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Bargains Off Morocco's Beaten Path

May 17, 1987|ROBIN CHARTERIS | Charteris works for the New Zealand Associated Press in London. and

GOULIMINE, Morocco — It bears a passing resemblance to a Bozeman, Mont., stock sale: farmers knowledgeably assessing the livestock, poking flanks, studying the staple of the wool, chatting quietly over the merits of the season.

But this is the weekly camel sale at Goulimine, "the door of the desert," a sandy, dusty, brown-bare town on the edge of the Sahara in southern Morocco. Other similarities with America's rural Midwest are few indeed.

Clusters of camels, single-humped and furry-fawn, fidget huge cleft feet around the edge of the stone-walled market yard. Before them are paraded placid little posses of coarse-wooled sheep and dirty brown goats, hobbled by their front legs or with necks tied loosely together with twine.

Beside each group of a dozen or so of the smaller animals squat and stand their owners, some in flowing hooded cloaks, others in grubby once-white robes with heavy belts and jeweled, curved knives at their waists. Prospective buyers stroll through the throng, greeting one another and the sellers with the traditional Islamic handshake and touch to the heart.

Amicable Bargaining

No auctioneer shouts the odds or drums up customers. Buying and selling is a matter of amicable agreement between the parties, some of whom occasionally lead off knots of animals to waiting pickup trucks or simply drive them off across the dusty plain.

The camels, at least 40 at this Saturday sale, are sold in ones and twos rather than in herds. The going price for a good one, we are told in passable English by one of the many locals infuriatingly enthusiastic to be our guides, is about 10,000 dirhams, or about $1,200 U.S. To the people of the Sahara, the camel is transportation, food, clothing and fuel.

Most of the haughty beasts have been brought in from the desert, plodding their way in convoy from distant oases to the east or from Mauritania to the south. Here at Goulimine is the last of a chain of oases that sustain the Rijel Zurag, or "blue men" of the Sahara, named for the indigo-dyed robes they sometimes wear.

They come not just to sell camels, but also to exchange handcrafted jewelry and prized family possessions for grain and other necessities made scarce by the prolonged drought in the Sahara. Their journeys can be long and difficult, some coming from as far as Timbuktu in the southeast, 30 days and more away.

The men travel lightly, leaving wives and children behind, sleeping by day and riding by night when the stars and rudimentary handmade compasses passed down from generation to generation define the route.

Arriving at places such as Goulimine, 125 miles southeast of coastal Agadir, and Tiznit, 70 miles closer, one or two of the blue men set up huge desert tents and offer their wares for sale. Most buyers are Moroccans; tourists are rare, especially at Goulimine, which is well off the usual tourist track.

The offerings are exotic and exciting to Western eyes: antique Berber brooches and pins, heavy bracelets of silver and ebony, jewel boxes encrusted with turquoise and amethyst, ornate silver and copper trays, triangular fibulas set with semiprecious stones, swords and daggers with scabbards chased with silver and embellished with multicolored crystals.

Ritual of the Deal

For those fortunate enough to find such a tent, the ritual of appraising the merchandise begins with a lengthy introduction between local guide, self-appointed and unshakable, and seller. Translations are lengthy before the greeting is extended--busses to each cheek twice and a gracious "marhaba, marhaba " (welcome, welcome).

The ceremony of taking mint tea, tiny glass after tiny glass, must be completed and small talk politely exchanged before the man of the desert will open his decorated chests and pour out his goods.

Pressure to buy is subtle but pervasive. One comes to believe that to leave without buying would be an affront to the hospitality offered. The wily seller plays on this. When we eventually left, we were lighter in the pocketbook and with a somewhat bemused feeling of "I wonder if we really wanted that and did we pay too much."

Later, a Western jewelry shop confirmed that, even though we had haggled the prices down only slightly, we had not been fleeced. Indeed, we had made considerable bargains.

Buying in the souks, or markets, of Moroccan villages frequented by tourists is a different affair. There a sharp sense of bargaining is needed to combat the outlandish asking prices. Once a hard-nosed attitude is adopted and an opening bid of a quarter to a third offered, one can make good buys in pottery, leather and silver goods at roughly half the asking price.

Sights and Sounds

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