A souk is a traditional marketplace. Historically, the souks of Marrakesh were divided into retail areas for particular goods such as leather, carpets, metalwork and pottery, and these divisions still roughly exist but now with significant overlap. Many of the souks sell items like carpets and rugs, traditional Muslim attire, leather bags, belts and lanterns. Haggling is still a very important part of trade in the souks – some people are very adept as this, and I really admire them, but I find it very difficult and uncomfortable. This is definitely something I need to get better at!
One of the largest souks is Souk Semmarine, which sells everything from brightly coloured bejewelled sandals and slippers and leather pouffes to jewellery and kaftans. Even without resorting to haggling, prices are more than affordable, as a tourist – which, again, is why I think the price which is asked, is more often than not, for me, a fair price. Especially when you look at the craftsmanship and feel the quality. And, look at those colours. Eye-popping!
A number of souks contains stalls which specialize in foodstuffs – big, fat, juicy, bright yellow lemons, vibrant red chillis, olives, and aromatic, fresh mint. A must for the Moroccan tea which you will be determined to make every day back home. Our Moroccan tea kick lasted approximately a day, I think. But how pretty…
The Marrakech Tanneries
However, it’s just not the souks where you can shop, shop, shop. If you have a strong constitution – in more ways than one – then head out to the outskirts and visit The Tanneries. The main leather tanneries are located in the Bab Debbagh quarter, which is quite difficult to navigate as it’s largely a maze of alleyways. This is where you need to completely have your wits about you. You will be immediately identified as a tourist and you will be approached by a “helpful” local, who will offer to show you the way, and probably offer you a free guide of the tanneries. If you are in this situation, it’ll now be very difficult to extricate yourself from it, because these faux guides are experts at what they do. It can be very intimidating, as they can be very pushy – and they often work in small teams so as soon as you think you’ve shaken one off, another will appear from around the corner. There are terrible reviews on Trip Advisor about the Tanneries – so our advice would be to read them, read other reviews, read about the Tanneries themselves and decide BEFORE you set off (probably on foot), if this excursion is for you. As I say, you need to have a strong constitution to deal with the “guides” – AND be prepared to hand over money for their efforts. About 30-40 dirhams (approx £3 by today’s rates) should suffice – but do not underestimate how persistent (and how many in number) these guides can be. We experienced all of this – and it was definitely a very unnerving (OK, at times, downright scary) experience, BUT with hindsight, it’s something I’m glad we did. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to do it again, but our experience did ultimately turn out to be a positive one.
So, you’ve survived the onslaught of the guides and you’ve reached The Tanneries. You’ll know you’ve been getting closer by the smell. Some reviews really focus on this, and as I remember, it was pretty horrible, but not gut-wrenching. What was worse for me, was what the Tanneries looked like and the visible working conditions. Workers tend to be young, and they are often immersed in these enormous pools, separating the skins, soaking them in various vats filled with quicklime and water to begin the treatment process, before placing them in other vats to strengthen the leather. The stench comes from the treatment process – search on it if you really want to know what it involves – and as a visitor, you will be given a sprig of mint, to hold to your nose. You do have to prepared for this experience, as it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted.
We knew exactly what we wanted if we were going to make a purchase and we had a very determined attitude that we would NOT be pushed or co-erced into doing something we did not want to do. We had also done some research and had found out that within the Tanneries, there was a co-operative, which seemed to operate along much more ethical lines and so we knew this was the one we wanted to visit. It wasn’t easy avoiding being railroaded into other shops, but we were focused on getting to where we wanted to go. And, when we arrived, what an oasis of calm! No hassling, no demonstrations of carpets being rolled out in front of us, no rushing around. Instead, a lovely guy who welcomed us and explained about the co-operative – profits ploughed back into the Berber communities where the workers came from. Men and women (no children as far as I can remember) working in clean and peaceful conditions.
Now, I am not stupid. I am well aware that this could all have been an orchestrated front, and that behind the scenes, conditions were pretty deplorable. And, although we didn’t get the unasked for theatrical carpet/rug display, once we explained what we wanted, we did get a version of it. We didn’t feel any sense of hard-selling or pressure, but rugs that we hadn’t described were brought out for us to look at. However, when we identified the ones we weren’t interested in, they were taken away. And then, the one that we had been visioning, appeared…
I think we managed not to reveal our cards too quickly, but this was definitely the stand out rug. It was priced more highly than most of the others we looked at, but we inspected it very closely and it was really high quality. We were told it was an original Berber rug, probably about 80 years old, and that minor repairs would be done if we decided to purchase it.
Because of the size and weight of it, we could not take it back with us, as we had only had hand luggage. We were also not prepared to pay cash, and even with a written receipt, run the risk of it not being sent to us. This part of the process was the most protracted as we wanted absolute assurances about payment and delivery. We were shown a big hand written ledger, with details of previous purchasers. No bank details were recorded in this book, but delivery addresses (many to the UK) were there, along with thank you letters and notes and cards which we were advised had been sent by people who had received their goods. A card machine was available for transactions, and the guy explained how the rug would be sent to us, back in the UK. Probably to seal the deal, he also offered us a chocolate brown leather pouffe, which we could have taken away there and then. Again, if were cynical, we might have thought that however nice this was, once we’d paid for the rug, he could have just ciphoned off the money, having placated us with a leather pouffe, which was a fraction of the cost of the rug, and we’d maybe never see the rug again. However, gut instinct was telling both us it would be OK – and having also seen his records of postage proof from the post office, we decided to go for it. We asked for the pouffe to be included in the delivery, and as we weren’t actually leaving with anything on the day, he gave us both a little leather coin purse, each. Both still used today to keep our euros separate from our kunas. We knew we’d have to pay tax on the parcel once it arrived in the UK, so we asked if he could post a week later, knowing that we’d definitely be back in England. He told us the day he would post it and the day it should arrive. And, off we went…
Of course, doubts did creep in. Had we been stupid? Had we been ripped off? Was the co-operative a front for something more dodgy? Were our card details safe? Would our bank account be bled dry? We could have driven ourselves mad, but we decided that for sanity’s sake, we had to accept what we’d done and that we had researched and probed and asked for documentation etc, so hopefully all would be OK.
And, guess what? It was! On the day he had said it would arrive, we got a phone call to say we had a parcel from Morocco but that we must pay the tax before it was released to us. Once done, it was delivered – and we had our beautiful Berber rug. True to his word, every bit of repair work which had been identified had been done, and the chocolate brown leather pouffe was also in the parcel.