the "art of haggling" at Tunisian marketplaces (Medenine and beyond)

Every town or village in Tunisia has some sort of a market.  Those within the direct tourist routes will have extensive selection of shops and stalls, all offering a wide variety of all sorts of items.  Looking for household pots and pans, ceramic ash trays, bolts of fabric, or even perfume bottled in a hand-grenade decanter?  Chances are, you will most likely find it at the grand ksar of Medenine (see “sights”).  Here, there is so much to browse that it honestly can be a little overwhelming for the casual traveler simply looking to pick up a cheap trinket for friends and family back home.

One thing that you must learn when traveling in any country where they have an open market place is how to haggle with the various merchants all vying for your business!  We are not trying to stereotype here, but we have noticed that haggling is simply part and parcel of any transaction in most countries of the non-western world.  Don’t worry about taking advantage of locals with less-than-meager resources.  When it comes to tourists looking for a bargain, you can bet your bottom Tunisian dinar that, for the most part, the merchants are still turning a good profit, even on the items that you may think you are getting for a steal.

The number one rule is to look around.  Stop by at least a few shops before you buy anything!  While it’s true that most shops will carry the same, or similar items, the next spot over might have the treasure you are seeking in a different color, or at a higher quality.  This happened to Brady right off the bat when he purchased what looked like a vintage T-shirt for his nephew featuring a camel, only to find that same shirt a zillion more times throughout the week, and in much better condition! 

Do some comparison shopping amongst the vendors to see if the shop in question has fair pricing.  Then, return with your new found knowledge back to the vendor who had that special pillow or blanket and let them know you have seen it for cheaper elsewhere.  We find that it is also wise to go to the shops slightly off the beaten path.  The stores closer to the street will tend to pick up more tourists, and probably have higher prices - and less unique items!

Rule number two is to reject the first price given from the merchant, as they will undoubtedly throw out a price that is twice as much as what they will actually take!  Trust us here, the stakes are usually not that high in the markets, which means that your negotiation will not be an aggressive or uncomfortable one.  Ultimately, the shop keepers want to sell to you!  (Just try not to insult them by going too low!)  The back-and-forth haggling actually has two purposes.  First, it’s a good way to secure a sale for both parties, and second, it’s a nice way to initiate a conversation with the locals.  Have no fear; tell them where you are from!  If you are traveling from the United States like us, the local Tunisians will smile widely and welcome you with questions about New York, Hollywood, or oddly, “Chicago gangsters” (?)

When bargaining at the markets of Chenini, Ksar Hedada, and beyond, the third, and perhaps most important, rule is to make sure that you actually receive the item you looked at after you have agreed upon the price and have paid your money.  In the markets of Tozeur (see below), we bargained for a “poof” leather ottoman.  (There are varying degrees of quality that you can buy.)  Of course, we haggled on the best quality “poof” we could find and got a great deal at just TD $20 (about $12 USD).  Upon checking the item later, we realized we were given the same item of a lesser quality!  Your breakable pottery or shisha pipes need to be packed carefully for travel, so make sure you watch where the item you purchased is going!

Ksar of Medenine - follow along Avenue 7 de Novembre (if traveling in from Djerba), Medenine

“I went to Matmata to see where Luke Skywalker grew up and all I got was this lousy T-shirt!” (Matmata)

Still looking for that perfect market in Tunisia to purchase all of those small knick-knacks for the friends, family, and cat-sitter back home?  Well, keep looking.  The gaggle of cheap souvenir stands which dot the cul-de-sac that is also home to the Hôtel Sidi Driss are open daily, waiting to pounce on the busloads of tourists that arrive to see where “Luke Skywalker” grew up.  The stalls feature pretty much the same stuff you will find throughout Tunisia (assortment packs of spices, pottery, stuffed dromedary camels with red light-up eyes, etc.)  Unless this is your only stop in the country, we would recommend holding out on your shopping until you get to a larger town (Tozeur perhaps?)
We did appreciate, however, the great price break given to us when we purchased 10 cute sculpted fridge magnets featuring Matmata’s famed architecture.  The hand-painted ceramic items were a hit with cohorts back home!

After hopping into our car to leave Matmata behind, is struck us...  Why are they not capitalizing on the Star Wars connection next door?  Unless the bootleg T-shirts were carefully hidden away from any potential Lucasfilm moles, there was not a Star Wars-related item in sight!  At the very least, the Hôtel Sidi Driss could come up with their own T-shirt design featuring graphics taken from inside their property.  They would make a killing!  Where is their marketing team??  Sheesh! 

Hôtel Sidi Driss - C104, Matmatat-Al-Qadimal, 011 (216) 75 240 005

Artisanat L'etoile du Sahara (Tozeur)

We awoke on our second morning in Tozeur to experience the only overcast weather of our entire Tunisian journey!  This did not bode well for the day's itinerary which included a sunset visit to the ruins of the “Lars Homestead” out in the middle of the Chott el-Jerid!  Drizzly rain clouds were just not going to cut it!

Ever the optimists, we first attempted a swim in the outdoor pool at the El Mouradi.  Alas, it was much too chilly for any such antics, so after a quick rejoozh, we headed back into town to tour the palmeraie and other top attractions (see “sights”).

Tozeur's mosque el-Ferdous can be viewed from almost anywhere in town.  Its dramatic brick-laden minaret acts somewhat like a magnet, drawing in both believers of the Islamic faith, as well as tourists looking to take in a slice of the local Tozeur pulse.  We dined at the incredible Restaurant le Minaret (see “eats”) and then wandered through nearby backstreets to check out the many interesting shopfronts.

One space in particular caught our attention, Artisanat L'etoile du Sahara.  The bazar features a well-cobbled assortment of pillows, masks, sculptures and rugs out front, but its the unique treasures inside that really make it worth a visit.  The owner, artist Adbel Moula, was especially pleasant, offering us complimentary mint tea and some of the best conversation we experienced in all of Tunisia.  Once he found out where we had traveled from, and other cultures we had visited previously, he sifted through his CD collection to play music that he knew we would appreciate.  Brazilian samba in Tunisia?  Random!

Adbel Moula’s selective, and artistic, eye is the shop’s integral ingredient.  The items inside his bazaar - vases, dyed carpets and textiles, silver objects and jewelry - were of much higher quality, and interest, than any other vendor in town.  If you are looking for a special token to take back home, something perhaps a bit more expensive, this is the place to shop!  We’re still lovin’ our pair of one-of-a-kind woven wool pillows that we purchased from Abdel Moula’s Artisanat L'etoile du Sahara (at a cost of about $25 USD each).

Set of Drifters tip:  Make sure to stop by other shopkeepers who market those cool pieces of furniture made solely from palm fronds!  Though we knew the unique style of benches, tables and chairs would fit perfectly in our “hobo-junk shop balcony” back home, we could not fathom bringing them home in our luggage!  Our bet is that vendors will ship to your home, for a price, though if you are so inclined, many of the chairs and tables can be disassembled for easier packing.

Artisanat L'etoile du Sahara - 67 Rue de Tunis, Zone Touristique, Tozeur, 011 (216) 97 762 336


Tozeur's souk (Tozeur)

Looking for last-minute souvenirs for friends and family back home, we started out our final morning in Tozeur at its busy souk where everyone seemed ready to strike a deal!  Remember, depending on where you start browsing, chances are you will find the exact same item at half the price if you play your cards right by continuing on to other stalls in the medina!  You can check out more of “Set of Drifter” Doug’s hints and tips for market shopping above.

This morning, we were predominantly on the lookout for a traditional North African “pouf ottoman.”  A cute little desert fox was hanging out in the shop that seemed to have the best assortment.  (Most other vendors sold versions of the pouf that were either terribly cheap looking, or had the wrong color accents.)  Upon finding the exact style that we liked we managed to haggle the shopkeeper down to TD $20 (about $12 USD), a price we thought completely fair.  Nevertheless, upon repacking our bags to fit in our suitcase, we realized that we had been duped!  In a bag that they had packed for us, we had been given the same item but of lesser quality!

As you can imagine, we were not pleased.  Nevertheless, most of the souk’s other vendors were really nice and willing to bargain without being too shady (see “sips” for an additional anecdote on this topic).  Expect to see lots of packaged spice assortments, shisha pipes, jewelry and even cool marionette "Toureg" puppets!

Besides shopping in the souk, we also visited a nearby store that sold housewares, cigarettes, cheap jewelry and even old Tunisian pop music cassette tapes!  Brady really liked “SHE! Cosmetics” line and wanted to buy some as souvenirs for a friend back home, while “Set of Drifter” Doug found himself attracted to the after shave housed in a bottle shaped like of a grenade . That one may not have gone over so well amongst his luggage upon traveling back through US customs!

Set of Drifters tip:  Also adjacent to the souvenir shops of the souk is a large indoor food market.  While we only spotted it from a 2nd floor gallery while browsing through a repository for rare geodes, fossils and bones, we presume it offers another unique way to feel the real “pulse” of Tozeur!  As an added bonus, a back entrance leads into some of the more evocative of Tozeur's "Old Town" brick-lined passageways.

Tozeur souk - across from Avenue  Habib Bourguiba, look for the beautiful “Place Ibn Chabbat” sculpture fountain as your signpost