This past weekend we were walking through the Fes medina on an AMIDEAST excursion to the city, when I caught my foot on the cobbled street and tore the sole of my shoe. The process of purchasing new shoes, or any item for that matter, in the medina is a different process than buying them at an American mall. Medina shopping requires stamina, persistence, and preferably some knowledge of Darija. Bargaining is an expected part of buying anything in the medina, except in very select stores where prices are fixed in advance.
Every medina has its own character. For example the Rabat medina is extremely chaotic and navigating it requires holding firmly to your bag and joining the crush of people. The Fes medina is one of the oldest and most famous in the country, and is also more confusing than many others. While the majority of the shopping in Essaouira, a southern seaside town, is concentrated along one main street and the medina of Rabat more or less follows a grid, the narrow streets in Fes twist back on themselves and the rows of shops extend for miles.
The square in Fes where many of the copper workers can be found both making and selling their products.
The souk, where the main shops in the medina are concentrated, has different sections each centered around one certain type of product. The copper products in Fes are found in their own square while the food shops – with piles of dates, fresh pomegranates, and live chickens – are mainly found along a section of covered streets on one side of the medina. The shops selling boots, which is what I was looking for after my unfortunate shoe accident, tend to be found near other clothing and shops selling leather products. I stepped into one store and began the long process necessary for buying any goods from the medina. I exchanged greetings with the shopkeeper in Darija; unsurprisingly, I have discovered that beginning with the customary pleasant greetings starts out the process of buying something on the right foot.
Addressing shopkeepers in Darija also often leads to conversations about if I really know Arabic and where and why I am learning it. These conversations have gotten longer, as both my ability to use the language and my confidence increase. Additionally, I have found that using Darija and explaining that I am only a student helps to get me a better deal. Shopkeepers always give an initial price that is much higher than the item really costs. The key is then knowing, or guessing, what a reasonable price is and demanding a number a little less than that. In the case of buying shoes the seller and I went back and forth about four times before reaching an agreement. “Oof that’s way too much?” “What will you pay…..no no impossible….last price” “give me a better price” “okay okay fine, here you go” ”thank you” “no thanks needed, for your health and comfort, enjoy”.
Having to argue over prices is extremely intimidating, but I have honestly found that has helped me to get bolder at speaking and also has led to some genuinely engaging conversations with people. On the Fes excursion, after purchasing a beautiful piece of pottery, one of my friends proceeded to ask the store owner what the best place to get food would be. This question led us to a delicious small restaurant filled with mainly Moroccans and a lunch of some of the best beef tagine I have ever tasted.
By this point, I generally only venture into souks when I need something, such as a functional pair of shoes, but I still do enjoy the experience. It can be a low stakes way to ask questions about symbols in Moroccan culture or about the names of different fruits, learning details I wouldn’t otherwise find out. While my first forays into the Rabat medina made me nervous about having to fight for a good deal, I now believe this exchange is a part of Moroccan culture I will very much miss when I leave. American malls come with the guarantee of knowing what you are getting up front, but they are missing a lot of the human element that I enjoy when shopping in Moroccan medinas.