Bargaining. Haggling. Horse trading. Whatever you want to call it, it’s an art form. It is not always a simple matter of you say 15, I say five, and we agree to settle on 10. There are hundreds of strategies to adopt, all of them equally appropriate or not, depending on the situation. What you should always, always do, though, is tell your mother your strategy before you implement it. Especially when she is standing next to you within earshot of the merchant.
I was visiting my parents, who were living in Saudi Arabia. We were in a shop in Deira, which is an old section of Riyadh, and a collection of alleys and lanes and souks (or marketplaces) with you-name-it on sale, not far from Justice Square—called Chop-Chop Square by expats—where public executions are still carried out by sword on Fridays. We were buying various knick-knacks and souvenirs and artworks. My friend Jane was toying with a metal lamp studded with semi-precious stones. I was idly looking at a bunch of colourful evil-eye charms. My mother was admiring some silver spoons decorated with camels.
The merchant was named Nassim. I had said hello in Arabic, which, along with “thank you,” “God willing” and “which way to Riyadh,” pretty much exhausts my supply of that language. His English, of course, was excellent, and we had engaged in the general light banter, enquiries as to the health of various family members and multiple offers of tea one undergoes in any transaction east of Athens. We had assembled our collection of Neat Middle Eastern Stuff For Folks Back Home, Nassim had totalled it up, and the time had come to pay the piper.
Jane and my mother didn’t feel they could haggle well. My father has been living here for 10 years and knows how to bargain, but he had wandered down some alley to get a coffee, which left yours truly to the task.
No worries. I’m no pro, but I had been here and done this and got the T-shirt, thank you. I stepped up to the plate, cooler than a cucumber.
“Nassim, siddiqi, I understand this price is before the special discount, yes?”
“Oh, no, Mr. Daniel. You see, I have already discounted off each item, as I showed you on the calculator.”
The total was 550 riyals (about $150 CDN). I wanted to pay 400 or 450 riyals, but would have paid 500, looking for at least a token deal.
“But my friend, it is truly unfortunate that I only have 400 riyals,” I said, with feigned regret.
Nassim nodded at the response he was expecting. Then my mother spoke up.
“You only have 400 riyals? I have money.”
I looked at her. I looked at Jane. I looked at Nassim, standing right there, the shadow of a smile starting to form under his neatly trimmed mustache. I couldn’t say anything, but started thinking frantically.
“Umm… well, I don’t think we should spend all of our money in one shop. We should save some for other stuff in other… shops,” I ended lamely.
“What other shops? We’re not going to any other shops.”
I nodded. I looked at Jane with scarcely concealed incredulity. Nassim’s smile was positively radiant, his mustache arcing skyward, although he was probably kicking himself for not asking 1,000!
“Oh, we’re not going to other shops? Umm… okay, then.”
It’s like when an animal smells fear. No way was Nassim coming down.
If anything, he was going to suddenly slap his forehead, remember it was Sunday, and you know, Canadians don’t get the special price on Sundays.
Last shot: “Okay, how much was this, 90 riyals?” I held up the silver and pink garnet lamp. “I don’t think we need this.” I put it aside, thinking that brought the total down to 460, and he’d just say take it all for 500.
Mom: “But isn’t the lamp the one thing you really wanted? Here, I’ll buy it.”
Done. I reluctantly pulled out my wallet and stared at my mother with a bemused look, kind of like that mixture of loyalty and confused curiosity your dog gives you when he’s trying to say, Yes I love you, I just don’t understand.