A Fruitful Shake of the Trees in Rabat

Saturday, February 21, 2009 | Rabat, Morocco (map)

An apartment on Rue Oued Fes will be our new home in Rabat, Morocco's seaside capital.
Apartment hunting makes me miserable under any circumstances, but the process is especially depressing in a rain-soaked North African port in the depths of winter. But Jacqueline was entering the second phase of her research; our move from Fes to Rabat was approaching. So last month Jacqueline managed to drag me through a weekend of scouring the capital for housing.

Until then, I had never struggled to find housing abroad. But in Rabat, there was no language school to help me, and unfortunately no Craig’s List either.

In the Arab world, apartment rental is traditionally an informal process dominated by neighborhood brokers called simsaars. At their worst, simsaars are one part real estate agent and one part cockroach, and leech off every stage of the housing process. They post most of the rental ads in newspapers, on bulletin boards, and at maroc-annonces.com (something like a local version of
Craig’s List). They wheedle their way into the middle of every deal, ensuring they get a cut (as high as one month’s rent) from both renter and owner. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they use your phone to arrange the apartment visits and make you pay the taxi fare to get there.

Having heard such horror stories from our friends, Jacqueline and I were determined to find an apartment on our own. To start, we conferred with everyone we knew in Rabat, asking for leads. Next, we plucked information from bulletin boards throughout the city and online, and started making calls, then visits.

The first apartment we saw was perfect—fully furnished, with all new appliances and an ocean view. If only it hadn’t been in the dingiest building in the dingiest part of town.

After that first disappointment, we visited claustrophobic shoebox studios, sprawling condos, and several utter dumps. One was truly Twilight Zone-esque—darkened windows and morose furniture lent the place an unmistakable "serial killer modern" aura. Weirdest of all, the shower was located in the bedroom, where a closet should have been. (The asking price for that museum piece? Nine thousand dirhams a month—over US$1,000! Jacqueline and I actually laughed out loud at that offer, until we realized that it left us, once more, back at square one.)

Frequently dismayed, we returned again and again to La Une cafĂ© in Agdal, our prime search area, to sit and make yet more calls. By the time our espresso orders reached double digits that weekend, La Une's waiters—each shift of them—knew us well. So I asked one, Saeed, if he had any ideas about housing in the area. "What's your price range?" he asked. Before I even finished describing what we hoped to find, he had dashed across the street, coins still jingling in his apron, and begun inquiring with some local guys. A few minutes later, Saeed, still in full uniform, was standing beside us in a nearby apartment and offering his thoughts on its merits.

In the end, we didn't choose that one (too expensive—ultimately Saeed's guidance proved less helpful than we'd hoped, but he shared it graciously, refusing all offers of compensation). Instead, the next day we discovered a spacious one-bedroom apartment with brightly painted walls and wide windows, located within easy walking distance of a French bakery, French wine shop, and LaBel Vie (a French grocer). If she couldn't be back in France, this was the closest Jacqueline would get. She was sold, and it didn't seem too bad to me either.

Rental of this apartment was managed by an agency—basically a simsaar with a desk. They succeeded in extracting a hefty deposit out of us before releasing us with assurances that all was in order, and that the apartment would be ready for us to move in two weeks later... incha'allah.

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