There are certain places in the world where it is expected that every visitor will buy an example of the local speciality. In Venice it is gelato. In Switzerland, chocolate. In Australia it would probably be a stuffed koala, possibly called Kenny. If you are going to Morocco, you should fully expect you will go into a carpet shop in a souk1 and buy a rug.
Even if you leave your native land with no desire for a new carpet, it is probably worth at least reviewing the colours with which you have decorated your house and the sizes of the rooms, and also do a quick 'I have this much money to spend on a carpet' check. The chances of your not passing a carpet vendor in Morocco are close to nil. Even if you will be doing nothing other than the lonely trek through the High Atlas mountains to Toubkal, the highest peak in all of North Africa, you will pass a carpet vendor located on the side of the path. These vendors are not insensitive souls: they will provide you with directions on the way up and a carpet on the way down. Experience shows that at least one carpet seller can speak most of the major European languages and several African ones, which is an impressive thing to watch.
Selecting the Carpet
Once you are inside the carpet seller's shop the process starts with the owner calling on small boys to pull out a range of carpets onto the floor for you to comment on. Based on your response to each carpet, new instructions are given to the boys and more carpets are pulled down and laid out. Once a goodly number are presented, mint tea is provided to you and some choices are made about preference.
To winnow the carpets down, the seller starts an 'either/or' process where you are asked if you prefer carpet A or carpet B. The preferred one stays in front of you and the other is pushed back into the stacks. This process continues until you have only one or two in front of you and then you start negotiating the price. It is expected that you will negotiate.
Keep in mind the budget you set before you left home. Your opening bid must be less than that because your final bid will inevitably be higher and you want to remain within your budget. If you negotiate a higher price than you can afford, then you may end up in tears after you get home. The carpet seller simply wants to sell as many carpets as he (always a he) can at the highest price you can afford. Almost certainly he will not intend for you to pay more than you can afford. If it becomes obvious that the prices of the carpets in front of you are higher than you can pay, reduce the number of carpets or ask the seller if he has one similar that is smaller and that you can afford.
Just because you have settled on a carpet by the 'either/or' method doesn't mean you have to buy it for the price it is offered. Also, just because it is the nicest of the carpets you have seen in that shop, that doesn't mean it is the best carpet for you. You are permitted to ask to see completely different carpets (describe your fantasy of a Moroccan carpet to the seller if you like and use that as an alternative starting point).
Remember, until you have agreed to negotiate a price, you have made no commitment to buy. Once you do ask the price and begin negotiating, there is a understanding that you are committed to negotiate in good faith with an intention to buy if the price is acceptable to both parties.
The biggest questions you will be faced with are how do you measure the quality of the carpet and how do you ensure you pay a good price for it? Just because you like it and can afford it won't prevent you paying too much. There are no guidelines, there is no 'office of fair trading'2, and there is no rule about returns if 'the item is not of merchandisable quality'.
So, have fun. Most vendors in touristy areas will be reputable and very many will have website reviews. Feel free to make the purchasing process a two-stage affair. Look and choose the carpets you like and then, before asking the prices, tell the seller that you are overwhelmed by the range and would like to come back in a little while to negotiate a price. No doubt he will tell you not to bring a negotiator with you or the price will be higher. (Feel free to take the risk if you do know a good negotiator!) Check the vendor's reputation, keeping in mind that people do say some very misleading things on review websites. Come back, resume where you left off and enjoy the bargaining.
There are three types of carpet you are likely to see in a single shop. Weaves are the cheapest and carpets are the most expensive:
- Weaves are made of silk in various banded colours.
- Kilims are basic weaves with the patterns woven into them like a tapestry instead of being knotted. They are often cotton and silk rather than wool.
- Carpets are generally wool (or silk and wool) and each part of the pattern is individually knotted.
Is it Worth the Money?
Carpets are complex and small points can affect their value. When you look at them, always look at the backs (if you aren't allowed that close to them, decline to buy). Simple things to look out for are:
The underlying weave should be very tight and even all of the way through. In a kilim, the embroidery/tapestry should be very clean and the back should be tight and tidy so that it won't catch on every rough surface it touches.
The tassels at the end should be the loose ends of the base weave of the carpet - they shouldn't be sewn on as a decoration and you should be able to spot the colour between the knots further down the carpet. However, you can look like an idiot if you try looking for this kind of thing too hard.
Each tuft of the front of the carpet will have a visible but very flat knot at the back. These knots should be moderately even but not so regular that they could only have been made by a machine (in China).
Carpets generally have about 60, 80 or 100 knots per square inch: ie roughly 8×8, 9×9 or 10×10. The denser the knotting the finer the threads and the more expensive the carpet.
It is not unusual for a carpet to have a flaw where the carpet maker had to switch the dye batch for a colour. These reduce the price of the carpet but don't let it put you off if an otherwise lovely handmade piece of work appeals.
When talking to the vendor ask how old the carpet is: generally they will be post-1950s. If it is over 100 years old you are either being lied to or you will probably need to arrange a special export licence. Old carpets do exist and they are for sale but you are unlikely to discover one in a Marrakech souk at a bargain price.
It can feel as if all of the bargaining power rests with the vendor since they know carpets, what they are selling and will have true understanding of the technical quality of the carpet and its market price. You probably will not. However, you have a budget and all of the money that will be put on the table. Neither of these are negligible bargaining tools.
When the deal is settled you will almost certainly be asked to pay the boys 100 Dihram for their work - you may negotiate to pay a little less, not least because 10 Euros isn't a bad hourly rate for work, even in Paris! If you were led to the shop by a guide, when you leave, your guide may be waiting for you. Make sure you include some money in your budget to pay him as well.
Lastly, make sure you have the ability to get the bulky thing home. The big vendors will have agents, and shipping companies like DHL have offices in all Moroccan cities. If you bring your purchases back into your home country as hand luggage you may not need to pay a Value Added/Goods and Services Tax (provided it isn't one of the 100-year-old carpets with a special export licence!) but if it comes in by a shipping firm, remember to include the tax bill in your budget as well.
When you and your carpet are safely home, all that's left to do is display the new souvenir in a suitable location and admire it.