Although Moroccans have an official currency - the dirham - they also have an informal currency - the riyal and so, buying vegetables or fruit in a Moroccan souk can sometimes be extremely confusing, even for people who have spent a lot of time in the country and understand the local languageYou see a sign saying (for example) pomegranates are 15 dirhams a kilo. You ask for a kilo and the store holder says that will be 300! What he has done is quote the price in riyals, rather than dirhams. The fact that riyals don't actually exist anymore is not important, but that people think in them. To make matters more confusing, you can also be told a price in francs.
Matthew Schumann, a Fulbright Scholar, explains the system.
There are two currency systems used in Morocco. One is that of the dirham, the official Moroccan currency that is printed on bills and coins. The other currency is the riyal, an old Moroccan currency which is no longer exists, but is still used by Moroccans to value purchases both small and large. 1 dirham is equal to 20 riyals. In other words, the riyal is to the dirham, as the nickel is to the dollar.
Only, imagine that nickels no longer existed in reality, but stayed in our minds as a way to describe the prices of things. So, the money in your pocket would be dollars, and you would use dollars to buy everything, but you think of prices in nickels. Understanding the relationship between dirhams and riyals is key to making sense of Morocco's marketplaces. Knowing that sometimes the prices you hear are riyals and not dirhams can save you both money and frustration.
If the riyal were American...
Imagine that when you go to the store, the prices are listed in dollars but in your head you value everything in nickel. When you see the label on a $3.50 gallon of milk you think, "That's worth 70 nickels". In your mind, a $4.00 loaf of bread is 80 nickels. At the mall, you ask a clerk how much a pair of jeans is worth. He tells you it's 600 nickels and you check the tag which reads $30. Every month your cell phone bill is 1600 nickels and your gym membership costs 1000 nickels. You got a great price on your new Prius, only paying 440,000 nickels. You live in Colorado and can't believe that your friends in pay 36,000 nickels a month for a 1 bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. This is exactly how the riyal exists alongside the dirham in Morocco, and they are used in such a way in some of the same situations described above.
When riyals are used instead of dirhams:
Buying fruits, vegetables and other foods in the souq, especially foods sold by the kilo. For example, while the price of potatoes might be listed on a sign as 6 dirhams a kilo, the vendor may state the price as 120 riyals. Buying used clothing and other used goods in the souq. Walking through a used clothing market you frequently hear prices in the hundreds. A pair of jeans might be 600, a sweater 400. But those are riyals not dirhams.
For small purchases whose totals are less than a dirham or include change. For example instead of saying something is 1.50 dirhams one would say 30 riyals. For apartment rent and other similar big purchases. Moroccans will describe their rent in the tens of thousands of riyals. 20,000 a month is 1000 dirhams, 40,000 is 2,000 dirhams. Sometimes these values are abbreviated to Buying from or selling to illiterate or uneducated people. At least 40% of Moroccan cannot read or write. They still use paper money and coins but cannot understand their printed value in dirhams and rather understand them in their riyal value.
When riyals are not used:
Supermarkets and other 'fancy' stores do not use riyals. Supermarkets have to be precise with their pricing and will give change down to the centeme, the equivalent of a penny. Boutiques and touristy stores will also use dirhams. Taxi meters are in dirhams and the decimals are centemes. Taxi fares are always rounded up or down to the nearest dirham. Any price in a newspaper or magazine, or in an advertisement will be in dirhams.
Real Estate purchases, if not described in riyals, is also described in centemes. So it's not uncommon to hear prices in the millions and tens of millions. If a price sounds too high, convert it into either riyals or centemes, and ask for clarification.
How to convert riyals to dirhams and vice versa
To go from dirhams to riyals multiply by 20, and to go from riyals to dirhams divide by 20. This video features Moroccans describing the prices of various goods in riyals. Watching this video will help you to familiarize yourself with the riyal and will give you an opportunity to practice convert between riyals and dirhams in your head.
Want to learn more about Morocco and Moroccan Arabic? Click here for a list of Moroccan Arabic lessons.
Matt Schumann is a Fulbright, English Teacher at the S.M. Ben-Abdellah University in Fes, Morocco. He is a graduate of Rice University . He worked as the Editor in Chief and Publisher of the the Rice Standard magazine. He is familiar with the world of journalism and online media and writes on current issues.
Reposted with permission: More from Matt here