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An Essay on Fez Touts

MOROCCO | Thursday, 19 December 2013 | Views [362]

Open Air Tanneries

Open Air Tanneries

Scams, spams, cons and other frauds. The dictionary defines these as a swindle involving money, goods etc in which the victim’s trust is won by another. Since the dawn of the internet, spam has existed with varying degrees of sophistication. Send out enough and even the least sophisticated will eventually find it’s way to the most gullible.

Fez, one of five imperial cities of Morocco and the capital city in medieval times. It seems like many a con artists have established themselves here to make the city the capital of scams. It’s a popular tourist destination. The hordes. The mass of tourists exerting a powerful gravitational force that draws Moroccans here. Becoming satellites when they’re unable to overcome the mass of tourists. That’s not quite accurate of course. It’s the tourists who are trying to escape the touts and not the other way around.

The city is 9km maze of small streets and alleyways. It’s amazing how such a large city could be built like this. It’s even more amazing how anyone can navigate around the place without getting lost. Grab some guide books on this city and the advice seems to fall into two camps. (1) A guide is needed or (2) A guide is not needed. There do exist official guides in Morocco and these are apparently the only people who can legally offer such services. It’s illegal to be a guide without official sanction. Actually, it’s an arrestable offence. Unlike Marrakech with it’s highly visible tourist police, there does’t seem to be a single policeman, anywhere. With no fear of arrest, it’s no surprise that faux guides think they can build a successful business model here.

I thought that the number of scammers in Marrakech was bad. Here in Fez, it’s worse. A lot worse. This is the fourth city of my Morocco tour and the fourth city where scams and touting have been attempted. Honestly,is it’s like some kind of patriotic duty to “do” foreigners? A patriotic duty that’s not so much “Dulce et decorum est” and more “Caveat emptor”. Faux guides to greet you upon arrival at the train station. Faux guides standing by the taxi ranks. Faux guides standing just outside the gates of the Medina. Faux guide standing just inside the gates to the Medina. You get the picture. It’s late December. It’s cold. The usual holiday horde will be thinking of Christmas and the festive periods rather than Morocco. Juxtaposed as it is between low season and very low season, I’m approached at the station, taxi rank, inside and outside the gate. I’m even approached just outside street leading to my hotel. The local insisting I need “help” for the final 20 metres to the hotel entrance. Actually, I kind of liked that last guy, just for having the audacity. It’s a scam. I know it’s a scam. He knows I know it’s a scam. He wasn’t too keen on my response. At which point, I’m entertained by the theatrics that followed when it became increasingly obvious it wasn’t going to be that difficult to walk the final 20 metres.

A con artist will trick us out of our money through deception. Whatever method they use, be it physical or verbal, the con must be good enough to fool the intended target. A faux guide will need to quickly assess a tourist on the correct approach to apply, least the opportunity slip away. The famous label on that jacket, that high-end phone or the Rolex sticking out prominently from the wrist. The discerning con artist will choose their target good enough for their level. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that the ones who approached me in the first day in Fez sounded like they’ve had about 5 years of schooling. There’s a method to this. No self-respecting high class super duper great tout is going to think it worthwhile to scam a man dressed like a poor student. Or as the Ferengi would say, “Where’s the profit?”. On the other hand, it’s like a personal insult to be approached by touts with skills reduced to homeopathic levels. Touts telling obvious lies without the strength of conviction to convince themselves. Expending little in the way of effort, while no doubt demanding a great deal of monetary recompense for a job not done. One tout even piped into my field of vision to say that a museum was closed and left before I even had a chance to ignore him. It’s typical for Fez touts to behave with such lack of elegance.

It’s low low season and there are not many tourists around. So many touts just standing around like bored delinquent on a street corner. Wearing the catatonic expression of a tout with no obvious victim. There are popular areas of Fez which are particularly difficult to navigation. At least without GPS. The famous Tanneries for example is a 20 minute walk from my hotel with GPS. Without GPS or a guide, it might as well be a trip to Alpha Centauri. It won’t be a secret that the Tanneries exists on many a Fez itineraries and therefore the streets are paved with faux guides.

The walk to the Tanneries is deceptively straightforward. From one of the western gates of the Medina, head due east for about 15 minutes followed by a couple of small alleyways. Sounds simple enough. Of course due east is only a direction. The route designed with traps of minor left and right turns before letting you travel due east again. Arrayed along these little corners, and there are many of them, are the faux guides. Ready to offer their help to the tourists who think they might have taken a wrong turn. They’re not always obvious even when they’re loitering around corners. The ones worn down by years in the trade offer nothing but the mindless stare of a drug addict looking for the next fix. Only the appearance of a tourist enough to rouse them from their state. The fresher or just more optimistic ones will at least try to make eye contact. And when that fails, there’s no bigger hint than a disembodies string of noise sounding like “Where you want to go?”. This being the only hint that a service is offered. You could be really unlucky and get a persistent tout, and many of them are. Those with better language skills may even try and engage you in conversation. Could it just the a friendly local offering help? Fat chance of that. “No thank you” would be the polite response and potentially the wrong one. A response normally used to signifying the end of the conversation is an invitation to continue in Fez, as the inevitable hard sell begins. Much like theists offering eternal bliss. Doesn’t matter where it is you want to go, they can get you there. If you did the right thing and got yourself some GPS, just wave your phone. You might look insane to the uninitiated, but there’s no parting shot quite like the smirk as you get your bearings. If you didn’t get yourself GPS? Put on your best poker face, mentally flip a coin to choose the turn to take.

In some of the larger streets, an amazingly three individuals could walk abreast. Streets like this can have more than one tout. On either side of the street, rival gangs of touts face each other like rival factions seated across a negotiation table. They could be the franchises of the same gang for all I know. Only the different whistle tunes differentiating themselves, like secret gang handshakes. Not even the courtesy of some words. Next they’ll be adding “Shh, shh, here, here” to their whistling, then expecting me catch a stick in my mouth. I feel like Sisyphus rolling those rocks up a hill over and over. Taking two minutes to get a tout to leave me alone can feel like progress. Yet for this achievement, getting rid of touts is a Sisyphean task. Try guiltlessly walking away, you'll get over it.

So back to the internet. There's a lot of touts in Fez, far more supply than there is demand. Scattershot offers to tempt a tourist. Hoping for that "wet behind the ears" gap year student or just someone gullible to get scammed out of enough money that retirement becomes an option. Heed my warnings because the regular appearances of faux guides can induce a sense of complacency. Recognise touts for what they are. Scammers attempting to con as much money out of you as possible. Do not allow the regular reading of scam stories to numb your brain. Alarms that turn into warning cries with all the weight of the boy who cried wolf in Aesops fable. If you’re really stuck and feel there’s no option but to engage their services. Agree a price upfront. 10 to 20 Dirhams is plenty. Forgot to agree a fee upfront? Expect an unlimited bill. It’ll be cheaper in the long run to get hold of a Moroccan 3G card.  

Tags: fez, touts


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