We stop three times on the way to the Atlas Mountains. About an hour into the trip, Toufik politely asks, “Ladies, do you mind if we make a quick stop so I can buy the newspaper?” The three of us nod and mumble in agreement. He pulls the van over onto a patch of dirt just off to the right of the two-lane road. “I’ll be right back,” he says as he steps out and shuts the door with a thud. We watch from the van as he darts across the street to a ramshackle convenience store with advertisements for cellphone companies plastered all over the front windows.
A few moments later, Toufik climbs back into the driver’s seat with the paper, apologizing again for having to make the errand. “I like to read the newspaper when I take people to the mountains, he says.”
“Oh, you’re not going to hike with us?” I ask.
“No, I will wait in the car or in a cafe with my friends,” Toufik replies.
“Is the trail marked for us to follow?” Vivian asks.
“Yes, but you will also have a guide to help you. We will meet him in the village at the base of the mountain. He is a very good friend—I have known him for ten years. He will take you up the mountain.”
“Sounds great!” I say for the group. We’re well outside the city limits of Marrakech now and the scenery is starting to change. Here, we no longer see dry patches of light brown dirt in the places where the grass doesn’t grow—here, near the mountains, red dirt covers the earth and contrasts drastically with the bright green tufts of grass. Along the sides of the road, there are one-story clay buildings the color of faded red coral. We pass by one of these buildings every few minutes, and each one has a collection of handmade products and piles of scrap material out front. One building has dozens of ceramic vases lined up on a concrete wall that serves as a shelf.
“I wish I could bring one of those vases home,” I say, “Or one of those little clay pots to cook tajine.” I’ve eaten the hearty stew-like Maghrebi dish once a day since we arrived in Morocco three days ago, and I like the idea of being able to make it myself when I get back to the U.S.
“The one thing I wish I could bring home is one of those woven rugs,” Miller chimes in, “I love the patterns, and it would be cool to bring home something made by a local artist.”
“That definitely wouldn’t fit in your suitcase, but you could ship it back to the U.S if you really want one,” I offer.
“I don’t know… maybe if I can get one for a good deal,” Miller contemplates.
“I want one too, but what the hell would my parents say if I bring home an area rug? As much as I want one, I really don’t need one” Vivian says.
“Would you like to stop in a store and look at the rugs before we get to the mountains? I have a friend who owns one of the stores just up ahead,” Toufik says.
“Sure!” Vivian and Miller respond.
Ten minutes later, we stop in front of a low building of the same construction as all the other buildings along the road, but instead of having handmade pottery displayed, this one has rugs hanging from the façade and draped over the fence next to the store. Inside, the room is filled with hundreds of rugs in piles on the floor, pinned to the walls, and lining our path. As far as I can tell, no two have the same pattern. The room smells musty and remotely like a farm.
Toufik introduces us to the owner of the store, who introduces us to his employee, the salesman.
“Would you like some tea?” The owner asks us.
“No thank you,” I respond. I don’t want to accept the tea knowing I’m not going to buy anything. Besides, I’ve had more tea than tajine over the past three days. In Morocco, mint tea is served at all times of the day and is meant to be shared with friends or with people you’ve just met, like a sign of friendship or to make visitors feel welcome.
My friends decline the tea offer as well.
“Would you like to see more rugs? There is another room,” the owner says.
“It’s very impressive. You should go have a look,” Toufik says.
“Okay, let’s go see!” Miller says. I follow Miller, Vivian, and the salesman into the next room while Toufik hangs behind to chat with the owner. We duck under a series of rugs hanging from the ceiling to get to the room, which is even bigger and contains thousands of rugs.
“Are these all made by hand?” I ask the salesman.
“Yes, by local Berber artists. Each one takes at least three or four months to make, and no two patterns are the same,” he responds. “The artists don’t even draw the designs on paper first. They just create whatever pattern comes to them as they work.”
One by one, we point to neatly folded rugs in various piles and the salesman unfolds them on the cement floor at our feet. He asks us each to pick out our favorite one. We each point to one or two that we’re particularly drawn to, then we add,
“But they’re all very nice!”
Miller walks over to the salesman to ask him more questions. While they’re talking, I say quietly to Vivian,
“How much do you think one of these costs?”
“I have no idea, but I doubt they’re cheap, especially considering how long they take to make.” Vivian answers. She picks up a geometric patterned rug about the size of a large bath mat and flips it around. “Oh my god, look,” she says, pointing to a three-digit number hand-written on a piece of tape. “Do you think that’s in Euros?”
“I’m not sure. It can’t be the price in Dirhams—that would only be about 45 US Dollars. But it couldn’t be 450 Euros, could it?” We decide to ask the salesman about the prices. “Excuse me, is this the price?” I ask, pointing to the piece of tape.
“Oh no, that’s the ID number of the artist who made it, so we can keep track when we sell one.” The salesman says.
“Well, how much does one of the rugs cost?” Vivian asks.
“Tell me which one you are interested in, and I will give you a price,” he says.
“Okay, but what about for any of the smaller ones, like this size?” she asks, gesturing to the array of bath mat sized rugs sprawled out on the floor.
“Tell me which one you are interested in, and I will give you a price,” he repeats.
“Fine, this one then. How much would this be?” Vivian points to one at her feet.
“It depends,” he says, “are you each buying one?”
“No, we’re just here to look.” I interject.
“How much would you be willing to pay for a rug?” he asks.
“They’re very beautiful, but I’m not here to buy anything. We were just curious.” Vivian says. The salesman turns to me and asks the same question.
I respond, “Oh, I don’t know, I think they’re definitely worth more than I’d be willing to pay. But they’re very nice.”
“Yes, thank you for showing us the rugs,” Vivian adds as she starts carefully folding the pieces on the floor.
The salesman turns back to me and says, “Just give me a price. How much would you be willing to pay for one of the rugs?” He picks up one I had had my eye on and says, “How much would you pay for this one?”
I know I probably can’t get out of answering this one, as we’ve already spent at least 20 minutes of this man’s time admiring the rugs yet telling him we’re not actually interested. So I throw out a number.
“One thousand Dirhams,” I say.
“One thousand? That’s what you think this is worth? For three or four months of labor?” The salesman huffs.
“No,” I say, “I think it’s worth a lot more, but we can’t spend as much on a rug as they’re worth. We are students and we’re on a budget.” In Morocco, a price is always a verbal offer, and you are expected to negotiate. When you are given a price, you can generally counter with half of the price and negotiate until you meet somewhere in the middle.
“Give me a real offer, and we can negotiate,” the salesman answers. Holy shit, we’re going to be here all day, I think to myself. A moment later, Toufik pokes his straw-hatted head in the room and says,
“Ladies, are you okay? Are you ready to leave?”
“Yes, let’s go to the mountains,” I respond.