I stuck out my sweaty 10 dirham. “Thank you.”
He shook his head. “No, no. Thank you, but it’s free. This is your place to explore.”
Then, as if it was the most casual selection in the world, he pointed to a market stall at our left. He picked up a spice and began showing it to us.
“Great, thanks.” I tried. “We’ll just have a browse.”
But it was too late. Out came the shopkeeper, all smiles and warm welcomes. The other man shrank from sight. Suddenly, we were the subject of much gesticulating and handshaking before we were led inside. Then the sales pitch continued, as we were poured tea (“traditional Berber tea”) and shown each and every item in the shop.
This was new. We were no longer in the usual market where we could brush past and carry on, but were sat inside a shop, in an unfamiliar location, with a man whose painfully forced hospitality had failed to hide the fact that he was now blocking the door.
I glanced at the prices as he spoke. A lump of sandalwood was priced – on a faded sticker – at 3 dirham (around 30p) per gram. It would cost a sure fortune – steep in UK prices but unprecedented at local rates – if a single piece was weighed up.
“So what do you want to buy?” He asked.
A pause. Not for the first time, my girlfriend and I looked at each other; both of us realised it was too late to back out now.
“I’ll take some Berber tea,” she replied, at which the shopkeeper loaded scoopfuls into a plastic bag.
“I’ll have some Argan oil, please.” If it could be used as a gift, I figured, maybe I could justify
paying a higher price.
“And that’s all?” The man looked incredulous. We weren’t budging any further.
Armed with a pair of scales, he totted up his tally.
The price sent a shock to my stomach (of all places). It was more than double what we’d paid for a meal the night before.
We negotiated less for the tea, but it was clear from the seller’s increasingly perturbed expression that the price would not be going down further than 190 dirham. Trapped in the store and with no clue how to escape the Jewish Quarter in a rush, I paid him 200. He put it straight into his pocket. No change came out.
We questioned him but it was no use. The smile had dropped off his face, replaced with an irritable frown.
“I have no change.” (How fitting for a shopkeeper.)
Instead, he added a stick of Berber lipstick to the sack and with a grunt, showed us out the shop.
As we walked back down the street, I heard a shout.
“Hey, you’re going the wrong way!” I turned, and saw the man who’d brought us into the quarter. I stuck a hand into the air, waved him off and carried on walking. We’d find our own way out.