In the bustling Moroccan Rug Palace of Khemisset’s Zarabi Souk, Morocco, there is one important law: Women rule. They are the weavers, mediators, sellers and distributors at Khemisset’s Zrabi Souk, which literally translates to “rug market”. The women’s business model has no room for men, and that’s how they like it.
The women are the Moroccan experts with their straight-from-the-source product knowledge, and anyone wanting to buy these beautiful rugs must first go through these merchant matriarchs.
Every week, carpet dealers from different parts of Morocco make an early morning pilgrimage to Khemisset armed with a budget, empty vans and patience. The women of Khemisset know more about their carpets, and they also know how to drive a hard bargain.
Khemisset is a bilingual town of both Berbers and Arabs. It lies 60 miles east-southeast of Rabat, the Moroccan Capital City, nestled in the plains shadowed by the Middle Atlas Mountains. Khemisset has long been a trading post where Berber farmers and craftswomen meet the urban clients to sell their wares and buy manufactured goods from the city.
Before dawn, the Khemisset rug merchants gather at the marketplace. They wait for dozens of women from far off Berber villages to arrive in their horse drawn carts. The sellers and market ladies go through the piles of rugs, evaluating every piece by size, colouring, thickness, weave and pattern. There are the simple black-and-white geometric weaves of the Beni Ourain tribe or the colourful reds, blues and yellows of the Azilal rugswith their symbols and wavy lines. The market ladies will grade the carpets and begin the motherly process of matching a rug to it’s buyer, playing the role of matchmaker. They work on a commission basis with the Berber sellers, aiming to maximise the price they can get.
Carpet dealers come from Fez and Marrakech. The mean pace between the time stalls muttering, “Really, that is too much,” or “I swear to God, I can get half that price somewhere else”. Still, the merchant matriarchs stand their ground, helping translate between the Amazigh (literally meaning free people) from the Berber tribes and the Arab traders of the City, while coaching them on bartering and selling.
Their rules are simple: Never appear desperate for a sale. Let the customer walk away – they will come back. Add 20% to your preferred price to open up bargaining. And a customer who buys one rug is always more likely to buy more.
However, what makes this matriarchal market truly remarkable is the story of how it came to be.
This souk is not sponsored by a charity or a collective. There is no government or royal initiative to help rural women. This, is an organic, grassroots product of local residents and shared interested. Here, at the Zarabi Souk, women are selling individually yet banding together. It is an alliance driven by economic opportunity, supply and demand and solidarity.
It was not always like this. Forty years ago, most Berber weavers would sell to travelling dealers or middlemen, who would go off to market towns to sell at a much higher price. The Berber women would not know the true value of their rug, which meant often they were undervalued.
The success of the Khemisset Zarabi Souk has provided a blueprint for similar women-run markets elsewhere in Morocco. And although there is no room for men in the women’s market, men are still free to sell carpets outside the covered souk on the fringes of the Khemisset market. That is, as long as they are willing to risk the women’s wrath and ridicule.
The alternative to the women markets are the online co-operatives, like Benisouk, who work with a collection of Berber tribes to buy their rugs directly from them at a fair price and remove the need for the women to make the long and arduous journey to market. The coming and going of the rug vans also allows for supplies to be bought into some of the most remote villages, in exchange for rugs, and forms a vital link for these communities.
Benisouk works with their artisan communities to improve their standards of living and opportunities. The direct link to the eventual owner allows Custom rugs to be ordered and for Benisouk to then commission those works directly with the Berber Artisans – something that is just not possible in the Women Markets. If it’s not possible to reach the Women Moroccan Rug Markets, then an online co-operative like Benisouk is the next best thing as they also ensure the artisans get a fair price by cutting our the middlemen and traders.