Haggling-I used to be one of the best!

Our latest column from William Thomas

One recent newspaper article I need not have read was titled: “The Art of Haggling.” That’s because there was a time in my life that I considered myself one of the world’s best barterers.

I came by it naturally, living and working in Spain in the late 70s and getting kicked out every two months for not having a work visa. Lots of interest in nuclear physicists, not so much for tennis instructors at the three-star Hotel Mijas. So every few months, I’d hitchhike from nearly Malaga to Algeciras and take the three-hour ferry to Tangier, Morocco.

Then I’d bus and train it everywhere in this magical kingdom, always ending up in Marrakesh and later, Essaouira. It was like backpacking through the Bible where donkeys out-numbered cars and you could live like a Pharoah on five dollars a day. Morõc was and still is a North African oasis of exoticism, a small Arab nation blessed with sea and desert, snow-capped mountains and chaotic bazaars that make you feel like you’re wading through the set of Casablanca.

Very quickly I realized that if you’re not willing to dicker over the price of everything, you just won’t get it. Haggling is a way of life among the Moroccans. A gentle, French-speaking and charming people, they are offended if you don’t engage in their game of barter They respect you when you strike a fair deal.

I bought a lot of stuff in Morocco like leather bags and goulimine beads, cotton djellabas and hand-painted jewelry boxes. And never once did I pay the asking price. I once spent three hours and drank a gallon of mint tea in order to buy a classic Berber rug. I got it for half price.

So fifteen years later when I found myself walking through a maze of alleyways in the medina of Tangier with my brother-in-law Danny – I couldn’t help but become his haggling instructor.

“Now when we walk into this leather shop, don’t be shy. Act like you own the place.”

“You see that handsome leather vest up there … no, no don’t look! Never let ’em think you’re interested.” Dan was nodding but sneaking furtive glances at the vest.

“Now the price tag says 700 Dirham which is 70 bucks and I’m going to walk out of this store with that vest for half that price. Watch this!”

“So Mohammed, do you mind if I try on this vest? I’m not going to buy it. I just need to know how the sizes run.”

Mohammed, while reading a newspaper, waved an ‘okay’ over his shoulder and I slipped into the vest. It fit like a glove, a beautiful dark brown kid glove with a sheen that smelled of Argan oil. I wanted this vest, badly.

“It’s kinda tight,” I yelled at Mohamed, “and besides the price is ridiculous.”

Without looking up from his newspaper Mohammed said: “Whatchu wanna pay?”

“Got ’em right where I want ’em,” I said to Dan. “On the defense.”

I pulled out my wallet and re-arranged the bills, the smallest to the top. “Never let ’em see big bills. In fact, when you get near your price, show ‘’em that that’s all you got. See, empty wallet.”

Danny nodded vigorously. He had an eye on a full-length Berber robe … at half the sticker price!

“Okay, Dan, here’s the play: I’m going to offer Mohammed 350 Dirham and he’s going to say no way and go on and on about the quality of the leather and how his own mother hand-stitched it and like that. So when he says ‘no’ to my offer, we walk right out the door with him after us. He’ll throw out a number like maybe 600 Dirham and then quickly 500. Because of the noise out there, he’ll yell one more price at us, the last one he knows we’ll hear and … and then we go back in and negotiate down from there.”

“Got it,” said Danny. Whistling casually in disinterest, but still eyeing that summer djellaba.

“So Mohammed, that vest that I don’t really like is for a friend who I’m also not that crazy about… how about I give you 350 Dirham for it?”

I mockingly put my hands over my ears to let Danny know that Mohammed was about to blow his tasseled top. Then the man got up from his chair, stretched, looked at his watch and said: “Okay. I gotta go to lunch. You wanna bag or are you going to wear it?”

Later, while walking through the Medina – I had him put the vest in a bag, by the way – I started to explain to Dan where the haggling process went off the rails but my focus quickly changed to his physical well being. Fact is, Dan was laughing so hard I thought he might fall down and hurt himself.

The best I could do was state the fact: “Well, at least I got my price!” But secretly I was thinking back to my younger days in Marrakesh. I probably got screwed on the price of that rug, too!

And For comments, ideas and copies of The True Story of Wainfleet go to www.williamthomas.ca