She enters the medina in the historic city of Meknes as the market begins to hum with activity, and anticipates a morning of haggling. The sun is not yet high enough to find its way to the narrow lanes of the souk; no heat radiates from the stones beneath her feet. The air feels cool; the produce arranged for sale on blankets or sheets of plastic tarp. Today’s quarry? Cabbage.
Why cabbage? The woman has been traveling by camper van in Morocco for a month, and dreams of fresh salad in this place where you will probably never see Bibb lettuce, let alone a bunch of frisée. She has eaten exquisite meals of lamb simmered with dried fruit and seasoned with cumin, saffron and cinnamon, served by gracious cooks in Tangier, in Fez, and in small towns along the coast, but a head of cabbage, shredded and modestly dressed with a splash of vinegar and olive oil, served alongside a warm loaf of the round, somewhat flat khubz, will be tonight’s dinner. Khubz is the basic white bread found in every village, every city in Morocco. It’s perfect for dipping into oil, for scooping up sauce from a stew-like tagine, and for wiping every delicious molecule of your meal off the plate and into your mouth.
She is anxious about her morning task, about negotiating the price of a vegetable or two. Her experiences in grocery shopping back home have consisted of selecting perfect pieces of produce grown by anonymous farmers, kept moist in the store by an automatic sprinkler system installed above the bins. After stocking a cart she simply pushes it to the check-out and pulls out a credit card for payment. Prices non-negotiable. The food is clean and polished, the process straightforward. But she’s not in an American supermarket. This is the weekly bazaar in the winding lanes and blind alleys of Meknes, and nobody pays the price asked. Not even for a cabbage, and even for just a cabbage, the haggling process can be intimidating at first.
Haggling is more than a way of life in Morocco. It’s a game; no, a sport! It is a quintessential social activity of the culture, and what’s the point of travel if not to embrace the local customs? To prepare for her foray into the souk, the woman studied the guide book’s advice. She understands that she must be polite, patient, and appear to be uninterested. Sort of like buying a new car. She has learned that the wrangling and bargaining is necessary to avoid overpaying, but it is also part of the enjoyment in being here. Also, she is prepared to be laughed at; that’s part of the process, too, whether you’re buying a cabbage or a camel.
He is a Berber farmer who left his home in the mountains several hours before dawn in the company of others from the village to reach Meknes. Packing themselves tightly along with the goods they hope to sell, they ride in the bed of an open truck, a jellaba hood pulled over each head and heat from bodies jostling shoulder to shoulder ward off the cold mountain breeze. He loaded the cabbages and carrots he grows into baskets, taking care to bring them safely to market. The dirt of his field still clings to the vegetables, a small bit of his Atlas mountain valley delivered to Meknes.
Once at the souk, the farmer lays his merchandise upon a flimsy sheet of white opaque plastic, frayed with use, set directly on the stones underfoot. His son joins the horde of young children, running between stalls, darting amid the wares, their laughter ringing off walls. The farmer scrutinizes the goods of his neighboring vendors then casts a critical eye on his own, rearranging the vegetables to show them off as best he can. Rubbing his palms together, he looks down the lane, eager for his first customer of the morning.
For the Berber, this is business, but it’s also fun and he has ridden a very long way, down the narrow, switchback roads to arrive at this medina to sell his few pieces of produce, so he wants every transaction to give him enjoyment. The push and pull of the deal are what makes scraping out a living this way worth it. The haggling process also indicates that the buyer respects him and by not paying the first price he asks, by working to get the price down to reasonable one, he comes to respect the buyer.
As a foreigner in the souk, the woman is afforded a measure of dispensation in her exchanges. The vendors don’t expect her to haggle as long or as tenaciously as a local would. Bartering and haggling over everyday items like food are not part of her culture, so they know her instinct is to pay what the seller requests.
There is also a language barrier. Her French skills are minimal and her maghreb Arabic is absurd. She’s been told by several Berber girls who stopped by her campsite a week ago that she speaks Arabic like a two-year-old child. Twelve- and fourteen-year-old girls with hand-knitted stockings, two of the girls wearing jelabas—but comfortable enough with her to remove headscarves while in her camper—offered her dried dates along with Arabic grammar lessons.
In the souk, a cry goes up from the pack of children: they’ve spied the woman and her companion moving with hesitation between the stalls. Racing toward her, the farmer’s son grasps her hand and pulls her toward his father. Timid about diving in to the art of a deal, the woman frees herself from the child’s hand, walks past the man, pretending not to be interested. Taking her time, she strolls on to see the vendors’ goods, listens to the prices shouted. Turning, she decides to head back up the lane, now on the opposite side where other vendors have spread their tarps. At last, she stops in front of the Berber, considers the vegetables on the plastic tarp at her feet.
Silently, she repeats some advice to herself:
- Don’t begin haggling unless you are serious about buying.
- Appear ambivalent. If you’re eager or fall in love with an item, you’re screwed for negotiation.
- Be prepared to walk away to get a better price.
- There is no ‘right’ price. Understand that you will overpay; don’t worry too much about it.
- Enjoy yourself!
“How much for a cabbage?” she asks the Berber farmer.
“Ten dirham,” he replies, his eyes sparking at the start of a deal
She calculates. Eight dirham equals one dollar, so a buck and a quarter for this cabbage. Nonsense, obviously, but it’s only his opening salvo.
“Ah,” she says and raises her palm to him to say no thanks, and takes a few steps to move off and perhaps deal with another farmer. It’s all part of the dance that is done hundreds, thousands of times a day in medinas all over Morocco.
“Eight dirham,” he calls after her. She pauses, turns back to him and then hunkers down, the back of her thighs resting on her heels. On her feet, she wears babouche, traditional Moroccan footwear she picked up in yet another market. The tops are made of goatskin leather, hand-tanned and dyed a dark, wine red. The soles are fabricated from tire scraps and you can make out part of the word goodyear on the right sole. Although the shoes have a back, she wears them as they are traditionally worn by locals: the shoe backs folded down inside so that they are put on like a slipper. Her trousers are simple travel-style pants, with extra pockets on the legs near the knees, and easy to launder, even in a campground sink or at a village well. She wears a man’s shirt, long-sleeved but lightweight to protect from the near-constant sun. She reaches out and picks up one his cabbages, holds it out in her palm.
“For that one, seven dirham,” he says.
The woman studies the cabbage. It’s about five inches in diameter, not large, but perfect for a salad for two.
“It’s a very small cabbage,” she tells him. “The leaves are wilted. It is not a perfect cabbage. One dirham.“ She takes care not to be disrespectful while still playing the game of bargaining.
He scowls, but his brown eyes do not; they are crinkled at the corners in bemusement at his customer’s efforts. Because she is a foreigner, the stakes of the deal go up for him and give him an extra measure of entertainment. He snatches up a different, smaller cabbage.
“Five dirham”, he proposes, placing it in her palm.
The woman rubs a thumb across a bruised area on the vegetable, frowns at a smudge. Shakes her head at the notion of buying an inferior cabbage. The boys surround her; one stands at her side, casually draping his arm over her shoulder as she crouches. The sun has begun to filter down into the lane and the temperature is rising. She returns the second cabbage to the pile, glances at the first one, and starts to stand.
“Two dirham,” she offers.
“Four dirham,” he replies. The boys are silent for a few seconds.
“Three.” Her final bid; she digs into her pocket, holds the coins in her outstretched palm.
The Berber farmer raises his eyebrows, then smiles; he plucks the coins from her hand and replaces them with the hard-won cabbage.
The woman slips the cabbage into her bag.The farmer presents her with a carrot: a gift in appreciation of her time and effort. She thanks him, shakes hands, and tells the kids goodbye.
No matter how hard-core a traveler you are and how illustrious your haggling talent, a Moroccan vendor will be better than you are. Even a five year old Moroccan kid is better at it than you. If this were an aquarium, you’d be a guppy, surrounded by sharks. Smiling, friendly sharks who love the interaction with you.
For this woman, haggling over a cabbage in a Moroccan souk with a farmer from the Atlas mountains has been more than just shopping for food. It’s a portal into a culture she has come from far off to immerse herself in; it’s also a lesson in respect, being confident in your ability, and in enjoying life.
Now, she says to herself, off to search for olives to eat with the salad and bread. Or maybe she’d like a camel…