Don’t Get the Rug Pulled Over Your Eyes in Morocco

By Anna Porter
Globe and Mail, December 17, 2010

I wish I had read Nazneen Sheikh’s book, Moon Over Marrakech, before I went to Morocco.

Sheikh’s memoir lends an air of mystery, romance and obsessive love to the dusty, crowded, meltingly hot streets of this old city, but even a cursory read would have persuaded me to be exceptionally wary of guides who have easy access to splendid hotel lobbies.

In any event, I would not have bought two improbably overpriced rugs from a snake charmer of a rug salesman in the middle of the notorious Marrakesh souk. This legendary market in the Medina seems to occupy another world from the glitter and lush greens of La Mamounia, where we stayed. This hotel, as its elegant manager, Didier Picquot, pointed out, isn’t simply a hotel, it’s a destination.

La Mamounia’s marble lobby foyers have soft round maroon settees, fountains, chandeliers, white and red flowers in three-foot-tall vases, Le Mystère, Chopard and Gucci stores and a three-level spa. The patio has a giant square blue pool, with blindingly white umbrellas and waiters in matching whites balancing silver trays. The rooms feature soft white duvets, black-brown painted calligraphy and cursive white stucco patterns on baize-brown walls, inlaid mosaic floors embroidered with black studs, marble bathrooms and views over immaculately manicured gardens. There are pink roses, jacaranda, hyacinths, orange and lemon trees, palms, two-metre-high flowering cacti, grey doves and hundreds of swallows. This is the magical place where Nazneen Sheikh stayed when she first came to Marrakesh.

But back to the rugs. The overwhelmed tourist, soothed with essential oils of eau de rose pure, steps out of this luxurious palace to be swallowed by a terrifying array of speeding vehicles.

Dilapidated cars, gas-spewing trucks, motorcycles, bicycles and horse-drawn carts careen past with nary a glance at the sidewalk where the tourist cowers, hoping for a change of light where there are no lights. You really do need a guide. The guide holds up her arm and, miraculously, the whole noisy cavalcade comes to a brief halt, allowing tentative passage to what she describes as a park on the far side of the road. It consists of wide concrete paths with ragged beggars and skeletal dogs, some patches of grass and grey foliage, leading to the famed Koutoubia mosque rising like an angry finger pointing at the blazing sky.

Then one more heart-stopping traffic crossing and the tourist is in the open market where snake charmers and men with monkeys and black teeth and turbans offer you a chance to take their photographs; small children tug at your arm, circles of dark-clothed women sell charms and bracelets and henna drawings if you are in the mood for saffron-coloured anklets and lace hand decorations. There are traditional storytellers, acrobats, dancers and musicians. The guide gives stern advice about avoiding the local water sellers and ignoring the myriad temptations to photograph. It is an insult to take someone’s picture without permission and some of the locals – the snake charmers and monkey men, in particular – charge $25 and up for a single photo of themselves with or without the bewildered tourist.

There appears to be only one safe place for ice cream with photos (the pineapple ice cream is tasty, the photo cost is reasonable), then we enter the maze of narrow alleys where you can buy most of the things that would look suitably exotic at home: silk caftans, hand-carved mahogany footstools, gaudy masks, embroidered slippers, wrought-iron birdcages, lamps with elaborate mosaic designs, plush velvet dragons, pashminas, embroidered cotton djellabas, ivory-handled swords, oriental perfumeries, cigar boxes, barrels of spices and tiny silver containers of essential oils.

Nazneen Sheikh, in love with this place and two men who betrayed her, was sober enough to write of the souks whose “blood supply comes from the tourist wallet” and of the men with hooded eyes who examine “the flashes of exposed tourist skin,” no doubt scanning for prey.

There were carpets of all sizes and shades hanging along corridors of high-ceilinged bazaars, but none of these was to tempt us, none, as the guide said conspiratorially, was worth the asking price. Until we arrived at Palais Saadiens, the one place where we were not warned about drinking the tea served so readily while the man in charge ordered his staff to roll out the best for his visitors.

The rollout itself deserves special mention. The mustachioed, jacketed, chief salesman waved his hand and other, smaller, less well-attired men leapt onto the floor to unfurl rugs that thud, snap and a sigh as they reach their full length, until the whole bazaar is covered with a wild array of magnificent, multicoloured rugs, each one with its own story. Oh yes, the stories he told about ancient techniques and men with hard fingers weaving each piece, some from the Atlas mountain tribes that had known no slavery, Berbers who have never come down to the cities, others from descendents of the Almohades near Fez, or the North African tribes who favoured soft pinks and baby blues. Perhaps some had been displayed at the famous Bahia palace….

Although I really did not and do not now need rugs, I listened to the prices and was proud to reduce the two, grand, ancient, historically important rugs to a single price I thought we may be able to afford. The previously cautious guide was delighted with the deal and praised me for my bargaining. More tea was poured. More rugs spread.

Upstairs, where the credit cards are signed, a formidable woman of unguessable age produced the modern paraphernalia of credit cards and smiled, I thought rather sadly, when I told her I had chopped a third of the original quote off the price.

It was not until a month later when I saw my credit-card statement that I realized the price had not been reduced at all. Her calculations in local dirhams, when restated in dollars, brought it back to the original price.

Nazneen Sheikh writes of the disdain the local guides have for tourists; their side deals with stores; their professional acting abilities, their art of deception; and of the “cocoon-like interior of shops filled with shimmering objects.” Her story is a vibrant tale of a woman’s search for love and her ultimate understanding that not all that shimmers is gold. It is a fine and engrossing read even if you can resist buying rugs in Morocco.