Istanbul v. Marrakech touts in a battle of wit and shamelessness
In Marrakech, taxi drivers run all tourists directly to Djemaa el Fna square.
The square is alive. In the morning, it awakens to flute-tooting cobra-charmers and boisterous monkeys. The touts are the loudest of all: “Ape photo opp, ten dirham!” “Oops, snake’s on your shoulders. I remove for twenty dirham. Quick, he bites.”
The square sells, smells and sunbathes until dusk. As dark encroaches, sixty-two foldable restaurant stalls spring up. Each is efficiently identified by number—and unofficially, by aroma—rather than name. (I endorse #21.)
Souks branch off Djemaa el Fna, upping the ante on chaos. Smokey couscous carts, bright Islamic paintings, and jagged sabers crowd narrow alleys. Compressed spaces and Alice-in-Wonderland mazes enhance even the mildest vendor’s hassling prowess. It’s hard to ignore a tout if you must squeeze past him so closely that you can smell his Rogaine. It is even harder if you stroll by seven times in a blasé attempt to find the exit.
Top sales lines included:
“Pretty girl, beautiful price.” Ignored, the same salesman retorts, “Ugly girl. Fat ass.”
“Are you looking for a husband?” One ring-vendor inquires. Then, his voice squeaking with hope, he adds, “Or maybe just sex?”
“You like to belly dance?” I thought this was a cat call, but I turned and saw that the vendor sells sequined, stomach-baring costumes. Fair enough.
In Istanbul, the Grand Bizarre is—dare I say it—orderly. Good-natured sellers adjust prices, but less substantially. Tea is also part of the equation. One vendor gave us a final offer of 70 lira, or 65 lira if we drank apple tea to celebrate the deal. This is standard – Lonely Planet cautions Istanbul bargain seekers that they will need to drink tea by the jug-full.
Touts angling for attention, or just aching with ennui, shouted arbitrary lines:
“I’m the best!” (At what?)
“Where did you get your trousers?”
“Can I please tell you my life story?”
“How was your bath?” (Perhaps he noticed our wet hair)
“Are you still lost?” (Admittedly, that was not an arbitrary question)
“Don’t worry about me, I’m gay.”
“Can I hassle you?”
Back in New York City, my job had involved a good deal of negotiation. When I hit the souks this month, I hope I represented with Chris Matthews tenacity. (Family: I paid twenty percent of the asking price for your Christmas gifts. That’s love.)
As I haggled, merchants of Marrakech and Istanbul bent over backwards to explain significant cost adjustments. Some purported grounds for reduction:
– Barrack Obama is great, so Americans get discounts
– First client of the day is good luck, and you are first. (This is profound reasoning when the vendor has exchanged goods for money during your conversation.)
– Husbandless women are to be pitied
One salesman asked where I hailed from. He guessed France, then Britain.
When I divulged, he bellowed, “You’re from USA and you bargain?” Perhaps he considers Americans rich, stupid, or lazy; or all three. Most touts are none of those things. I’m glad we were able to converse despite perceived differences – and regardless of the approach.