Negotiating with Nomads in Morocco
A parade of tables lined the sunny, cobblestoned promenade, displaying hand-inlaid wooden boxes, ceramic vases, fossils, and silver teapots. A beige stone wall, festooned with colorful tapestries and inset with arched, wooden doorways, bordered on one side. A hint of brine wafted on the light breeze. As I strolled in Essaouira, my favorite town in Morocco, a man called out to me from the entrance of his emporium.
“Come into my shop and have a look around!”
His ample frame was clothed in a brown robe and a black turban; his round face wore a smile radiant as the morning sun.
“I’m not buying. I did all of my shopping last year,” I called back. On that first visit to Morocco, my copious purchases had nearly exceeded the airline’s weight limit.
Somehow, his smile brightened even more.
“No problem, just have a look anyway!”
The shop walls were lined with glass cases displaying Berber jewelry. But among the silver amulets and beaded necklaces found in every Moroccan souvenir shop were more unusual items.
My eyes fell first on an engraved, silver letter opener, and then on an antique-looking orb. It was about six inches in diameter and set into a four-legged cradle where it could spin freely on its horizontal axis. The ball was polished bronze, scored with lines of longitude and latitude, and hand-etched with innumerable engravings of faces, animals, symbols, and constellations. The cast bronze stand was adorned with flowers, leaves, and Arabic letters in relief. The etchings and details were rubbed with contrasting ochre. It was gorgeous.
I can be impulsive at times, especially when it comes to buying unique crafts in far-away places. My usual traveling companion—my level-headed wife—is a good counterbalance to my excesses, but this time she was six thousand miles away. And I wanted that globe.
The shopkeeper seemed to read my thoughts.
“Ah, that is not for sale,” he said sadly. “An Italian man paid 1,450 euros for it and he’s coming to get it tomorrow. But I have this.”
Momentarily stunned by the stratospheric price, I dragged my gaze away from the magnificent globe and followed the shopkeeper’s pointing finger to another, smaller globe. It was similarly decorated but far less dazzling, mounted in a classic upright stand on a tilted axis. It sat unremarkably on its shelf, a mediocre substitute for my heart’s desire.
An assistant, also in a robe and turban, stood in the corner of the shop. He removed the smaller globe from the display case and silently set it down for me on a low table.
“Have a seat, I’ll make you some mint tea,” cooed the shopkeeper. “Do you like sugar?”
He introduced himself as Abdullah; the assistant was his friend Mohammed. Their desert nomad families owned the shop and had sent them to Essaouira to run it for a few months.
I sat on a cushion in front of the table, looking at the globe as I sipped my tea. No, it wasn’t drop-dead beautiful like the larger one. But there was something ancient and mysterious about it. The sphere began to whisper in my ear, weaving an enchantment. Suddenly, I had to have it.
Trying to sound casual, I asked, “I’m curious, how much do you want for that globe?”
“Seven thousand dirham,” he answered. About seven hundred dollars. “I take Visa, it’s no problem!”
My brain snapped back into focus; the globe was much too expensive. But like a skilled fisherman, Abdullah knew that I was already hooked. He knew how to play his line, reeling me in so slowly that I didn’t realize my fate had already been sealed.
“This globe is very old, made by Berbers long ago,” he said. “My family traded many other things to get it, and there is nothing else like it in Morocco.” He asked me to make him an offer.
I sighed, considering the danger of bargaining in Morocco, knowing that if we came to an agreement, I’d be obligated to buy. “I’ve done this many times,” I said to myself. “I’m willing to pay up to one thousand dirham. If he wants more, I’ll leave.”
“Five hundred dirham,” I tendered. Fifty dollars.
Abdullah leaned back in his chair with his hands behind his head. A huge grin spread across his face, so big that his eyes squeezed shut, and a baritone chuckle rumbled out of his mouth. “If I took five hundred for it, my papa would chain me down in the desert without food for a month!”
I laughed also as I replied, “If I give you seven thousand, my wife will chain me down in the desert!”
He smiled, then nodded to Mohammed, who put the globe back into the glass case.
Abdullah refilled my glass of tea as he asked me about my family and my previous trip to Morocco. As we spoke, I noticed two shiny brown cups carved from gourds, lying on the carpet-covered floor. They reminded me of the coconut-shell bras one finds in Hawaiian souvenir shops. He laughed as I described their potential use, gesturing with my hands in front of my chest.
Abdullah pulled out several boxes full of silver bracelets and rings. He was certain that some woman in my life—my wife, my mother—would surely be pleased if I brought home some of his jewelry as a gift. I wasn’t interested.
“Big shop, small price!” he joked.
Then he became quiet, lost in thought for a few moments. He pursed his lips and slowly nodded his head, musing aloud, “Americans have big hearts.”
“Big heart, small wallet!” I parried, breaking Abdullah’s reverie and eliciting more laughter from him. “This is a good time to make my exit,” I said to myself.
Yet, I didn’t leave. As we chatted, the globe called to me again like a Siren, its hand-etched figures and faces singing bewitchments from behind glass. I tried to ignore them but kept glancing up at the display case. Torn between my desire to bring the prize home and my desire to escape with my bank account intact, I was paralyzed with indecision.
Abdullah reeled me in a bit more, taking down the globe and standing it in front of me again.
“How much are you really willing to pay?”
“One thousand dirham,” I offered. It was the limit I’d set, but my resolve was wavering.
Abdullah reached for a pencil and a notepad. Using a common Moroccan bargaining technique, he wrote “7000” at the top of the page, crossed it out, then wrote “1000” at the bottom and crossed that out.
“Make me another offer, a serious one,” he said.
With a knot in my stomach, I wrote “2000” on his paper while inwardly shouting, “What am I doing? My limit was one thousand!” What Abdullah had known all along became alarmingly clear to me at that moment: my wallet was soon going to be even smaller.
“That’s all I can afford,” I told him, but we both knew it wasn’t true.
Abdullah laughed his glorious laugh again. Pointing at the gourd cups on the carpet, he said, “If I let you have it for two thousand, my papa would make me wear those cups and dance for him!”
“You’d look very beautiful that way!” I answered, joining in his laughter. We certainly enjoyed each other’s sense of humor. He crossed out “2000.”
My chest tightened with dread, suffocating my merriment. And then, I surrendered. “What the hell,” I thought, and wrote “3000.” He wrote “5000” and we settled on four thousand dirham, on the condition that I not tell anyone how “little” I’d paid. I insisted that he include the silver letter opener that first caught my fancy and he agreed.
I left the shop with mixed emotions, happy to have the globe but feeling foolish for paying so much. I’d been outwitted by a master negotiator.
The next day, I passed Abdullah’s shop again. He greeted me heartily and invited me in for more mint tea. Once inside, I was chagrined to see that another globe had replaced mine in the glass case, a smaller version of the four-legged style the Italian man had bought. “I thought you said mine was the last!” I complained.
“Yours was the only one of its kind, and this is the last globe I have. Would you like to buy it for a friend?”
I politely declined.
The globe sits in my living room now. Sometimes it still whispers to me from its perch, inviting me to pick it up and admire its hand-scrawled intricacies. I rotate the cool, bronze ball on its axis and in an instant, I’m magically transported. I find myself in a distant land, walking in a bright street full of color and sun-warmed stone. A smiling stranger invites me into his shop, and for an hour or so, we chat, and haggle, and laugh together over sweet mint tea.
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