Thursday, June 23, 2011

Buying Moroccan Carpets in Fez

Tales of carpet scams in Morocco, of unethical salesmen, and of mint tea overdoses are popular post-holiday dinner party chat. But are they really all as bad as that? Is every Moroccan carpet salesman a con artist and are most tourists simply gullible? When we did some digging around we discovered the truth is not that simple.

Tale the first

Dale (name changed) would describe himself at the time of his visit to Morocco as "naive". It was his first trip outside Australia and, as he puts it "I really hadn't done my homework." Dale was travelling with his elderly mother, a formidable woman with a passion for carpets.

Their initial experience with a carpet salesmen was on their first day in the Fez Medina and was enjoyable until they returned to their hotel. As the sugar-high from the mint tea wore off, they checked their receipts and calculated the exchange rates. Somehow, in the buzz and excitement, they had managed to spend three times their budget and spent around 21,000 Australian Dollars (175,000 Dirhams). "I felt physically sick at my stupidity," Dale's mum recalls.

a typical Fez carpet showroom
Now in most travel horror stories, that's where it ends. But while naive, Dale wasn't stupid. He contacted a friend in Fez, who rang the carpet shop and made an appointment for the following day. The next morning Dale and his mother used a guide to find the shop again and after a little haggling, had the carpets returned and the credit card bill annulled.

The story ends happily with Dale's mother going shopping again two days later, armed with a pocket calculator. As she tells it, "I bargained like a Berber andspent exactly what I intended, got the rugs I wanted and the nice man even threw in a small runner for free."

Tale the second

Deb and Dave are the folks behind the popular site The Planet D: Around the World Adventure Couple, Last winter their friends Gail Burgin and her husband, Frank Marino (who took the photographs below), travelled to Morocco and while in Fez had what can only be described as a "carpet adventure". Luckily for us, Gail shared her experience in a guest post on Planet D.

Gail described her experience as "one of the most  frightening and expensive experiences of my life". A link to the full story is below, but here is an edited extract:

When you arrive in Morocco you know you must leave your Western ways and assumed certainties behind, but no matter how prepared you think you are, nothing prepares you for the carpet sellers.

Abdul, our tour guide, a pleasant, knowledgeable guy, who seemed very western to us, despite wearing a traditional djellaba (caftan) and bernousse (cap), led us through a very small door into a large room with a gorgeous skylight, its walls covered floor to ceiling with carpets. Within two strides of our entering the room we are introduced to Mohamed, who seemed to appear from nowhere.

In one complete breath he asks – “Where are you from? Do you like Morocco? What are your names?, he gives orders to the ceiling for mint tea, and he yells something to the walls in Arabic. In four seconds two people arrive and simultaneously throw carpets at our feet; a cacophony of colour unfurling before our eyes.

"Four women worked on this carpet"
Mohamed scoops up one of the carpets and brings it to my face, “Can you see the detail in this carpet? Four women worked on this carpet at the same time. Look! Look at the stitching, one woman went blind while making this carpet. If you buy this carpet, you will be helping 1000 people – a whole village!! Every stitch is done by hand. It is only 6,000!”

I squeek out – 6000 dirhams? ($1,800. Canadian dollars). No, not dirhams, Euros. 6000 Euros!! That’s 8000 Canadian dollars!

By this time we are surrounded by no less than six people, one person is guiding us to walk on the carpets, someone else is serving us tea, two people are continuously throwing carpets at our feet. Mohamed is IN MY FACE repeating over and over the value and provenance of the carpets, and Abdul, all pretense of westernism tossed aside, is speaking into my ear – “How much do you want to pay? 4000? 3000? You can trust these people, they have the best carpets in Morocco!!”

Then I am separated from Frank who is immediately engulfed by his own team of carpet sellers. I blurt out, “How can 1000 people be involved in this carpet – I can’t believe it”.

Without missing a beat, Mohamed pushes the carpet back up into my face – “Look at the stitches, look at the colours. The four women who made this carpet support eight families, LOOK AT THE STITCHES every one made by hand!! 100 people take care of the sheep, 100 people work the land, 100 people take care of the donkeys, 100 people take the wool from the sheep, 100 people spin the wool, 100 people dye the wool. THE WOMEN, THEY GO BLIND MAKING THESE CARPETS!! And Abdul keeps repeating into my ear – “Buy two carpets, you’ll get a better deal, two is better, yes, two!”

I shout: “Two!! How much for two?” From across the room Frank is mouthing the word “TWO??”

I say, “1000!!! We can only afford 1000 Euros.” Abdul is by my arm and he has switched sides again to support my efforts. From the high of 6000 Euros for one carpet, we are haggling over 1000 Euros for two. Mohamed retrieves Frank who is dragged forward and asked, “What is wrong with your wife, how can I sell two carpets for 1000 Euros. It has to be 2000 – I am beggaring myself, think of the blind women, 2000 it must be.” Frank and I look at each other, acknowledging that we should just give in, so he nods his head in assent and is immediately whisked off by Mohamed to pay.

We ended up paying 4000 Euros or $6000 Cnd for two carpets, — it turns out it was 2000 Euros per carpet that Mohamed beggared himself for — and we comforted ourselves with the knowledge we improved the lives of a thousand Moroccans. (I wish)

"... our gorgeous Moroccan carpet"
And as the months and the sting of spending $6000 have passed by, whenever we walk on our gorgeous Moroccan carpets, we are filled with nostalgia for more travel.


When we read the post, we were intrigued by the sense that their "carpet experience" had been a scam. While everyone who has experienced the wild theatricality of the carpet sellers will talk about the pressure and the polished selling style ("Madam, buy this side and you get the other side for free"), in the end, a good deal is when seller and buyer are both happy. So, armed with Frank Marino's photographs, we went carpet hunting.

Three local experts in Fez agree that the carpet pictured above is fine example from the High Atlas. More specifically, from the Taznakt region and probably from A'it Ougherda. They also say it would NOT have been made by four women, but by one.

When it comes to the price, although there was some disagreement, all the estimates put the resale value at between 15,000 and 21,000 Moroccan dirhams (1300 Euro - 1800 Euro). As one carpet expert put it. "It could actually be a bit higher. This is a fine example and such pieces can be a little bit expensive."

At the end of the day, while Gail and Frank probably paid more than they intended, they were not totally ripped-off and have ended up with a beautiful reminder of their time in Morocco ... and a great story to tell.

Thanks to PlanetD for sharing, and to Si Mohammed Bouzidi for canvassing the prices and provenance for us. You can read Gail's full story here:  PlanetD Morocco.

If you intend buying carpets in Morocco, we suggest you follow this link and  read : The Beginners' Guide to Buying Moroccan Carpets.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, but I am a westerner working in a riad in Fez and over six months of working there I have managed to glean the true story of carpet selling from the Moroccan staff. I was offered a huge cut of profits if I coerced guests into rug shopping and the shops affiliated with the riad made a sale. I refused (the whole basis of my job is making tourists more comfortable because they trust a westerner and getting into dodgy commissions would undermine this).
However, the riad owner gets most of the profits from any sales. The guides, shop owner and hotel receptionists also get smaller cuts. The 'poor blind women' in the mountains get virtually nothing. The first price mentioned is usually so ridiculous - say €6000, that by the time it comes down to €1000 you think you're getting a bargain. Not true. The value of the rug is much lower and you're simply paying to line the pockets of the riad owner - who has the power of veto over the sale by the way. If the price gets too low, the shop owner will phone the riad and ask if it's permissable to proceed with the sale.
Many new rugs are left in the sun on roof terraces and scrubbed to fade them and make them look old. Most of the carpet selling IS a scam. You need to be fore-armed with knowledge, determination and do not use a guide recommended by your riad for shopping. (This doesn't apply to Western-owned riads as all the ones I know don't take part in the Moroccan carpet mafia).
You have been warned!
(Publishing anonymously as I don't want to lose my job...)

Anonymous said...

I agree about the carpet mafia However, after being in Fès for a few years we have discovered the shops that operate outside the Mafia!! We have also been on a buying expedition in the Atlas and seen what they cost to buy and then in Fès what they sell for. Luckily, not all the dealers are sharks.

Driss said...

I know that some Europeans also do mafia thing. Not all just some. It is bad for our business and so we refuse to pay commission

john said...

The carpet warehouses provide much needed work and income to the people they employ. i have 3 carpets i purchashed on my first vist to fes. Yes i proberly paid too much for them at fez prices but a fraction of what they would have cost if I had brought the in a carpet show room in london.

There is a lot of poverty in fez and else carpets seeling helps relive some poverty fot those it employs albeit the sgare of the sales is not proportionatley split.

The View from Fez said...

Hi John,
You make a very good point. I too have seen Moroccan carpets on sale in France and Australia with prices that are astronomical compared to Moroccan prices. You also make a good point about employment.

Anonymous said...

Leave the cities and travel to the villages ... there is nothing more heartwarming than truly connecting with the talented women who have actually made the rugs and other handicrafts you select ... and you stand a much better chance of knowing your money actually goes to the families that produced the carpets. Try seeking out Peace Corps volunteers ... there are about 250 spread out across Morocco at any given time, and many of them work with the women who weave these amazing designs. Enjoy your time in Morocco!

Anonymous said...

Awesome. Great article. Thank you for sharing

Anonymous said...


I recently made a trip to Imlil, a village in the Atlas mountains and of course I found my way to the carpet sellers as well. I bought a lovely carpet that I brought back to Sweden and I am so far very content.
Why I clicked on this page though is because I was searching for the name of the region my rug is from and the picture of this one reminded so much about the carpet I bought. The patterns and the sides are the same, so there is no doubt about that they are from the same region.
So here is my story of how I got my carpet and what I found out about carpet sellers.
Since I work at an auction house in Sweden I'm very familiar to the prices of the carpets that the swedish market provides, though the these carpets are mostly from the Middle Eastern. Anyway, I was determined that I wasn't going to pay more for the carpet than I could get back if I decided to sell it after some years in Sweden. And I wasn't going to spend more money on a Maroccan carpet than I could for buying one of the same quality in some auction here in Sweden.
Now that I've made my shopping I can see that it was very good that I decided to not only buy with my heart but let my head set the price.
Anyway, it was clear that my goal was a bit hard to reach, the combination of high quality and low price isn't always easy to find. But since the market is so big and the prices are so low is Sweden I had set my mind.
We bought the rug at the third shop we entered. Which I think was really good. On our way we found out more about the different kind of quality and prices of Moroccan carpets than we expected. I tried to read the sellers, to see if they were giving the same information about the different styles of carpets, the production and so on. At the first shop I got my eyes on a beautiful Kilim carpet, but the price was too high and the seller was hinting that his other carpet from Taznakt was of higher quality (and of course a higher price). I didn't mind that carpet much attention, and when I left the shop my thoughts were still on the Kilim carpet.
On the second day we made a trip to the another seller and I asked to see his Kilim carpets, and again it was pointed out that there was other carpets of better quality than the Kilim... this time I got interested! I took a second look on the carpets from Taznakt he presented. The quality was high but the colors wrong so we left the seller and carried on the the third shop, a very big one.
And there it was, our carpet, a beautiful yellowish carpet from Taznakt. I realised soon that if I was going to afford it we were going to have a very long conversation about the price.

continuation on the next comment./ Stina

Anonymous said...


So in Berberic style me and the seller sat down on the floor and started to discuss the price. The first price he offered me was good, 4400MAD and I was told that the prices here were better than in the cities. Any way, as a businesswoman I presented my bid 1800MAD. I told him that I knew about the market of carpets at home and I couldn't go higher if I wanted a good deal. His next offer was 2900MAD, and after another 15minutes of discussion (smiling and shaking our heads) the offer was 2300MAD. I moved up to 1900MAD and we ended at 2000MAD.
It was diplomatic but still a very good price for a tourist I think. In the end it seemed like I was more happy than the seller, it was clear that he expected me to go higher.

So a conclusion is:
1. Don't set the price with your heart, it ruins you.
2. Don't buy at the first shop
3. Don't give to much away, NEVER show them how much u like it!
4. Buy in low season (jan,feb) = still a lot of sellers but few buyers.
5. Read the seller, don't buy the story of four women's work and 3 months time of production (they lie!)
6. And so the price, don't feel rude when you argue. They will always try to take as much money from you as possible (there is no honor), so argue at least to 30-40% of the first price! B.t.w. I am pretty sure that the sellers get all the extra of the deal and not the producers. Trust me, they go to markets and buy from the women, takes it back and sell them for much more. So the price you pay won't directly affect the income of the women.

That's it, a very long story. I hope it will help you on the way! I wish I could post a picture of my carpet so you could see it.

Btw, the story that you tell here I clearly recognize. Never ever ask another seller about a price another buyer got! U asked if it was an acceptable price the other buyers got for the carpet, and of course they will say yes, though in a defuse way by telling you a slightly lower price, just for gaining your trust. Even if they were not the first sellers they know that they might earn a lot on the story it if it makes you expect to pay a similar high price as well.

I know I sound cynical about the Morrocan carpet sellers, but trust me, the big majority of the sellers are not to trust. They want your money, that's it!

/ Stina

Anonymous said...

Any recommendations where to go and buy a carpet in Fez?

The View from Fez said...

Yes... trustworthy people...