Barter and Haggle: on Middle Eastern Shopkeeping

A guest post from the author of (actually an excerpt from) Veggiestan. Who happens to be a friend of ours.

Funny job, shopkeeping. Whilst you would think that we are at the forefront of commercialism, in fact most small shops find themselves in the centre of something far more primitive and fun. As few as 50% of the transactions which take place in the shop actually involve people buying things for money. The other half are exchanges: ideas, recipes, services, favours, advice, orders, introductions, either verbal transactions of one sort or another, or actual goods swapped for other goods.

This isn’t just because we are running a shop in ‘multi-cultural’ South London and there is an element of the bazaar about the place. Nor is it all Del Boy’s fault. Go back to the seventies, and my mother was to be found running a decorating shop in Shoeburyness in Essex (a strange, salt-of-the-earth, end-of-the-line place, but one which I am proud to call my home when not in London). It is not a conspicuously (or even discreetly) wealthy place, but I’ve rarely come across anywhere as house-proud, which meant that my mother’s shop was well-frequented. In those days many of the residents lived half their lives on the social, and the other half on tick, and so my mother was sometimes left with little choice than to accept payment in kind. Potatoes, pies with dubious fillings, parcels full of random allotment offerings, a spot of window-washing or cleaning here and there, nudge-nudge wink-wink and we’ll call it quits.

Wind forward thirty or so years, and I am doing the same (of course I am not turning into my mother – what on earth gave you that idea?). Well, kind of.

You see, each shop inevitably creates its own community. There is an element of supply and demand about a good cornershop which has nothing to do with the daily bread, and everything to do with matching people and things that need each other. Barter. It’s human nature, and we’ve been at it for as long as we’ve been able to swap dinosaur bones and flints. Economies come and go, but the principal of matching like with like for trade has always been and will always be around. It was what made the silk route work, and enabled international trade to develop. It kinda makes me proud to wear the mantle.

Haggling on the other hand does not come easily to everyone. This I suspect revolves around the basic fact that by haggling you are essentially calling into question the other party’s integrity. Confrontational shopping. Always sends me scurrying for cover. But as the doyenne of a Middle Eastern emporium I am forced to deal with it every day, and with time have learned a degree of tolerance and even enjoyment of the sport. A properly haggled transaction is a game of strategy for the participants, and for the spectators it is a comedy of manners of sorts. Especially if the parties involved do not share a common language and at least one of them is a nervous tourist. Go on, admit it: you too have felt the peculiar sting of paying ten times the going rate for an item.

So why do Arabs haggle? And this is mostly an Arab issue we are talking about here: Iranian shopkeepers are honour bound by taruf, a sort of Persian noblesse oblige, to offer goods for free, just as Iranian customers are obliged to insist on paying (even if they have just spent half an hour grumbling about your prices). It does ultimately come down to the fact that the Middle East saw the very beginnings of wide-scale trade: the Sumerians in Mesopotamia, the Egyptians along the Nile and those nautical Phoenicians started it all off. All this rubbing up against other nations inevitably brought with it a degree of nervousness: after all, this was a time when your neighbour was as likely to invade you as ask for a cup of sugar. And just as in this age of PC stupidity we might react with pseudo-horror to someone who doesn’t recycle, a buyer who didn’t even go through the motions of haggling was regarded as some sort of freak. The distrust and the expectation of being able to get a better price became embedded in the culture of the bazaar, and thus the ritual of negotiation, which is possibly why it seems so very hard for the area to reach peaceful accord.

And it is a tradition which some find it impossible to break. Omid Djalili may well joke about the shame of his mother haggling in MacDonalds, but in Peckham punters still try it on all the time. Before the demise of Woolworths, I witnessed a bevvie of Saudi princess-type ladies, chauffeur and all, giving it some shtick to the dazed manager of the Edgware Road branch: I know not whether they got their 25% off – but it would be fun to think that they did.

Being both contrary and British I resent the persistent haggler, but delight in offering discount where none is solicited, and as we are importers as well as shopkeepers, I am always well aware of the real bottom line. Of course, if I can see it coming, I simply put my prices up in anticipation of the fight to come….

Have we got any tips on the art? Only one. Never, ever let the vendor know how very much you want the item in question. Good luck.

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