Thursday, November 3, 2011

In which Primo and I both buy Moroccan rugs and spend way more than we should have

There is almost nothing worse than regretting a purchase not made. You can almost always find a use for something you buy that you end up not wanting – if you can’t return it, you can eBay it or give it as a wedding present, but if you don’t buy that great rug in Morocco, you will regret it maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and then for the rest of your life.

Such was my thinking when I did the research on oriental carpets before Primo and I went to Morocco. I had been through Crazy Hassan’s sales pitch the first time I went, but had resisted. I didn’t need a rug, didn’t want one, saw nothing that moved me. But I decided that should I fall in love with something, I wanted to be prepared – have some numbers in my head.

This despite the fact that I was unemployed. My desire for consumer goods was stronger than my desire for long-term survival. If I was going to be a bag lady, I would be a bag lady with a great Moroccan rug.

Yes, you are allowed to laugh at my stupidity.

I did my internet research, then Megan took us to a government-run co-op with fixed prices in Rabat. We took photos and notes – by gosh, Primo and I are both engineers at heart and he’s one in real life and we were going to approach this scientifically. “You can look in Fez,” Megan warned us, “but don’t buy a rug there. Everything they have there, you can find in Rabat and it’s a lot cheaper in Rabat. Do not buy a rug in Fez!”

Of course, we forgot everything she said when our guide (not Ahmet, but the one we had reserved for a full day) took us into that Fez carpet shop. Just to look. “We don’t want to buy a rug,” I told the guide.

“Oh is OK. This is rug museum,” he told me, as he held the door open and waved us in.

That’s when we discovered that buying a rug is like buying a car – you check Consumer Reports, write down your specs – and then fall in love with the way the car feels, its sound system and its color.

Primo, who truly had no intention of buying a rug, saw one he liked. He just liked it. The same way he had liked the bowl at the pottery place earlier in the evening. As a matter of fact, he had done something I had never seen him do before. He said, “I want this.” And he paid what I considered to be a rather high price for a piece of pottery. But when you like a piece of art, you like it. And it’s a lovely bowl.*

The same thing happened with the rug. He liked it. It is gorgeous. And unique – not antique – apparently, by definition in the rug world, it must be older than 100 years. This one is not over 100, but it is old.

“Let me handle this,” I muttered to Primo. “I’ve done this kind of thing before.” I was shrewd. I had bargained my way through South America, telling taxi drivers in Quito and La Paz that I was not going to pay the gringo tax so they better give me a better price. It didn’t always work. Sometimes I ended up walking, but I didn’t pay more than I should.

But I had never tried to buy a rug from a Moroccan rug salesman.

First, I denied any interest. “No, we are not interested in buying a rug. Yes, that’s lovely. But we are curious. How much would a rug like that cost?” I waved casually at the rug Primo liked.

“For you, I make good price,” Mohammed, the rug salesman, told me.

“And what would that price be?” I pressed him.

“Would you like some tea?” Mohammed asked. He clapped his hands and spoke sharply to one of the assistants who were unfurling rug after rug on the floor.

Then I rejected the hospitality that would inspire in me a compulsion to reciprocate. “No,” I told him. “No tea.” I don’t like regular tea, but the Moroccan tea of boiling water poured over a glassful of crushed mint leaves and then garnished with four tablespoons of sugar is pretty good. Still, I didn’t want us getting involved in a long social visit. I just wanted to know how much the darn rug cost. “What does the rug cost?”

Mohammed ignored me. I don’t know if that’s how he treats all customers or if that’s how he treats women. I supposed it didn’t matter. Either way, he continued to show us more rugs. They were all gorgeous. They were all without a price.

I saw one I liked. “How much would this rug cost for someone who was interested in buying a rug?”

Mohammed snapped his fingers at his assistant, who unrolled more rugs. “Look at this one.”

And we continued. Me asking how much the rug cost, Mohammed unfurling rug after rug. Finally, after what seemed like hours but was probably only 15 minutes, Mohammed answered the question. I pointed to the rug Primo liked and asked again. “How much would a rug like this cost?”

Five thousand dollars,” he answered.

I gasped. Primo gasped. “We cannot pay that price,” he said.

I knew in the US that Oriental rug prices can be five thousand dollars and more, but I also knew that in Morocco, they were not getting that kind of money.

“Don’t buy a rug in Fez,” Megan had warned. “But if you do, offer them 25% of what they ask.” Twenty five percent of $5,000 seemed so low. Typical amateur mistake – we let the salesman set the reference price.

“Our price would be an insult to you,” I told him politely.

“Please. Just tell me. I give you a number, now you give me a number.

“OK. One thousand dollars.” There. That should shut him up.

It didn’t.

“Four thousand five hundred,” he countered.

“One thousand.”

“I must sell a rug. Look, today I get the bill from my son´s school.” He showed us a fax from the University of Pennsylvania – a tuition bill. Not my problem.

“One thousand.”

“Four thousand.”

I was tired and hungry and annoyed that we had wasted half an hour or two hours or however long it had been looking at rugs we had no intention of buying and certainly could not afford. We turned to leave. “Goodbye,” I said. The willingness to walk away. That is the secret to any negotiation.

“OK, OK. Twelve hundred dollars. That is my best offer.”

I looked at Primo. He shrugged. I threw out my response. “And one thousand for the other one.”

“OK,” Mohammed answered.

OK? Crap! I had just spent one thousand dollars and Primo had spent more than that on rugs we had never planned to buy. How had that happened?

We paid – Mohammed took American Express and Visa – while the assistants were sewing the rugs tightly into woven plastic bags. “I have these delivered to hotel for you,” Mohammed assured us. “No charge.” I would think not, after the profitable evening he had had, although I worried that maybe he was lying and we would never see the rugs again.

No, I am not a trusting person at all, but then, I’ve never lost money in a Ponzi scheme or to a con man.

The rugs were waiting when we returned to the hotel. We took them back to Steve and Megan’s. The next day, Megan took us back to the Rabat rug co-op, where all the products have price tags.

“Look!” I said. “That´s like the rug we got.”

Primo walked over to the rug to examine it. “Stop!” he said. “Don't come any closer.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“You really, really do not want to see the price tag. Just trust me on this.”

“Oh no!” I said. “How bad is it?”

He quickly assured me. “Oh, it’s not that bad! Don’t worry about it.”

Except he was not being exactly truthful. We returned to Morocco again after we got married and got a third rug. In Rabat. With the coaching of a friend of Megan’s who had been a Peace Corps volunteer with a Moroccan textile co-op and who knew rugs.

We paid $400 for our third rug.

* Which shattered into pieces during shipping back to the US, all of which he painstakingly glued back together.