Deal complete, the negotiators pose for a photo around the mint tea.
On our first day in Marrakech, Briony spotted the shop in the souk (Marrakech’s central labyrinth of shops and market stalls) where she wanted to go to buy her leather satchel – partly because she liked the stock at this particular shop, and partly because the shopkeeper seemed like a good guy.
In fact, there turned out to be two shopkeepers: a short, voluble guy with a close-trimmed beard, and his boss, a friendly but hard-to-read guy, totally bald with some resemblance to a Buddha. Then there was the boss’s son, who was twelve.
Briony was looking for a small satchel, and I was after something that would fit my laptop with plenty of room to spare. Once we reached an impasse in our browsing, unable to choose between several bags, the shorter shopkeeper offered us tea.
He set up a table and three stools in a slipper shop across the street, then briefly disappeared down the street, returned with a pot of tea and two glasses on a tray, and invited us to sit down with him. ‘Now we talk about anything except the bags’, he explained.
A digression on tea
The process of Moroccan tea is, as with all good caffeinated drinks, burdened with ritual. It’s brewed from Chinese gunpowder green tea and springs of fresh mint, with huge hunks of sugar, broken off from a cake the size of a bar of soap.
You put everything in the pot and fill it with boiling water, then pour the tea into a glass and empty the glass back into the metal pot, repeating a few times in order to dissolve the sugar.
When it’s time to serve the tea, you lift the pot high as you pour, so the tea travels a foot or more through the air into the glass. This, our host in the slipper shop explained, is done in order to create a layer of bubbles on top of the tea (like the ‘head in a glass of beer) without which some people will refuse the glass (our host told us he personally would never accept tea without bubbles).
Our host served our glasses of tea tucked into (new) children’s slippers lifted from the display racks at the front of the shop, so that we would not burn our fingers on the glass.
The most mysterious element of the ritual was the provenance of the tea itself. I knew he’d need to go out for it, because none of the shops in the souk have back rooms – but I have no idea where he went to get a pot of tea at such short notice.
Back to the matter at hand
As we drank, we talked, mostly in French. Our host turned out to be a poet and playwright, as well as a shopkeeper. He writes mostly on ‘political and sentimental themes’, a phrase which loses a lot in translation.
He’d studied literature and philosophy at the University of Marrakech, with particular attention to the age of enlightenment, but he hadn’t finished, because he couldn’t afford to pay for it.
Now he taught himself. He showed us the poetry he was reading – books of poetry in Arabic, mostly missing their covers, with his marginal comments. Sometimes when he took issue with a poem he would right to the author to discuss it.
I mentioned the Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun, and our host put his hand to his heart and said what a great writer he is. In turn, he spoke of ‘la poesie de la mort’ – the poetry of death. ‘What, like epitaphs?’ I asked. This wasn’t what he was getting at. ‘Like Julia…’ he began –
‘And Romeo?’ I asked. ‘Oui. Ça touche la coeur. Et Titanic.’
The boss’s son was standing at the entrance to the slipper shop, so I invited him to join us. It transpired that his favourite subject in school is maths, so I showed him the book I was reading, Alex’s Adventures in Numberland. He spoke little French and no English, so it didn’t mean much to him, but he had a look at the pictures.
At one point, our host produced a red piece of felt with the green pentagram from the Moroccan flag, and Morocco's name written (in French and Arabic) in puffy, glittery gold fabric paint, and gave it to us as a gift.
As we chatted, the Buddha-faced boss would stroll into the slipper shop, observe us flipping through books of poetry, chuckle, and shake his head over these non-Arabic-speakers poring over poetry they couldn't read. He’d also shoot expectant looks at our host, and I got the sense felt negotiations could be progressing more swiftly. I wondered if this might be a good cop/bad cop routine, but now I’m not so sure.
We’d been in the shop for well over an hour when I said ‘Now I think it’s time to talk about bags.’ Our host told us he’d be happy to drink tea and chat about literature all day, but he knew we’d want to see the sights.
So Briony and I selected the bags we liked best, our host took us to meet the artisan who’d made them (he was just around the corner) and only now, when we’d come back to the slipper shop, did negotiations begin.
They asked us to name the price we wanted to pay. After writing down figures in my notebook, showing them to Briony, and getting the nod from Briony, I started at 400D (that is, four hundred dirhams, or about £31). They laughed and made ‘raise it higher’ gestures. I told them I wasn’t saying anything until I knew their price. They started at 1200D (£92).
What’s difficult to express is how much silence there was in the negotiations, and how important it was – in my case, I needed it in order to make sure I was keeping track of my latest offer, their latest offer, and roughly what both numbers worked out to in pounds sterling. More difficult than silence was the bits of conversation that bled through from our previous chat, throughout which I would silently repeat our two current offers, so I didn’t forget them (easier to do than you might think).
Several times, our host reiterated the point that whether or not we bought anything, we would remain friends – which I appreciated. He also assured us he wouldn’t charge me for the tea, which I appreciated less, since it implied that morally, I was in his debt.
I raised my offer to 550D. Our host laughed – ‘fifty dirhams means nothing!’ he told me.
‘OK,’ I conceded, ‘six hundred dirhams’.
He countered with 1150D. ‘Fifty dirhams means nothing!’ I told him. He laughed even more than before, then clasped my hand. ‘I knew you’d say that!’ he told me.
So now we were at 600D and 1100D.
They told me that Briony’s bag was the last of its kind in the shop. ‘No it’s not,’ I countered, ‘I saw three hanging in the artisan’s workshop!’
‘Those won’t be ready for days,’ they replied.
They told me we had a special price because we were the first customers of the day, because they liked us, because business had been slow. I got the sense that these lines were the negotiation equivalent of pouring mint tea into the glass and back into the pot – not a tactic so much as a necessary element of the ritual.
Briony took our offer up to 800D (£62). Gradually, they came down and finally, our host conceded 800D.
The atmosphere in the room cooled noticeably when our host agreed the price, and for a moment nobody was meeting anybody else’s eye. But our host restored our earlier conviviality after I asked him about Mohammed Mrabet, the Moroccan storyteller. He showed us what he told us was a memorial to Mrabet aross the street, pointed out the ruined old reservoir next to it, and the ruins of a palace (I think) nearby.
Then he took us to look through the window of a mosque (something I’d have never done on my own) and took us to the entrance of the Medersa Ben Youssef.
Then our host, his boss, and the boss’ son posed for photos, and our host and I exchanged email addresses.
When we happened to pass by the shop later that day, they greeted us like old friends.
Here's how to find the shop where we got the bags:
Place Ben Youssef
Souk El Kbir No. 245 Marrakech