June 24, 2011- Tales of carpet scams in Morocco, of unethical salesmen, and of mint tea overdoses are popular post-holiday dinner party chat. But are they really all as bad as that? Is every Moroccan carpet salesman a con artist and are most tourists simply gullible? When we did some digging around we discovered the truth is not that simple.
Tale the first
Dale (name changed) would describe himself at the time of his visit to Morocco as “naive”. It was his first trip outside Australia and, as he puts it “I really hadn’t done my homework.” Dale was travelling with his elderly mother, a formidable woman with a passion for carpets.
Their initial experience with carpet salesmen was on their first day in the Fez Medina and was enjoyable until they returned to their hotel. As the sugar-high from the mint tea wore off, they checked their receipts and calculated the exchange rates. Somehow, in the buzz and excitement, they had managed to spend three times their budget and spent around 21,000 Australian Dollars (175,000 Dirhams). “I felt physically sick at my stupidity,” Dale’s mum recalls.
Now in most travel horror stories, that’s where it ends. But while naive, Dale wasn’t stupid. He contacted a friend in Fez, who ran the carpet shop and made an appointment for the following day. The next morning Dale and his mother used a guide to find the shop again and after a little haggling, had the carpets returned and the credit card bill annulled.
The story ends happily with Dale’s mother going shopping again two days later, armed with a pocket calculator. As she tells it, “I bargained like a Berber and spent exactly what I intended, got the rugs I wanted and the nice man even threw in a small runner for free.”
Tale the second
Deb and Dave are the folks behind the popular site The Planet D: Around the World Adventure Couple, Last winter their friends Gail Burgin and her husband, Frank Marino (who took the photographs below), travelled to Morocco and while in Fez had what can only be described as a “carpet adventure”. Luckily for us, Gail shared her experience in a guest post on Planet D.
Gail described her experience as “one of the most frightening and expensive experiences of my life”. A link to the full story is below, but here is an edited extract:
When you arrive in Morocco you know you must leave your Western ways and assumed certainties behind, but no matter how prepared you think you are, nothing prepares you for the carpet sellers.
Abdul, our tour guide, a pleasant, knowledgeable guy, who seemed very western to us, despite wearing a traditional djellaba (caftan) and bernousse (cap), led us through a very small door into a large room with a gorgeous skylight, its walls covered floor to ceiling with carpets. Within two strides of our entering the room we are introduced to Mohamed, who seemed to appear from nowhere.
In one complete breath he asks – “Where are you from? Do you like Morocco? What are your names?, he gives orders to the ceiling for mint tea, and he yells something to the walls in Arabic. In four seconds two people arrive and simultaneously throw carpets at our feet; a cacophony of colour unfurling before our eyes.
Mohamed scoops up one of the carpets and brings it to my face, “Can you see the detail in this carpet? Four women worked on this carpet at the same time. Look! Look at the stitching, one woman went blind while making this carpet. If you buy this carpet, you will be helping 1000 people – a whole village!! Every stitch is done by hand. It is only 6,000!”
I squeek out – 6000 dirhams? ($1,800. Canadian dollars). No, not dirhams, Euros. 6000 Euros!! That’s 8000 Canadian dollars!
By this time we are surrounded by no less than six people, one person is guiding us to walk on the carpets, someone else is serving us tea, two people are continuously throwing carpets at our feet. Mohamed is IN MY FACE repeating over and over the value and provenance of the carpets, and Abdul, all pretense of westernism tossed aside, is speaking into my ear – “How much do you want to pay? 4000? 3000? You can trust these people, they have the best carpets in Morocco!!”
Then I am separated from Frank who is immediately engulfed by his own team of carpet sellers. I blurt out, “How can 1000 people be involved in this carpet – I can’t believe it”.
Without missing a beat, Mohamed pushes the carpet back up into my face – “Look at the stitches, look at the colours. The four women who made this carpet support eight families, LOOK AT THE STITCHES every one made by hand!! 100 people take care of the sheep, 100 people work the land, 100 people take care of the donkeys, 100 people take the wool from the sheep, 100 people spin the wool, 100 people dye the wool. THE WOMEN, THEY GO BLIND MAKING THESE CARPETS!! And Abdul keeps repeating into my ear – “Buy two carpets, you’ll get a better deal, two is better, yes, two!”
I shout: “Two!! How much for two?” From across the room Frank is mouthing the word “TWO??”
I say, “1000!!! We can only afford 1000 Euros.” Abdul is by my arm and he has switched sides again to support my efforts. From the high of 6000 Euros for one carpet, we are haggling over 1000 Euros for two. Mohamed retrieves Frank who is dragged forward and asked, “What is wrong with your wife, how can I sell two carpets for 1000 Euros. It has to be 2000 – I am beggaring myself, think of the blind women, 2000 it must be.” Frank and I look at each other, acknowledging that we should just give in, so he nods his head in assent and is immediately whisked off by Mohamed to pay.
We ended up paying 4000 Euros or $6000 Cnd for two carpets, — it turns out it was 2000 Euros per carpet that Mohamed beggared himself for — and we comforted ourselves with the knowledge we improved the lives of a thousand Moroccans. (I wish)
And as the months and the sting of spending $6000 have passed by, whenever we walk on our gorgeous Moroccan carpets, we are filled with nostalgia for more travel.
SO, WAS IT A SCAM?
When we read the post, we were intrigued by the sense that their “carpet experience” had been a scam. While everyone who has experienced the wild theatricality of the carpet sellers will talk about the pressure and the polished selling style (“Madam, buy this side and you get the other side for free”), in the end, a good deal is when seller and buyer are both happy. So, armed with Frank Marino’s photographs, we went carpet hunting.
Three local experts in Fez agree that the carpet pictured above is fine example from the High Atlas. More specifically, from the Taznakt region and probably from A’it Ougherda. They also say it would NOT have been made by four women, but by one.
When it comes to the price, although there was some disagreement, all the estimates put the resale value at between 15,000 and 21,000 Moroccan dirhams (1300 Euro – 1800 Euro). As one carpet expert put it. “It could actually be a bit higher. This is a fine example and such pieces can be a little bit expensive.”
At the end of the day, while Gail and Frank probably paid more than they intended, they were not totally ripped-off and have ended up with a beautiful reminder of their time in Morocco … and a great story to tell.
Thanks to PlanetD for sharing and to Si Mohammed Bouzidi for canvassing the prices and provenance for us. You can read Gail’s full story here: PlanetD Morocco.
If you intend buying carpets in Morocco, we suggest you follow this link and read: The Beginners’ Guide to Buying Moroccan Carpets.