Marrakesh. Jemaa El Fna. 11.30am.
I was travelling with my daughters, aged 15 and 13. I have travelled to a number of Arab and Islamic countries and am somewhat accustomed to the sights and sounds of the souk. But even I was blown away by assault on the sense of this place. As for my daughters, they were slack-jawed and saucer-eyed.
Given my previous experiences in places like Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Tunisia, I had taken time to explain to my daughters that they needed to be on their toes, alert to everything and prepared for anything. And if this is true of anywhere in the world, it’s this UNESCO world heritage site – the main trading square at one end of the Sahara. A place where snake charmers rub shoulders with dancers and story-tellers … where, by day, trade is everything and, by night, flavoursome Berber food takes centre stage.
I wanted the three of us to cut a fine line between taking it all in and being taken in. Toothless Bedouin women were keen on grabbing my daughters’ arms to try and start a black henna tattoo, before anyone had time to object. Encouraged by me, they were just about holding their own. I could see that they were loving the experience and slightly terrified at the same time. Exactly the reasons why I had brought them to this riveting, intoxicating city.
We then came across a gentle, smiling street seller who had a slab of thick gingerbread, resting on a plank placed across an upturned crate. He had little tasters of this confection and the aroma of treacly ginger enticed us over. He calmly and politely offered us each a piece, starting with my younger daughter and ending with me. It is no exaggeration to say that this was the most incredible, moist, chewy, sweet, fragrant delight that any of us had ever tasted. It was angel food and its maker knew it.
He motioned towards the 2ft by 1ft slab on the plank … “would you like to buy some to eat in the park over there?” He pointed to a pretty spot just beyond the square, with cooling shade provided by verdant date palms. The girls turned their gaze on me. They clearly wanted more of this delicious treat, but I needed to show them that guardedness equated to survival in this place.
“How much is it?”, I ventured. “Only thirty dirhams for one hundred grams, sir”. Ok. About two pounds sterling. That would work. Dad would be a hero and it wouldn’t cost him an arm and a leg. “Ok. We’ll take some.” The girls were beaming. Our new friend hovered his large knife halfway down the slab. “This much?” “No, no, no”, I exclaimed. He slid his knife to halve the half. “This much?” I pointed to half of that piece. He swiftly brought his knife down and wrapped the piece up in some grease-proof paper, smiling at me and my daughters.
He then proceeded to bring a set of electronic scales from under the crate and plonked our portion onto them. “That’ll be three hundred dirhams, sir.” About twenty quid! I looked suspiciously at the scales, but they were proudly displaying 1.05kg. It appears that he’d let me off the odd fifteen dirhams. I picked up the gingerbread and handed it to my elder daughter. To be fair, it did feel the weight of a bag of sugar.
Muttering under my breath, I took three hundred dirhams out and gave the baker a look that said ‘we both know what’s gone on here’ and shepherded my girls to the park.
A few moments later, we were sitting on a cool bench, relishing the spicy treat. What had The Commercial Traveller learnt? Firstly, that really understanding units of measure is so vital when it comes to negotiation. I know what a kilo is and I know how much a dirham is worth. The seller had not been at all disingenuous. I had bought what I asked for. My problem was that I didn’t factor in density. When negotiating, knowing how much of a product or service you need is way more important than a deal that might be on offer.
Secondly, there is a lesson about the value of a product or service. My first inclination was that I had been ripped off …. that he might have ‘got me’ this time, but that is never a way to treat your customers. However, sitting there in the park with my two daughters, enraptured whilst chomping this exquisite slab of rich perfection, my annoyance started to melt away. Maybe that moment, in retrospect, had a value that easily equalled two tenners.
I bet the baker has daughters.
Photos kindly provided by www.visitmorocco.com.