The Moroccan market where women rule

Taylor Luck
Fatima Rifiya (left), a veteran carpet seller, bargains with a customer over a Berber rug at her stand at the zarabi souk in Khemisset, Morocco, Oct. 15, 2019.

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At a rug market in the plains below the Middle Atlas Mountains, women are the shearers, weavers, mediators, sellers, and distributors. There is no room for men in their business model – and they like it that way.

The market is in Khemisset, a bilingual town of Berbers and Arabs. It has long been a natural trading post where Berber farmers and craftswomen from the mountain villages and rural hinterlands sell to urban, mainly Arab clientele.

Why We Wrote This

How can women best profit from their labors? One answer, our reporter found, lies in a bustling Moroccan rug market: by cutting out the middlemen. Actually, most men.

Anyone wishing to fill their tourist bazaar, hotel, or travel bag with the intricate Berber rugs on sale here must first go through the merchant matriarchs who run the market. Every Tuesday, dealers from Fez, Rabat, and Marrakech make their pilgrimage to Khemisset armed with a budget, empty vans, and patience. For the women of Khemisset know more than carpets; they know how to bargain.

The market isn’t a charitable or government initiative to help rural women. It is a grassroots product of local residents and shared interests that has evolved over three decades. How successful is it? Morocco now has two similar, smaller women-run markets in the plains surrounding the Atlas Mountains.

The carpet palace is at the far end of the bustling, dusty, weekly outdoor market here.

Past heaps of wheat and grain, mounds of clothes, and piles of sandals and animal feed is a rust-colored structure with vaulted archways and bushels of thread and fabric.

But visitors drawn by the allure of Berber rugs of every hue must abide by one important law: Inside this palace, women rule.

Why We Wrote This

How can women best profit from their labors? One answer, our reporter found, lies in a bustling Moroccan rug market: by cutting out the middlemen. Actually, most men.

For here at Khemisset’s zarabi souk – literally “rug market” – women are the shearers, weavers, mediators, sellers, and distributors. There is no room for men in their business model – and they like it that way.

Moroccan connoisseurs know their straight-from-the-source products: the minimalist, black-and-white geometric weaves of the Beni Ourain; the colorful reds, blues, yellow symbols, and wavy lines of the Azilal tribe; patchwork confetti-like Boucherouite rugs of leftover textile scraps; the blue-and-red, lightweight, tightly-nit kilims.

Anyone who wishes to fill their tourist bazaar, auction house, hotel, or travel bag with these intricate multicolor Berber rugs must first go through these merchant matriarchs.

Every week, carpet dealers from Fez, Rabat, and Marrakech make an early morning pilgrimage to Khemisset armed with a budget, empty vans, and patience.

For the women of Khemisset know more than their carpets; they know how to drive a hard bargain.

Situated 60 miles east-southeast of Rabat and nestled in the plains below the Berber-inhabited Middle Atlas Mountains, Khemisset is a bilingual town of Berbers and Arabs. It has long been a natural trading post where Berber farmers and craftswomen from the mountain villages and rural hinterlands sell to urban, mainly Arab clientele.

For the past three decades, women from the town have teamed up with relatives and contacts from the outer villages to sell carpets and rugs directly to vendors.

The business has grown to 40 local saleswomen who appraise and hawk the wares of 400 women from the surrounding Berber villages.

It is believed that on any given Tuesday, this small souk provides a livelihood for up to 1,000 people.

Carpet matchmakers

Before dawn, Khemisset merchants such as Fatima Rifiya gather at the marketplace to await dozens of women from far-off Berber villages (locals refer to themselves as Amazigh, which means “free people”) who arrive in horse-drawn carriages at 4 a.m.

The sellers and middle-women then rummage through the piles of rugs, evaluating every piece by size, coloring, thickness, weave, and pattern.

Khemisset women say their secret to success is an eye for desirability – fitting each carpet to the target audience and buyer who never knew they always needed it. 

“Every carpet already has its home. We are just playing the role of matchmaker,” Ms. Rifiya says as she splays a red kilim carpet for a customer struggling to hide her eagerness.

Taylor Luck
Fatima Rifiya, a veteran carpet seller, rules over her stand at the zarabi souk in Khemisset, Morocco, Oct. 15, 2019.

Multicolored rugs stand out when hung in storefront windows and make them an easy sell to shop owners in tourist hubs like Fez; post-modern freestyle squiggles by the Beni Ourain are more in demand by foreign tourists and chic Moroccans looking to deck out their Casablanca apartment or Airbnb.

“Once we grade the carpets, we explain to the weavers the values and who their customers may be, [and] we set a price and our commission,” explains Ms. Rifiya, herself a transplant from a mountainous Berber village who now acts as a head matriarch and an Arabic translator.

“Then they sit with us, and together we sell.”

Carpet dealers come from Marrakech and Fez. The men pace between the tiny stalls muttering, “Really, that is too much,” or, “I swear to God, I can get half that price somewhere else.”

But Ms. Rifiya and her sisterhood stand their ground.

She and some of the more veteran sellers such as Faten act not only as translators for the Berber weavers, but as coaches in the ways of bartering and selling.

Simple rules such as: Never appear desperate for a sale. Let the customer walk away, they’ll always come back. Add 20% to your preferred price to open up bargaining. A customer who buys one rug is always more likely to buy more.

Solidarity, and inspiration

But what makes this weekly matriarchal market truly remarkable is how it came to be.

This souk is not sponsored by a charitable association, a collective, or even a government or royal initiative to help rural women. Instead, it is an organic, grassroots product of local residents and shared interests.

Here at the zarabi souk, women are selling individually yet banding together – an alliance driven by economic opportunity, supply and demand, and a dash of solidarity.

It was not always like this.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Three decades ago, most Berber weavers say they would sell to middlemen who would go off to market towns and sell at any price they wished, or to traveling “dealers” who would purchase directly from village women for their bazaars and tourist shops.

But each Berber woman would not know how much others were being paid for their work or what the market rate was for their carpets.

With the success of Khemisset’s zarabi souk, Morocco now has two similar, smaller women-run markets open in the plains surrounding the Atlas Mountains.

Although there is no room for them in the women’s operations, men are still free to sell carpets outside the covered souk on the fringes of the Khemisset market – as long as they are willing to risk the women’s wrath and ridicule.

“Bad quality,” says Faten as she points at the dubious-looking Oriental carpets stacked a hundred yards away. “And it is machine-made. There is no way that would pass the eye test of an Amazigh woman.”

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