Browsing souqs (souks) whether in Morocco, Egypt or in Oman is always a fascinating experience. They are entirely different from western markets, hives of activity where haggling is usually not only encouraged but expected.
Often bustling, especially in popular tourist destinations where visiting a souq is one of the one of the highlights of the trip. Alien experiences which allow us a glimpse of the society and offer a degree of cultural immersion.
Many cool souvenirs are available often superbly handcrafted and after some negotiation at very reasonable prices. Pretty jewellery, leather goods such as bags and sandals, vibrant pottery and stalls displaying a rainbow of multi-coloured fabrics. Scarves and shawls are popular items with many tourists however the quality is often hard to judge. I’ve seen many travellers come away from a merchant believing they have the bargain of a lifetime only to find that their clothes and skin is soon discoloured from the cherished garment losing dye.
The best way around this is to set the sights on an obviously high quality product such as cashmere but initially inspect low to mid-range products. Chat with the vendor for a while, establish a connection however tenuous before casually expressing some interest in the cashmere. The price he quotes first will obviously be inflated so display some mock shock and attempt to walk away. He will almost without fail attempt to continue the negotiations, at this point appear a little disinterested but keep the engagement going whilst pretending to browse.
Patience is vital, skilled traders will be convincing in the value of other products but remain firm. Continue browsing as if merely window shopping but nothing is tempting. Keep chatting however, attempt to make a connection with him by engaging in a relaxed, good-humoured manner. Eventually inform him its time to leave, checking the watch works well. This often results in the cashmere being offered at the same price as a lower priced item, sometimes even less.
It is not always successful but it has been on a many occasions for me. The bartering should be enjoyable, it is part of the ‘game’ and if both parties come away happy then it was a success. It is unlikely the merchant will undercut himself, so there isn’t any need to feel guilty, the original price will have been grossly inflated. Provided the price paid seems reasonable, it all will be fine.
Souks are a ‘full on’ experience involving all the senses, as well as the sights and sounds, the aromatic scents of various herbs and spices drift temptingly down the aisles between stalls. Our nose is usually aware of their presence long before our eyes are able to feast on the vibrant colours. These aromas are sometimes subtle, but often powerful, they can even be sensuous, their trail is often impossible to ignore. The reward for those that follow is often an explosion of bright hues, the colours as appealing as their fragrance. Purchases are common.
Inspecting the various fabrics and even the fruit on display is a tactile experience, hoping to judge the quality or ripeness by the way it feels. Wandering through one of these market places is often a captivating experience for those willing to put preconceptions aside and merely enjoy any encounters with traders or locals.
Especially interesting aspects of souqs are the surprising items which are available. Farmers markets may also sell live animals but I’ve yet to see a western one where the merchants are selling tobacco leaves. These traders in the souks of Seeb in Oman where the people must really prefer to roll their own. I looked carefully but could not see any government health warning either.
Exotic fruit and vegetables are often on display, some of them look really bizarre almost like the cocoons from the film ‘Alien’. Guessing what the type of vegetables on sale has become a favourite pastime.
Souqs come in all sizes and guises, offering the perfect opportunity to explore. A small cluster of shops in Omani, Nizwa or the huge market places which surround the famous Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech.
They are the perfect place to have a well-worn pair of approach shoes or a favourite pair of sandals repaired. Repairs can usually be completed on the spot, just leave them with the skilled cobbler. Enjoy a coffee and a little more browsing they will be as good as new, sometimes even better on your return.
Souqs maybe a little daunting with the constant attention of traders but is usually worth the experience. The opportunities for photography are plentiful and a bargain is always possible, it is worth making the effort and braving the hassle. Some destinations are more challenging than others. Cairo is especially taxing with constant attention, Marrakech also, but does have legislation to protect tourists from excessively aggressive salesmen. Oman is more laid back, there is very little pressure applied by any of the traders and browsing is a relaxed experience.
Visiting local souks is always tempting and it is the only retail therapy that I participate in, probably because it is more of an adventure than the usual shopping expeditions.