The All-Women’s Carpet Market in Morocco

The home decor shopping in Morocco is ridiculously good and best of all are the rugs. I left our 10-month tour in Rabat with about 10 rugs, which is not too shabby, but not as many as I would have liked. Adam didn’t share my love of rug shopping and there were times I had to hide my purchases out of fear of being subject to a lengthy financial lecture. But I was taking the long view: We were only in Morocco a short amount of time and some of the rugs were just too cool to pass up, and also I got pretty good at negotiating prices. It all worked out well because turns out our place in Algiers has many square feet of empty, shiny gray marble floors that are just begging for bright Moroccan rugs.

Moroccan rugs are named for the tribe from which that style originates, and there are just a handful of main styles you’ll see again and again in the souks, making it easy to find your favorite. There are Arab carpets, which resemble a Persian rug with their softness, formal design, and colors (lots of reds). But it’s much more common in Morocco to see rugs woven by Berbers, who are also called Amazigh. In general the Berber rugs tend to be woolier, funkier, more colorful, and their designs often tell a story, one that’s likely only known to the woman weaving it. And it’s always the women who weave rugs in Morocco. The design site 1st Dibs has a good rundown of the different styles of Berber rugs you’d find in Morocco. My personal favorite are the Boujaad rugs, which are pile rugs (so there’s some shagginess to them) woven in the Middle Atlas region of Morocco by Berber women. Boujaad rugs are boho, colorful, can look kind of ’60s, and they’re the favorite pee spot for our cat Gus.

Miraculously, Gus hasn’t touched this red and rust colored Boujaad that was in the guest bedroom of our Moroccan apartment. I bought this one from my rug guy Mohammed, in Rabat’s medina.
Gus peed on both these vintage Boujaad rugs. After a good wash, I hung them on the wall out of his reach.

I bought most of my rugs from Rabat’s medina, followed by Tangier’s medina and then Marrakech. Every medina has great rugs and the less travelled the city is, the better prices you’ll get. I once bought a friend a gorgeous 4X11 rug in the tiny medina in Azrou and that is probably the best deal I’ve ever got on a rug (about $230).

But this post is about a truly unique rug-buying experience: The every-Tuesday Khemisset carpet market. Back when I first arrived in Morocco, my friend Tara got me truly excited about this place, mostly from her lovely blog post on it. Every Tuesday, from about 7am to 11am, year round, Berber women set up their carpets in big open-air concrete structure in the town of Khemisset, which is less than an hour-and-a-half drive from both Rabat and Fez. Another friend (who scored three carpets from Khemisset for shockingly low prices) told me I must arrive before sunrise but because still-dark mornings make me legit physically ill, I did not oblige that advice. Instead my friend Krista and I arrived around 8:30am on a Tuesday morning back in March. (Krista is an amazing photographer and world traveler and you should do yourself a favor and follow her on Instagram @kristarossow.) Finding the market was not difficult; I just typed “Khemisset” into Waze and then followed the crowd of pedestrians, cars, and horse-drawn carts to the market. Outside the carpet market is a huge flea market that has been going on every Tuesday likely for hundreds of years. If you’re lost, ask any one of the many policemen or a local to point your toward “les tapis” or “souk Zrabi.” Park wherever you can and look for the red concrete structure. That’s where the carpets are.

Krista and I were mostly interested in finding a few nice rugs each and photographing the gorgeous colors textures as well as Berber women selling the carpets. The dirt-floored, open ceiling structure is chocked full of booths with gorgeous, insanely colorful rugs, pillows, pillow covers, and wedding blankets. The selection was even better than I had hoped.

We were the only tourists there that day. This place is mostly frequented by rug sellers who buy in bulk and take the carpets back to their shops.

A van loaded up with Khemisset carpets and likely headed to one of Morocco’s many bustling medinas.

We didn’t have much purchasing power as just two ladies buying at most a few rugs each. I tried to explain to some of the women that I lived in Morocco, which usually gets me discount, but we soon realized there wasn’t going to be any shared language here. The women speak Berber. I could muster a few words of both Arabic and French, but they mostly didn’t land. When we asked prices, more often that not, the rug maker would ask to see all our cash and we’d hand over our dirhams and she’d count from our wad to indicate how much she wanted for each rug. I don’t recommend the “Here’s all the cash I have and now please make up a price” method of haggling; it doesn’t work in the buyer’s favor. Sometimes there’d be a younger man or woman around that could help with the negotiation, usually speaking some French and/or English and armed with a calculator and we’d go back and forth typing in digits to represent in dirhams what we’re willing to pay.

I wanted this poppy beauty but ultimately decided it’s similar to something I already have.
Krista with a Zanefi style rug that was made on a loom and then the colorful
embroidery was added by hand.

One particular interaction was a little troubling, especially in light of our perception that this all-woman market empowers these incredible rug-making women. Krista wanted a sparkly blanket and pillow set and we were talking to the woman at her booth about prices. All of a sudden, a man appeared behind us, breathing down our necks. I told him to back up, and noticed that the Berber woman’s demeanor had totally changed. We had been laughing and smiling and haggling with her a second before and in the presence of this guy, she clammed up and looked down. He told us a price and said that was the lowest it could possibly be. We didn’t like this and walked away. After a few laps, we came back real quick and tried to just negotiate with this woman without the creepy guy around. It worked, but it left a bad taste that it was this guy – maybe a family member? – who really controlled this woman’s livelihood.

Krista bought two rugs and a blanket and I walked away with two vintage boujaad rugs, both in the purple/orange family (or as I call them “sunset hues”). I think I paid about $150 for each, which is an okay price for a vintage rug. Certainly not a steal, but that was about as low as I could get. Rug vendors like to say “A good price is one that both the buyer and seller feel good about.” I felt fine about the price, but I went in thinking that I’d be able to score much lower prices and I was not able to do that.

Khemisset Carpet Market isn’t exactly for the faint of heart. Negotiating with no shared language can be uncomfortable. I thought we’d at least have shared hand gestures, but one woman appeared to be shooing us away with her hands, and then we realized she was actually beckoning us to her! But it was an adventure – driving to the middle of nowhere in Morocco all in search of great deals on gorgeous handmade rugs – and it was certainly an unforgettable cultural experience. I’d call Khemisset a must-visit for any likeminded (read: rug-and-bargain-obsessed) individuals vacationing or living in Morocco.

Quick tips for Khemisset Carpet Market:

  • If you’re visiting Morocco and want to get here, I’d recommend renting a car, which is easier than you’d think. The roads in Morocco are mostly excellent and it’s not hard to find your way around. Otherwise, ask wherever you’re staying to help you find a driver who will take you there, wait, and bring you back, probably to Rabat or Fez.
  • There’s a really nice rest stop (called an Aire de Repos in French) at the Khemisset exit and it has a Starbucks automated machine that makes good lattes. Get one, and also use the toilet because…
  • There are no restrooms at the carpet market. So maybe don’t have a coffee before? But you really do need one in order to be mentally sharp enough for your negotiations.
  • Bring plenty of cash. There is no ATM and they don’t take credit cards. Separate your cash into piles of 1000 dirhams (about $104) for easier negotiating. Also, this way you don’t need to show all your cards, so to speak, if it turns out the only way to communicate prices is for the rug weavers to count out money straight from your stash.
  • If you have a nice big calculator, maybe bring that to help with price negotiations. You can also use the calculator on your phone, or even a piece of paper. If communicating numbers isn’t working, you should be able to find someone who speaks French or English, likely a younger person. Just don’t despair. You can do it! It’ll work out.
  • Once you start buying rugs, flag down a guy with a wheeled cart and start stockpiling your rugs there. He’ll eventually push the cart to your car and you should tip him about 20 dirham (about $2).

To Moroccan rugs,

Emily

2 Comments

  1. Oh, that was such a fun day of adventure in Khemisset! Reading this makes me want to go back and buy more rugs and blankets. I love everything we bought and all of those interesting cultural interactions. I can’t wait to see pics of all your beauties in place in your new home in Algiers. Thanks for the great memories. xx

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