“How much?” Scott asked the shopkeeper in French.
“Three thousand dirham,” the shopkeeper replied — the equivalent of about $360. Even though he knew that it was all part of the game, Scott flinched. As we’d rehearsed, I began to point wordlessly at all the hat’s flaws — spots where the brim seemed uneven, or where a straw poked loose — while he and the shopkeeper went back and forth: 100 dirham, 1,000 dirham, 120, 500. Finally, they shook hands on 160 dirham, about $20.
It was our first time haggling for anything, and we walked out of the souk feeling pretty proud of ourselves. Scott had talked the guy down by 2,840 dirham, after all.
It was a few more minutes before we realized that we were idiots.
That $20 hat was definitely worth no more than $10. It didn’t appear to be handmade. And yeah, the brim was a bit uneven. We spent the rest of the day trying to rationalize our poor mental math by talking ourselves into the purchase, as anyone with buyer’s remorse would.
“A hat like that would probably cost the same at an H&M,” I said, as if that were any consolation. The justifications got weaker and weaker: “At least it covers your head,” I offered at one point.
Of course, we knew better. Before I tagged along with Scott, my fiance, on a business trip to Paris and we skipped south for five days of vacation in Morocco, we’d spent time planning our itinerary and dutifully educating ourselves on the customs of the country’s markets, especially the Jemaa El-Fna, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the commercial center of Marrakesh’s old city. We knew that we’d have to haggle for everything — and that if we did it well, we had a chance of getting incredible bargains on beautiful decor for our new apartment.
But we aren’t very assertive people. So the idea that every transaction would be a confrontation was intimidating, especially because we knew that as foreigners, we’d never have the upper hand. One of Scott’s Moroccan-born friends laid it out for us over dinner in Paris, explaining the four prices you can pay in the Marrakesh souks: one price for American tourists. A slightly lower price for French tourists. A third, lower price for Parisian Moroccans, like our friends. And finally, the lowest price, for locals.
We knew that the latter two weren’t possible for us. But because Scott is fluent in French and knows a little Arabic, we thought that we could try for the second price — as long as I kept my mouth shut, since I don’t speak either language. We devised a routine where I would act as a silent partner, conveying my opinion through a series of carefully choreographed, subtle gestures, which — even though they’d all look like I was disapproving of the purchase, would actually be meant to encourage him. It was like shopping charades.