and offered to show me an area where artisans produce some of the goods for sale in the souks. “Not for shopping — just to see,” he said. I went with him, keeping track of how to retrace my steps, and discovered a fascinating tourist-free quarter of woodcarvers, blacksmiths and brass workers. The visit was well worth the $11 tip. And outside the Dyers Souk, a young man offered to give me a tour of its interior. Festooned with jewel-toned fabric, his stall positively glowed in the otherwise dark and scruffy workshop area. Again, the brief tour of the souk was certainly worth the $10 I spent on one of his scarves. Many locals will try to chat with you, and if you never stop to talk, you might miss out on a memorable experience. Engage with whomever you want, for as long as you want, and say “no” whenever you want.
When discussing bargaining in the souks, most guidebooks and articles start from the premise that “overcharged” means paying more than a local would. This premise is deeply flawed for two reasons. First, it assumes that if you bargain “correctly,” you have a chance at paying the locals’ price. You do not. Even if you try to bargain in Arabic, you will pay the price of a visitor. Second, it assumes that the visitors’ price is unfair. As Americans, we don’t like the idea of people paying different prices for the same thing. But those of us who can afford to go to Morocco earn exponentially more than most locals do. Was I overcharged when I paid $30 for a djellaba that costs a local $10 or $15? When I consider the income disparity, it seems to me that I got a fantastic deal. If you go into the souks knowing that you will pay more than locals regardless of how well you bargain, and think of that situation as fair, you’ll have a lot more fun shopping. Bargain hard, by all means, but having fun should be the goal of shopping in the souks, not getting a rock-bottom price. It’s difficult to do both.