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The Art of the Deal

On the streets of Marrakech, a father and son get an education in the art of negotiation.

From National Geographic Traveler January/February 2011

From National Geographic Traveler January/February 2011

By Andrew McCarthy

“Basaf!” Sam barks.

The soft-featured merchant cocks his head. His jaw drops. He looks to his younger, thinner, shop assistant. A smile plays on the corners of younger man’s lips.

“What did you say?” the merchant turns back to Sam.

“Basef,”—too much—Sam repeats. He shakes his head and looks down at the small chest the two are haggling over. It’s perhaps 18” X 9”, encrusted with henna dyed camel bone, trimmed with an ornate copper boarder. It’s a beauty. Sam begins to sway from side to side. He lifts first one foot, then the other. He’s wearing a pair of yellow, point-toed babouche—typical Moroccan slippers.

“Okay. Then give me 2,500 dirham for it,” the merchant tells him.

Sam’s swaying turns to twisting, then squirming. He looks over to me. He shrugs. I shrug. He shakes his head. Without another word he marches his four-foot-three-inch frame past me and out onto Rue Riad Zitoun el-Jedid, deep in the Mellah section of Marrakech. Once safely away from the shop he stops, turns to me, and lifts his blue eyes up from under his bangs. “That was good one.” Sam’s had his sights on one of those chests since he saw one early on in the souks.

“It was a nice one, Sam.”

Sam considers, nods, and walks on. I follow close behind. Sam is my son. He is eight.

We’ve come to Marrakech, the swirling heart of Morocco at the base of the Atlas Mountains, at the urging of Sam’s friend Mohamed. The two met when Sam became entranced with a lamp that hung in the window of Mohamed’s New York shop that sells all things Moroccan. Sam went in for a closer look. The two got to talking—and then haggling. “Make me an offer, Sam,” Mohamed told him. Sam bounced all over the shop, touching everything as he shouted out prices. “He reminds me of myself when I was his age.” Mohamed told me. “With a little practice he could be a good haggler.”

The lamp now hangs in Sam’s room. We read the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba under its glow. We’ve become regulars at Mohammad’s shop, where Sam can often be seen negotiating with his friend. When they’re not bargaining, they’re chatting about swords, or camels, or the desert. “You need to come to Morocco, to Marrakech, to the Souk,” Mohamed told me. “I go back often to buy. I’ll show you around, teach Sam my tricks. Let him hone his skills with the professionals.”

And so we do.

We rendezvous with Mohamed over a cup of mint tea at low table outside the tiny Café ben Youssef, a hole in the wall deep in the Medina—the old city of Marrakech. It’s around this labyrinth of narrow lanes that Youssef ben Tachfine built ramparts and laid out the city’s underground irrigation system in 1062, transforming this dusty outpost into the center of the Almoravid Berber Empire. We’re in the area bordering the ornate stalls that make the souk a world famous marketplace, and the back alley workshops that supply its wares. Across the six-foot wide lane is a stall overflowing with all variety of used, grease ridden rubber tires. The old man patching a tube on one of the ubiquitous mopeds that rip through the city is forced to work out in the alley. Next-door is a shop large enough only for a man to sit hunched over on a stool and sew yellow lace on a purple dress. A man with a bucket scrubs down his bicycle over a nearby open drain. People storm past in both directions. Behind me someone shouts “Balek!” In mid-sentence, Mohamed leans gracefully across the table and gently guides my shoulder toward the wall as a donkey pulling a cart of oranges charges down the lane, missing me by inches. How we found this spot amid the warren of twisting alleys and pathways that make up this part of the Medina, I have no idea.

Getting lost in the souks is standard operating procedure. Except for Mohamed, who grew up on these mean streets. “I started working in the markets when I was your age, Sam.” Forced to support his mother and three sisters after his father died, Mohamed has been on the street his whole life. “It was good to have the responsibility. If I didn’t have my family to help, who knows what would have happened to me.” He shouts out something in Arabic to a man in a small shop across the way. The man calls back. Mohamed throws his head back and laughs—he’s always laughing. “I was like an octopus when I started. ‘If you can’t find something, come to me.’ I was very determined.” He shakes hands and exchanges greeting with someone walking past. Mohamed is always doing at least three things at once. “I was born in a rush,” my mother used to say. And he peals off a wicked grin. A cocktail of street-smart savvy with one eye always on the action, and an innocent full of openhearted generosity, Mohamed is Marrakech in microcosm.

“Let’s go, Sam,” he jumps up. “ We have work to do.”

I chase after this olive skinned man with the salt and pepper hair, and my loose-limbed son. Mohamed darts like a shark around corners and into dark doorways that lead to more winding lanes and the literal hole-in-the-wall shops. Sam shadows his every move. We’re introduced to weavers and olive sellers, tile makers and rug merchants. Mohamed’s bargaining tutorial begins in earnest as we walk.

“Everything in Morocco is open to negotiation, Sam. And the first thing you say, when they tell you the price, is— “Too much—‘Basaf’—then walk away.”

“But what if I want it?”

Mohamed stops at a stall selling musical instruments and pulls down a thin, square, “story telling” drum made of goat skin stretched taught over camel bone. He shows Sam how to tap it on both sides to create the beat and continues the lesson.

“Also, when you see something you like, maybe a necklace, you ask about something else. And then, as you’re walking out you say, ‘And how much is that necklace?’ Like you just noticed it and don’t really care.”

“Why do I have to do that?”

We duck through a low doorway. In a dim, soot covered den maybe six feet square, a man stands waist deep in a narrow hole. Only his upper body is visible. A pile of hot, glowing embers sit to his right. It’s as if he’s buried alive, in a micro version of Hades. On the ground in front of his mid-section sits a small sheet of metal. With hands gnarled and scarred, he’s pounding a red glowing spike with a hammer, forging. Mohamed’s known this rope thin man with the mustache his whole life. “Ahmed’s in this hole twelve hours a day, seven days a week.”

“Whoa,” is all Sam says.

We turn a corner and the scent of orange blossom mixes with the stench of decay. Mohamed leads us into another dark recess. In the shadows, an unshaven man leans over a large dying vat, dunking a heavy swath of fabric with a long stick. He stirs and hoists it up. Dark liquid runs off. He lowers the fabric again, swirling his wand. Across the alley, freshly dyed cloth hangs to dry, billowing in the breeze, draping the souks in a rainbow of hopeful color.

“And wear something Moroccan, it lets them know you’re been around a while.”

“I want to get those pointy slippers I saw.”

Babouche. We’ll get some. And sometimes, you can try to not give a counter offer, make them keep lowering the price.”

“Then how do I ever buy what I want?”

Eventually, Mohamed leaves us to hone our new skills and vanishes into the crowd. Unescorted, we’re easy pray. Sam is a magnet. Merchants beckon, many offer him small presents. Wide eyed, he accepts them all.

“Come. Look. Buy, no buy. Is the same. Come, come.” We enter a fairly large stall, maybe twenty feet deep. Most shops specialize in one thing, not this one. Ornate and lethal swords hang beside soft fabrics, large camel bones covered in writing—“contracts”— sit beside massive copper lamps.

It’s here Sam spots his first chest. “Look. A treasure chest.” It’s wooden, painted red and gold. He opens the lid, then closes it. “Cool.” Then he spots a tall, cobalt blue, tear shaped bottle, trimmed in ornate tin—an old perfume bottle.

“Four hundred dirham,” Abdul, the shopkeeper, tells Sam. Sam nods and says nothing. Whether he’s struck shy or employing Mohamed’s rope-a-dope teaching, I can’t tell. Abdul takes off his glasses and cleans them on his shirt. “Give me three hundred, Sam,” the merchant in the blue knit cap tells him. Sam begins to fidget.

He eventually agrees on two hundred dirham—about $24. I’d say the bottle is worth $10, at best. Clearly, the negotiating skills need a bit of work. “Just to get started, dad,” Sam assures me and hands over the money to Abdul.

“You are my first sale today, Sam. You give me great gift. You open my shop.” Abdul says a quick prayer, kisses the cash, and puts it in his pocket. “There is old Berber saying, Sam— ‘First customer of the day get the best deal.’” Then Abdul leans in and winks at Sam, “Last customer of the day get a better deal.”

The two shake hands and Abdul looks to me, “He a good boy, relaxed. This the best gift for life.” Relaxed he may be, but Sam is a kid who needs to move, and space to do it. After another hour in the claustrophobic marketplace he spins on me and announces, “I feel trapped.”

Beyond the adobe walls that ring the Medina, lies a different Marrakech, with wide avenues laid out by the French during Colonization. In the ‘Ville Nouvelle’—new town—traffic moves with an approximation of order, and several large parks break up the ubiquitous ochre colored architecture.

There’s no nicer park in Marrakech than the Jardin Majorelle. Laid out by French landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, the garden was opened to the public in 1947 and later acquired by designer Yves Saint Laurent, who upon having his ashes scattered here, left the park to the city as his gift. It’s an oasis of calm in the chaos of Marrakech. But after an hour racing past koi ponds and yucca trees, trampling the agave, and swerving past cactus while avoiding security guards (“Invisibility cloak on, dad!”) under canopies of swaying bamboo, cascading bougainvillea, and lazy palms, we’re ready for refreshment. Along Avenue Mohamed V lies Marrakech’s attempt at Euro sophistication. Sidewalk café’s are filled with upscale Moroccan’s sipping coffee out of illy cups, smoking, reading Al Alam. Mercedes mingle with mopeds where only fearless pedestrians venture into the street. And after days in the unrestrained souk, where everything is a negotiation, it’s a disappointing relief to enter one of the upscale shops on Rue de la Liberte and see fixed prices on delicate items amid the well-ordered displays cases.

A few blocks away, up a flight of stairs, is yet another world. Café du Livre is a western wonder, down to the New York Review of Books lying around and the Joe Jackson playing on the radio. It’s a disconcerting feeling to be in such a well-studied re-creation of America. Initially a comfort, by the time we finish our cheeseburger and fries, and I check email on the free Wi-fi, we’re ready to beat it back to the old town.

It doesn’t take long to be thrust back into the belly of the beast. Just hail a cab.

“Fifty dirham,” the unshaven man with the baseball cap shouts.

“Twenty,” I yell back.

He smiles. His teeth are shards, rotten and black. “Each.”

I shake my head and turn to walk away.

“Okay, okay,” he concedes. We climb in the flimsy Fiat, and the driver swings into a wide U-turn across the Avenue without looking. Soon he swerves to the side of the road and pulls over to chat with two women in headscarves. Further on a man on a moped pulls up next to us and grabs hold of the driver’s door. The two friends talk and laugh as we continue to drive in tandem; eventually the man on the scooter lets go and pulls away. Arabic music blares on the radio. Sam nods his head along with the chanting.

“Is that Gnaoua?” I ask. A few nights earlier, Mohamed had arranged a performance of the spiritual music at this home. Three men in traditional dress, played deeply hypnotic trance music with sintir and karkeb’s—a Moroccan version of guitar and castanet’s—accompanied by infectious dancing with stomping and spinning intended to drive out evil and cure psychological ills and scorpion stings that had Sam up and moving in lock step with the performers.

“This is Malhun,” our driver Youssef, explains. “Is poetry text. From Morocco. Gnaoua originally came from Senegal. Gnaoua is more mystical.” Sam closes his eyes, his head still nodding, and the wind whips through the un-air conditioned taxi.

Most streets in the Medina are too small to accommodate cars, and so we’re dropped at Diemma el-Fna, Marrakech’s main square and teeming crossroads. Part market place, part open-air theater, everyone in Marrakech passes through Diemma el-Fna. The name translates to ‘assembly of the dead’ in honor of the public executions that took place here as far back as eleventh Century. These days, pretty much anything still goes. Both Sam and I are silenced by belly dancers, clad from head to toe in black jalabib, while veils cover their faces. Large circles form around storytellers who continue to pass down an oral history. A man sits behind a folding table, a neatly arranged display of several hundred teeth cover the table’s surface, a pair of pliers sit on a dirty white plate, waiting. The dentist waves us over, encouraging us to take his picture. He smiles, his teeth are rotten. Carts offer fresh squeezed orange-juice for a quarter; others sell dates, or figs. Food vendors set up stalls, a riot of competing smells entice and repulse.

But really, Sam has eyes for only one thing. Each afternoon we return to Diemma el-Fna and follow the sound of oboes and drums. Snake charmers, coaxing cobras and pythons into action transfix my son. The charmer’s lure him in, the same way they entice the snakes to rise up. They’re quick to offer Sam a two-foot water snake to hold, then something even larger. At his delight, they continue. He has three, then four snakes slithering over his shoulders and down his arms. And then the man wearing long white jalabiya approaches, a gray-black serpent tensing in his grasp. Watching a six-foot long cobra coil itself around my son’s neck, it is not the time to wonder, “Am I being a good father?”

Late one afternoon, once again lost on our way back from the square, we find ourselves on Rue Riad Zitoun el-Jedid, in the old Jewish section of town, and it’s here that Sam sees his chest, the one he’s been after. It’s here the heavyset merchant tries to entice Sam to overspend, and my son walks away. And it’s then, on the street, that Sam stops and turns to me. “No, that’s the one,” and back we go.

“You’ve returned, Sam. Good,” Khalid waves his arms wide. He pulls the chest back down from its perch and places it back on the floor. Sam opens the lid, blue velvet lines the interior. He runs his fingers over it.

“Give me twenty-five hundred, Sam.”

Sam shakes his head. “Eight hundred.”

Khalid nods slowly at Sam’s opening salvo. “You are very good, Sam.”

Sam stares at the merchant. There’s no fidgeting, no swaying now.

“I like your babouche slippers. They are very handsome.”

Sam doesn’t fall for the flattery.

“I’ll take eighteen-hundred,” the fat man tells him.

“A thousand.”

Both men are silent. Neither blink. Then what happens next happens fast.

“Fifteen-hundred and it’s yours.”

“Twelve-hundred”

“Thirteen-hundred.”

“Yes!”

Khalid sticks out his hand. Sam grabs it. The deal is done.

Mohamed will be proud.

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