It Takes a Village (Almost) to Rent an Apartment

Renting an apartment in the U.S. is a much different process than it is here in Morocco. Though it has been some time we have actually done that in the states, our children have been involved in that exercise several times in the past few years and thus we are somewhat acquainted with what is involved. We know that newspaper advertising, Craig’s list, and other types of media provide most of the information about potential properties that might be of interest.

Here in Fes everything must be done through intermediaries, “scimsars” they are called, and as an agent, they work on a commission basis. We began our search by first mentioning to our Moroccan friends in the U.S. that we were considering the rental of an apartment for a year. All of them volunteered the services of one or more family members to begin the search for us by asking around in their neighborhoods if anyone knew of a vacant apartment. Though unknown to us before we arrived, there were at least four or five different people actively involved in a sort of information acquisition phase.

Once we arrived in Fes last Wednesday, one of the families with whom we have been most engaged since 1986 eagerly reported they had successfully located the apartment we should lease. The family I refer to is Zoubida’s family, the one appearing every year in these reports of our activities, and who can in every imaginable way, be considered part of our own extended family. Zoubida is the house-helper Denise employed during the five years or so we lived here in the eighties and the nineties. Annual trips here each year always include visits with them. Zoubida’s two unmarried daughters, Hajiba and Fatima, live with her; another daughter, Hassana, who has two children, lives in the same neighborhood; and the youngest daughter Raja who has a six-year old daughter lives in Jacksonville, Alabama.

Friday afternoon Hajiba and Hassana introduced us to a scimsar Hassana knew and we went with them to look at two different apartments, both of them located in the same building. Then all five of us went to meet a second scimsar, a subcontractor perhaps, who had the key to another apartment. This apartment we liked much better, and as a particular benefit, was within a two or three minute walk from where Zoubida’s house is located. It would of course be quite beneficial to us to have someone to help look after things while we are in the states.

The second scimsar informed us that the owner of the apartment lived in a nearby city, but could probably come to Fes on Saturday and we could negotiate the price and the conditions of the rental agreement. Though not stated, the owner probably wanted to meet us personally before she would agree to rent to an “ajaneebee” or foreigner. We agreed to an appointment at ten o’clock Saturday morning.

The owner, two scimsars, three sisters, and the two of us assembled on Saturday and revisited the apartment. Then the negotiation began. As you might know, any commercial transaction here might very well require a lot of bargaining. It’s a Moroccan tradition, and only in the last couple of decades have any stores appeared with fixed prices. But deeply ingrained in the culture is the felt need to ensure that absolutely the lowest price possible has been paid for any purchase.

It is also characteristic of Moroccans to be quite animated and intense when engaged in that kind of conversation. Indeed, many times we have watched and heard verbal exchanges that we thought would end in fisticuffs but were in fact just tactics to gain an advantage. Nonetheless, it is quite different from what we are accustomed to and made us aware of how unable we would be to handle this type of transaction by ourselves.

A lot of the time there were at least four or five people talking loudly and simultaneously. We heard the word “la, la” as in no, no, no way. This kind of back and forth went on for fifteen or twenty minutes, a question or two being addressed to us from time to time, and in our very limited Arabic, tried to express our desires as best we could. We eventually decided to take the apartment, agreed upon a price, and thought we were near the end of the process. That was not the case.

The owner agreed to give us a key after we made a deposit, and we all arranged another rendezvous on Monday morning to complete a contract and make everything official. That meeting took place this morning, the owner having asked a friend who is a high-school English teacher to accompany her, so that we could fully understand her comments. Thus we were seven people this morning who met at ten o’clock.

A brouhaha erupted almost immediately when the deposit requested changed from one month to two month’s rent. Hajiba, our main advocate, became pretty incensed and thought the owner had reneged on her agreement from Friday. Denise and I were a bit miffed that she felt we were somewhat questionable renters, that a deposit of two months was needed in order for the owner to feel her property was secure. In the end we did not have to pay the additional month’s rent today, but will have to pay the next month’s rent about two weeks early. Having settled on the terms, we then left the apartment to complete the paperwork.

Five of us walked about 15 minutes to the office of a “comptable,” a sort of civil attorney, who drew up the contract, recording all vital information from our passports. Then we had to cross the street, to a government office and sign an official ledger, as well as all the copies of the contract. Those two processes involved another two individuals. However, we still did not have our copy of the contract because the caid, a bureaucratic official, had to sign the contracts as well and he was out of the office. Supposedly he will be back at 2:30 this afternoon, and the scimsar will deliver the signed document to us. I think he will come through because we refused to give him his commission until we have the contracts in hand.

Village is an overstatement of the number of people we were involved with in this event, but at one time or another, there were about ten or eleven people associated with the process. Not to mention the others referenced who were also aware of our search. In fact, the daughter of another family we know telephoned with another recommendation for us. We thanked her, but informed her we thought we were finished with apartment hunting for some time!


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