A Day with Thami and a Lesson in Negotiating

Trip Start May 04, 2011
Trip End Oct 08, 2012

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Flag of Morocco  ,
Monday, May 23, 2011

We were looking forward to today. We arranged for a full day of Fez with Thami or as some call him, Hez a person who has visited Mecca. We met Thami yesterday at the restaurant; he came by quickly to introduce himself. He is a fit man in his 60's, which came referred by my friend Katie. He picked us up at 9:30 with another Canadian couple in tow. I caused a minor delay as my intestinal system was still fighting to function.

Post introductions, we followed Thami out the blue doors and back through the maze of the Medina. Passing a cart of bloodied goat heads, he pointed out every mosque and explained what constitutes an Arab community. The five required elements are: A mosque, a hotel, a bakery, a hammam and a watering hole. We learned that there are multiple entries to each mosque, the main door, the one for women and even a secret passageway for those that can’t get in via the main door. Common is also something called an express mosque. These are set up for the street vendors who can’t afford the time to get away, but still want to pray.

Parts of the medina date back to the 9th century and the mosaic tile work of so many of the interior structures and various fountains are gorgeous. First stop on our tour was the famous waterclock. Designed in the late 13th century, using brass bowls and the dripping of water and chimes, it functioned much like a cuckoo clock to keep people on schedule for prayer. Lowell managed to shock Thami with the question of evaporation, apparently the first guest in 40 years to ask the question; the solution, a roof built between the two walls.

Second stop was the must see Medersa Bou Inania, the 14th century school used to accommodate students until the 1960s. An interesting fact is that the exterior walls of the mosque are lined in wood to guide the blind as well as a white flag flies as a way to aid the deaf. Still dodging mopeds, donkeys, kids and abundance of feral cats, we arrived at the tanneries next. We accessed this official tannery via a shop where we were handed a gas mask of mint and led to the rooftop terrace to view the process.  The process of tanning skins is strongly symbolic- the tanners say the skin eats, drinks, sleeps and "is born of the water." It is a three stage process, first the skins are soaked in an iferd (swamp) in the middle of the tannery, filled with a fermenting mixture of pigeon dung and tannery waste. Fermenting last 3 days in summer and double in winter. After the skin is hung to dry and the remaining hair is scraped off, it goes into a pit of lime and argan-kernal ash. The lime bath lasts 15-20 days in summer and up to 30 in winter. Then the skins are washed energetically, and put into yet another bath of pigeon dung to make the skin thinner and easier to stretch. After a bit more treatment and division of size and quality, the tanning process can begin. Using certain roots, bark, seeds and fruits, the men stand thigh deep in another pit of color, soaking the skins before they are finally left to dry in the sun.

Needless to say, we had to regress back through the shop to exit, getting distracted by the rows of quality jackets calling my name. Against my better judgment, I found two that I liked with a little tailoring: a cool short black motorcycle style and a simple overcoat one. Knowing full well that I have no business shopping, nor will I have use for them until I return to LA; but if I could seal a deal, the good thing was that Lowell could take them back on the plane. Operative word here is “if” I can settle on the right price. Lowell also found a great black motorcycle style one that fit him perfectly. Measurements were made but we left empty handed. I wasn’t worried that the sale was over.

The Canadians, who paid full price for their purchase, had no idea what they were in for once I started negotiating a deal.  We left the leather shop at around noon without an agreed price and proceeded to follow Thami past the unlimited number of stalls all selling or renting basically the same 10 things: djellabas, thread and buttons to make the clothing, rugs, bags, shoes, pharmacies, metal works, local crafts, pottery and ornate gold jewelry; especially belts worn by brides on their wedding day. Not to forget the usual cart vendors offering: bread, turon, fresh squeezed juice, and our favorite still, the olives.

Still considering the leather jackets and doing the math on my mobile phone, Thami’s phone simultaneously started to ring. It was none other than the leather vendor on the other end determined to close the deal. Par for the course, his number was still way too high.

Once Thami saw dollar signs, he led us straight to the rug dealer. Warmed up to negotiate, I had a field day here. Lowell had come to Morocco with hopes of bringing back a rug for his den, although after our experience in Marrakech with laughable prices, I wasn’t hopeful that he would find one. On the wall hung a beautiful silk old rug unlike any we had seen.  The interesting thing about this particular rug were the human figures embroidered on the bottom panel, something prohibited in the Muslim culture, reason being it was made by Sephardic Jews.

One of the first rugs, which caught our eye immediately, measured 9’x6’ and was a rich maroon with black accent one. Not too busy and with multiple subtle borders, it kept its coloring regardless of which side you viewed it from. The salesmen continued to roll out an array of others in a rainbow of colors but none was as perfect as the first. Now the fun begins. We made it known that this was the one we were interested in. Naturally, the salesmen always seem to address me in hope of persuasion this time was no different. His began his shtick with “You have expensive taste Madame, this is a one of kind, and a very old one.” The banter began and an offer was put on the table. Before I was willing to put on my true Berber hat, I asked Lowell “What is your maximum price?” and took it from there. Loving my new found sport, we joked about how many camels Lowell would sell me for and how important it is to keep your woman happy. He gave us another figure and I responded, this continued until I did as Lowell predicted and haggled back with an even lower price than my “final offer.” Once they realized that I was standing firm, they made it seem like we were getting the deal of the century and called in the “boss.” He says to me, you do PR for us; I let it go at that price. We were willing to walk if they couldn’t meet our offer and finally settled on a very reasonable deal including shipping. As always, we feel like we could’ve done even better, but with the Canadians restless, we felt obligated to keep the day moving along. 

Distracted by the thought of my leather jackets, I continued to calculate the currency exchange to find a number I would be comfortable with. As if on cue, Thami’s phone rings again. It is the leather vendor determined to strike a deal. At the point of offending Thami, I countered once again. It was now close to 2:00PM and the stomachs were grumbling. We still had a stop at the looms and a quick peak at an old man covered in soot, stuffing wood chips into a furnace; the system for heating the hammam.

Approaching the 4,000 calories burned from walking, we arrived at Restaurant Hatim. Awaiting us was Fouad, our friend from yesterday. Feeling right at home and knowing that we would eat well, heck it was food Lowell cooked himself, I was slightly disappointed to not try somewhere new.

After lunch, Thami had organized a driver to take us to the ceramic factory, the Mellah aka Jewish quarter and then to see the panoramic view from the north fort. In that order, it was impressive to see how precisely these guys chip away at the tiles; making thousands of tiny mosaic pieces. The Jewish quarter seemed more like a flea market. And the final view overlooking the entire medina and Thami outlining our steps from start to finish was a perfect ending to the day.

Don’t be fooled, the dealings of the day were not yet over. Sometime around 4:30PM Abdul from the leather factory called again, with yet another offer. I got on the phone and after more wagering, we struck a deal for all three coats. Regardless of his efforts to obtain a delivery fee, we had a price and until he brought the jackets to our Riad and I was pleased, he had no power.

In between waiting for the jacket delivery scheduled for 9:00PM, I ran over to experience the local hammam. I borrowed towels and a basket from the Riad and turned into a local as I lay on the communal tile floor for a woman to scrub me down. It was far worse than the Korean scrubs we know in LA. I am a little scared by the sanitation but trying my best to not think about it.

At 9:00PM the hammam turns from female patrons to male and it was time for me to get back to the room to meet Abdul. He clearly got lost as well, since Richard the proprietor purposely does not place a sign on the street causing even the natives to struggle to find it.

Abdul arrived around 9:30PM with the jackets. We tried each on to discover that there were defects that would need to be corrected if I were to complete the transaction. Frustrated, yet desperate to please, Abdul went back to the factory to make the adjustments. The poor guy was anxious to get home, but unfortunately our only form of payment would be a credit card which required Lowell to accompany him back to the factory. In the commute, Lowell had a chance to get philosophical with the man and have a true heart to heart. They ran the cards, returned for a signature and we shook hands goodbye at 11:00PM. The jackets are gorgeous and will remain the last of my shopping for God knows how long.
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