Bargaining for the truth

There are a precious few lies I have told to my loved ones. I don’t really like to bring them up in fact, mostly because they involve some element of saving face, rather than a brave, heroic gesture, as some lies are. They are not typically the type of story I like to tell. I just don’t look great in them, that’s all. There’s no other, marvelously selfless reason, really, just the endless race to make myself look good. You know how it goes. Anyone who has a mother-in-law knows how that goes. So, in an attempt to perhaps exculpate myself from this family lie, I am going to tell you exactly what happened. I’m not biased. I swear.

I had arrived in Morocco with one toddler, one infant, two car seats, three backpacks, and about five pieces of overstuffed luggage. Somehow, among all that space, there just wasn’t enough room for sleeping arrangements for the littlest member of the Zian family. So when I arrived at my in-laws from the airport that afternoon I made a mental note to find a small crib or pack n’ play for the little guy. In the meantime he could just sleep on the mattress with me on the floor.

Photo by Maria Orlova on

I had also arrived that year with a considerable sum of Moroccan dirham in my pocket. With the exchange rate at about 10 dirhams to a dollar I felt like a queen when they handed me my thousands at the bank back in the States. It’s easy to feel rich in your first few days in Morocco. A loaf of bread is 10 dirham, but with the conversion rate that’s only $1! Give me 5! A cup of coffee is 15 dirham, but that’s only $1.50. Ahh, I could sit in this cafe all day. It’s a dangerous combination for any foreigner on a reasonable budget: a dual fog of low prices and the endless free time only afforded the foreign traveler.

In the beginning I’m always converting away in my head (I just have that habit) and so everything seems cheap. Wow! Only a dollar for ice cream and dinner out was 10 bucks! Sweet deal! It’s like living in the 70’s but the internet and genetic testing already exist! I would never dream of trying to lower these already low prices. In America when prices are low, they are already as low as they can go, so from the neighborhood tag sale to the gigantic Walmart on the other side of town you can be sure you are getting the best deal.

Wow! Only a dollar for ice cream and dinner out was 10 bucks! Sweet deal! It’s like living in the 70’s but the internet and genetic testing already exist!

Mary Johnson, Journeys of a Muslim Heart

The thing is, native Moroccans never pay the original price for anything in the market. The tradition of bargaining likely goes back to the days of the Silk Road and caravans over the desert when merchants brought goods from halfway across the world to sell them in the vibrant, international markets of the Kingdom of Morocco. New England, in the cold northeast of the New World, never had such caravans of expensive spices, tools, and gems traveling over thousands of miles to the markets of the west. I’m feeling that American need to defend myself… Umm… We had beaver pelts! And so much land! And, and… fake nutmeg! You can’t forget the fake nutmeg. Okay, back to the powers of Moroccan bargaining.

Photo by Skylar Kang on

Wherever the obsession with bargaining in Morocco comes from, it is clear that everyone does it. Small children will look at the seller skeptically and ask for a dirham less for the used toy laying on the ground between them. And the seller will hum and haw to respect the time-honored tradition and finally cave, knowing that he made a respectable margin of profit for himself. The seller will never under sell. It is based on this rule that all bargainers in the market must operate. The seller will swindle you, but he will never swindle himself.

Another key aspect of bargaining in Morocco is that it is a mercilessly fair system. “Fair?” you say. Yes, fair. Let me explain. Take the used toy for the small child. The seller may notice that the child is Moroccan and perhaps even a local. He knows the child does not work and is probably doing small jobs here and there to make his spending money. He also has key information about what he paid for the toy which is crucial to understanding how low he will go. He knows that this particular toy was only 1 dirham for him. He takes all of this into account and tells the child, “I’ll take 15.” That’s a fair price for the child, the seller, and the toy. But if I were to ask the price of the same toy from the same seller on the same day, the seller would notice my accent, see my blue eyes and have to meet my gaze at a decidedly greater height than the average Moroccan woman, and he would say, “I’ll take 100.” That’s a fair price. For me, for the seller, and for the toy.

It is therefore crucial that, as a foreigner, I adapt quickly to the bargaining system, because otherwise I will be paying the foreigner’s version of “fair prices” all over the place, and find my thousands dwindling to nothing within a week.

Alas, I was still in my initial state of foreigner’s shopping euphoria when I found myself walking with my young sister-in-law in the local market that year. I spotted an old Moroccan teapot with a beautiful design etched into the bulging sides and a silver coin sitting on the very top of the vessel just before the elegant spire that protrudes a centimeter or so from the teapot’s lid. I walked up to it and started eying it. I picked it up to look underneath for any markings that would indicate moroccan-ness. No sense in buying a Moroccan teapot made in China. “Fez” was etched into the bottom. Legit. It was heavy and had a well-worn patina of majesty. I loved it. I wanted it!

“Salaam alaykum,” I said to the shopkeeper, still holding the teapot. “Bishal?” I asked, with as convincing am accent as I could muster, as if there is ever a way to deceive natives of our real intentions.

“200 dirham” he responded.

I did the quick conversion in my head. 20 bucks, that’s not so bad, I thought. With my foreigner’s high still in full throttle, I pulled out my wallet and handed over the bills and had the immediate thought that my in-laws would think 200 was far too much for such a piece, so I asked him some questions about the history of the pot in an attempt to collect information that would increase it’s value in the eyes’ of my in-laws. In reality, I barely understood a word of his animated explanation. My sister-in-law probably learned a lot though. You might have learned something too, but perhaps it would have been more a lesson in swindling the innocent. I could have used that lesson, because after that it only got worse.

You might have learned something too, but perhaps it would have been more a lesson in swindling the innocent.

Mary Johnson, Journeys of a Muslim Heart
Photo by Maria Orlova on

When we arrived back at my in-laws I triumphantly showed my mother-in-law the majestic teapot. Normally sweet-tempered and generous people, there is one topic that never fails to bring out their animated side. Pricing. My mother-in-law is a veritable encyclopedia of what everything in her house could have cost and what she got it for, and my father-in-law, while normality quite stoic and mild mannered, has things to say about swindling and the skill involved in avoiding it. I am never 100% sure what they say -who is, really?- but I know they thought 200 dirham far too much for that little teapot. It might have been more if it had, say, been new and made in China, but a Fez teapot? For 200 dirham!!? Nope, they are just taking advantage! What shop was it? They asked their daughter. She dutifully explained the local whereabouts and then threw me under the bus and said I hadn’t bargained the price down. I smiled to myself. I didn’t quite understand, still being in the conversion mindset, how $20 was such a crime, but I came out the victim of a swindler so at least I wasn’t the criminal. I might not get off so easy next time, I thought to myself.

I didn’t quite understand, still being in the conversion mindset, how $20 was such a crime, but I came out the victim of a swindler so at least I wasn’t the criminal.

Mary Johnson, Journeys of a Muslim Heart

A few days passed and I was still in the market for a pack n’ play. I was out for a walk, pushing one of those cheap little folding strollers with the wheels that spin all over the place. I had my toddler strapped inside and my infant son, the recipient of this future purchase, snoozing soundly in a baby wrap tied around my torso. I was on my way to the center just to poke around, and I passed a second-hand store with goods and furniture spilling out into the street from huge, open doorways at least 15 feet high. There were couches, tables, lamps, car seats, and… a grungy-looking pack n’ play set up off to the side. I started eying it and shaking the sides a bit. With some TLC this could really work, I thought. There was a picture of a little bear on the side. So cute.

A young man came outside and asked if I needed any help. “Bishal?” I asked, in my best accent. I was still inspecting the pack n’ play when he answered and I heard him say, “58.”

“How much?” I asked, again, just to make sure.

Again, I heard him say, “58.” In Arabic that’s tamania wa khamseen.

I nodded thoughtfully, hiding the fact that I was trying to figure out what that number was. 2-digit numbers are flipped in Arabic so tamania wa khamseen is literally “eight and fifty.” It always takes me a second to process that: my computing system was hardwired in New England, after all.

I looked at the pack n’ play again and decided to give myself some time to think it over. I was already starting to act more like a Moroccan and the teapot scandal was still fresh in mind. No way am I going to get knocked again for not bargaining down the price, I thought, and I looked up at the young man, my baby still sleeping in the pouch around my torso and I said, “I’ll just go to the center for a bit and then I’ll be back.” He nodded and I walked away. Ha! I’m so in control here, I thought gleefully. Walking away allowed me some time to think about the price and it gave the seller a sense of urgency. Will she come back? Will she buy this piece of junk and take it off my hands? Maybe I should lower the price! Brilliant, Mary.

Photo by Leah Kelley on

Feeling very content at my Moroccan-ness, I walked into the center of town with the afternoon sun shining brightly on my back. A nice lady on the street gave my daughter bread and cheese and blessed her several times over, and a gentleman on the way back helped me fix the straps holding in my infant son so that he would be more comfortable in there. As I made my way back to the second-hand store, I decided that I would pay the 58 dirham. I did a quick conversion and felt that about $6 was a reasonable price and I could just pay and avoid having to say any more numbers. Win-win!

I walked up to the pack n’ play, its grungy sides staring up at me begging to be washed clean, and I shook it a few more times to test durability as the young man came out to greet me. Another gentleman came out as well. The owner. I greeted them and said I’d like to buy the pack n’ play.

The owner spoke clearly as he said, “350 dirham.”

I paused. 350? I thought nervously. What happened to 58? And then it hit me. “350” in Arabic is tletamee’eh wa khamsin. “Three hundred and fifty.” An hour ago, the “8” (“Tamania”) in “58” had sounded a lot like “tletamee’eh” to my New England processing system. I felt my brilliance drain from me and my courage to try to bargain spilled out with it. I opened up my wallet and handed over the bills. So much for being Moroccan, I thought with some misery.

The owner offered to carry the pack n’ play to a nearby location for me and I readily agreed. I was at least going to get free delivery out of this disaster of a deal.

The young man folded up the sleeping quarters and walked behind me as I led the way back to my in-laws house a few blocks away. It wasn’t far, but it was enough for me to finally do a quick conversion in my head. 350 dirham, I thought miserably. That’s $35. I wouldn’t even pay $35 for this piece of junk in the States. The grey sky deepened with each step and I thought nervously whether I would come out as the victim of a swindler in all of this. Oh no. Was that a raindrop?

A few minutes later my mother-in-law greeted us at the doorway and the young man dropped off the pack n’ play of my impending doom. As it thudded to the ground my natural tendency towards honesty shook a little. I opened it up to show everyone the cute little bear on the side and said it was for the little guy.

“This is nice!” she said, shaking the sides to test durability. I silently congratulated myself for doing the same thing earlier. My father-in-law heard the commotion and came over nodding at the sight of the little foldable bed.

And then, the inevitable: my mother-in-law mentioned the price. I thought briefly of my now-empty wallet and my face here in Morocco, a face that is so easy to swindle in these parts. I decided to save it.

I turned to look her in the eye and without skipping a beat I calmly replied, “58 dirham.”

“Good deal,” she said, nodding approvingly.


1 Comment

  1. Hi Mary! Thank you for the link to this article! I already read it quite a while ago, actually šŸ˜„ Very intriguing to get an insight into life in Morocco!

    Have a wonderful day, sister! God bless you ā¤ļøšŸ™šŸ»

    Liked by 1 person

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