Souq is the adaptation of the Arabic word سوق, pronounced sūq. If you haven’t heard it before, the term refers to the markets that are the heart of commercial life in Arabic countries. Marrakesh, Morocco’s ancient imperial capital is home to one of northern Africa’s largest markets, a labyrinth of stalls bristling with shiny objects, tiles, sweets and lamps. With over 2,500 traders grouped into unions, it’s described by travel guides as the cradle of bargaining. However, not everyone is well versed when it comes to the art of negotiating prices.
“The first thing to know is that we never bargain for food, it’s extremely rare, but you can bargain for everything else,” explains Nuria, the daughter of a Moroccan and Spaniard, who has spent most of her life in Morocco. “There are no prices displayed, so you have to ask, and everything depends on your tactics or the impression you give.”
The sellers analyse the buyer. Naturally, the more you look like a local, the better, and if you have some knowledge of Arabic, everything will be easier and cheaper. If not, the starting price will be high. A good tip is to always have small banknotes.
“Begin by asking the price. How much does this cost? The stallholder will give you an answer. Then you need to make a face. It could be surprise. Or laughter. Or simply ‘no way.’ The stallholder will then tell you that the product has come from Spain or extol its excellent quality,” continues Nuria. “You have to try and gradually lower the price until you play your final card, which is threatening to walk away.” Nine out of ten times, this last step will result in the seller lowering the price.
When travelling as a group, it’s a good idea to designate one person as the negotiator. Try to choose the most confident person or someone who is a natural-born salesperson. If it’s your first visit, it’s a good idea to have a walk around and ask for various prices to get a general idea. It’s also important to set a maximum price in your head. If you go over that during the negotiation, it’s time to go.
“But the best tool for bargaining is laughter and humour. Once, my friends and I took an afternoon off class to spend an afternoon at the market,” recalls Nuria. “As I looked the most foreign, I kept quiet and my friends began to bargain over the price of a pair of jeans, saying that 200 dirhams was too high and that the stallholder should give me them for 100.” He was so impressed with our performance and found us so amusing that in the end he gave us them for 50.
The process is to be understood as a sort of dance or game, something to be enjoyed, explains Nuria, before giving one last tip. Once you’ve asked for a price and are immersed in negotiating, it’s frowned upon not to take the product you’re haggling over. You might be unlucky the first few times, but remember that practice makes perfect. And at the souq in Marrakesh, with its labyrinth of stalls bristling with shiny objects, tiles, sweets and lamps, not to mention over 2,500 stallholders, there is ample opportunity to achieve perfection.