I need to learn how to say no. A firm, authoritative, no. One that brooks no argument. It doesn’t need an exclamation mark. Or any additional volume. It doesn’t need to be rude. It should just be firm and final. But despite years of trying, my no is pathetic. Lily-livered. Downright floppy. I needed to up my game to survive the souk experience in Marrakesh.
I was up against the professionals. The souks in Marrakesh are the stomping grounds of some of the world’s best traders. They have their sales pitches down to a fine art. They’re people readers. They know what buttons to push. With me, they appealed to superstition. ‘You’re my first customer so I have to make you a good price, lady. Otherwise my luck will be bad all day,’ And yes, I know better but still I fall for it. Or they banter and make me laugh, make me like them. And then I’m doomed.
Many years ago, in Dubai , I watched a British colleague haggle with a trader for a suitcase to the point where the fun had gone and it was approaching embarrassment. There was no way what she was offering would cover his cost. I said as much and she was annoyed with me. I found it a tad immoral. Since then, I fix a price in my head that I’d be happy to pay and once I get to that, we’re done. And so what if the next person comes along and gets it at half again – them’s the breaks. I get to sleep easy.
But Marrakesh – Marrakesh is different. The bangle sellers in particular take no prisoners. They’re bandits. They’re relentless. They’re aggressive to the point of threatening. And I couldn’t get rid of the notion that I might be cursed or jinxed if I ungratefully returned the gift they’d clasped on my wrist – a token of friendship because they liked my blue eyes. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they’re all in cahoots because no matter how well I thought I’d done, someone always came up immediately after I’d closed the sale and offered me twice as many for half the price. My calves are black and blue from kicking myself.
I was warned not to make eye contact. But to ignore them and pretend that they’re not there is so rude. Terribly rude. I couldn’t do it. Instead I had to admire, explain, and refuse to buy. And when the banter was really good and the tactics really clever, then I bought. And the banter can be good – with the lads especially. The women – they’re tough. They, too, use superstition. And the women talk of how they’re going to feed their babies if I don’t buy their wares. And the violins play quietly in the background, and before I know it, the bangle is on my wrist and the palm is open waiting for payment.But at least I can leave these shores knowing that I have done my bit to support several families. Perhaps even the same one.
But the math doesn’t add up. When I think of the time it would take to string together some of the necklaces I was offered, not to mention the cost of the beads and stones and whatever, I can’t see how anyone is covering their costs. The stuff I had no interest in started at €20 and got as low as €3. But if I liked it, the movement was so slight as to be practically unnoticeable.
I’ve put it down to experience. When I come back next year, I’ll know where to buy, what to buy, and how much to pay for it. I’ll know to go to the spice market for my spices [freshly ground in front of my very eyes] and to a herbarium in the Jewish quarter for my Argan oil. I’ll know to stick to the souks where only the locals go for silverware and jars. And I’ll know to bring a bigger suitcase.
This time around, I was amused at how they’d have the stuff wrapped before I could blink. I was useless in the face of their logic:
Four bottles for the price of three, then. Excellent quality. You will be very pleased.
I don’t need any, really.
Ok madam – three bottles for the price of two – just for you. Special price.
But I can’t take liquid on the plane.
No problem madam – two bottles for the price of one.
I have no room in my suitcase.
Of course madam, just these. Anything else?
Next time, the novelty will have worn off. Next time I will be more definite. Next time I will be more forceful. More adamant. But I could never ignore them. That would be rude.