I may never learn the proper way to haggle although our Iranian housekeeper, Savina, tried her best to explain to me the cardinal rule of bargaining: one must buy daily necessities locally whenever possible. Although Rasht had a few modern stores in the 1960s and a few merchants actually did post sticker labels, these places were much too expensive and therefore to be avoided unless it was impossible to find the desired item anywhere else. (This, of course, never happened to people who were born and raised in the community.) However, whenever I felt too tired or was in too much of a hurry, I often resorted to one of the high-priced places. I tried to hide my mistakes from Savina because she usually scolded me about my extravagant habits. "But Khanum, too many costly indulgences can wreck havoc with your budget," she groaned as she looked over the stickers pasted on the canned goods I brought into the house. "Khanum Nancy was able to carry many wonderful souvenirs of Gilan back to America because she quickly learned from me how to barter like a native." I nodded my head and promised to do better the next time.
She insisted another key to success in bargaining was to make all the rounds and survey all possibilities before one tried to consummate any deals, no matter how small or insignificant the purchase was. A dozen eggs could vary in price by as much as five tomans from one stall to another. "Khanum, don’t be in such a rush. Remember to check out everything before buying ANYTHING!" she insisted whenever we shopped together. I tried to steer clear of anyone trying to overcharge me simply because I was a foreigner. She constantly reminded me that shopkeepers charged clever natives like her only the ‘low’ price because they knew how to bargain properly. Finally, she decided that the so-called ‘medium' price’ was probably the best I could do on my own. But that was a bit better than the ‘high’ price merchants liked to charge tourists.
"Well," I countered, "it’s certainly a bargain if you are used to thinking in American terms."
"But as long as you pay top price, you’ll never have any money," she said, scowling at me. "Because I care about you, I’m going to teach you how to find the very best quality merchandise for the very best possible price a foreigner can expect."
"Okay," I said. "I’ll try it your way."
On my first visit to the Friday Bazaar in Isfahan, I looked forward to finding a few souvenirs. Just as shops were reopening after the midday break, I left the sunlit Grand Maidan and walked down a long, dark bazaar passageway into the antique section. I had already been forewarned to be on the lookout for fakes. Bazaars around the world are not above trying to pass off an item recently fashioned at the rear of the shop as the genuine article.
I saw some nice wooden items mixed in with a variety of bolts of faded fabrics in one shop. Then I caught a glimpse of a wooden rectangular box, about three inches wide, six inches long, and four inches deep, its cover painted with a simple pastoral scene in raw tones of orange, green, blue and brown. The crudely painted figures suggested it was the genuine thing. I picked it up for a closer look then quickly set it back down. Never show interest in anything you find appealing. I turned away, feigning a mild interest in a few other items. The shopkeeper smiled benignly at me. He was clearly prepared to engage me in battle. Try to match facial expressions. Look bored. No need to hurry. Take as much time as he does. I addressed him in Farsi as I pointed casually at a particularly ugly round box on another table. "How much for one of these?"
"Khanum, a very special price. A mere forty tomans," the grizzled merchant said. This price seemed comparable to similar boxes sold in Rasht.
"Too much by far!" In typical Iranian fashion, I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth and moved away. But my eyes were irresistibly drawn back to the painted pencil box and I was compelled to pick it up again. Three female figures graced its wooden cover, two picking fruit, the other who wore an orange gown handed a piece of fruit to the handsome master who lounged idly beneath a tree. "How much for this one?" I muttered, kicking myself for expressing interest in any of his wares.
"For you, Khanum, always a special price. A mere forty tomans for a genuine antique pen box." His opening price was at least 100 per cent more than the box was worth so he clearly considered me a foreigner or at the very least, a tourist. On the other hand, we were using Farsi rather than broken English.
I countered by throwing my head back again. "Too much! Ten tomans, Agha – not a rial more."
"Too little by far, Khanum," he shot right back. "You know that I cannot possibly let you have this box for such a ridiculous price. Thirty-five tomans. Final price for this. I offer you a real bargain because this box was meant for you." He showed it off proudly. "Behold the fine workmanship; see for yourself, Khanum. Here, take it, please."
I quickly dropped my hands to my sides. "No thank you." Again, I clicked my tongue to show disdain. Better to be thought a rude Rashti than just another dumb foreign tourist who happened to stumble into his shop. "Naheer, merci."
As I left the store, he called out, "But such a fine box at such an excellent price, Khanum. You won’t be sorry." Apparently my bargaining skills didn’t impress him as much as I had thought. "Let us come to an agreement, Khanum. Would you care for some tea? Perhaps you will find something more interesting than this miserable item."
Was I that gullible? On the other hand, I was rather thirsty. I didn’t see any other customers around so I slowly ambled back into his shop and followed him to the rear. "Thank you for the offer of tea, Agha."
He plumped up two fat pillows and invited me to make myself comfortable. "May I offer you some sweets?" I nodded ever so slightly, remembering my manners. A young boy appeared bearing a tray with glasses of tea and a plate filled with hard candy. "No, thank you. I’ll just have tea." As I sipped the hot beverage, another boy offered me a dish of pistachios. Have to be careful about taking food from strangers, I heard Savina’s voice saying. This far away from other tourists, there’s no telling what can happen. Don’t forget, there’s nothing to prevent an old man from abducting a fair young maiden and carrying her off to his secret harem, hidden somewhere in the darkest quarter of this ancient city, If you're not careful, he'll take his pleasure with you.
For a while, we smiled benignly at each other and engaged in a bit of idle conversation. If I wanted to demonstrate my seriousness about bargaining, it was time to make another offer, about half again as much as the first. "Agha, I am prepared to offer you thirteen tomans. Even that is a lot more than this box is worth."
His smile broadened. "More tea?" This was my signal to shake my head politely. I stood up.
"Ah, I see you are not pleased.. Twenty-seven tomans. Final price - a beautiful woman like you deserves a small token of my appreciation."
"Thank you for your hospitality, Agha. Well, perhaps another time." When would I ever return to Isfahan?
"How much does the Khanum wish to offer? Twenty-five tomans?" He resumed the well-rehearsed patter. "You will not find anything comparable here in Isfahan." Now he was coming down in price faster than I had hoped.
I observed his gray whiskers and tiny tufts of hair in his ears. Perhaps he was already a grandfather many times over. Certainly his stoic demeanor suggested he was more interested in making a sale, than actually seducing a foreign woman. Nevertheless, since I had already started the bidding at two hundred percent, the ‘REALLY high price’ - the one reserved for silly foreigners, I knew it was time to walk away from the deal. I looked longingly at the box. Could I still hone in on the middle price? After examining the pen box for cracks, I snarled, "Fifteen tomans - my best and last offer for such an old piece." I knew only foreigners took a fancy to such items. Modern Iranian women like Savina much preferred to store their precious belongings in utilitarian boxes made of metal or plastic.
"Do you wish to allow me no profit? How can I feed my children on such a miserable amount of money?"
"Okay. Well, I guess you’ll find another customer in time. " The most important rule of bargaining sprang to mind. Quit now. And don’t turn back! Still, with an exchange rate at eight Iranian tomans to the dollar, the difference between our two prices was minimal. Nevertheless, my pride was now at stake. Somehow demonstrating my bartering skills had become more important than actually making a purchase.
Once back on the Grand Maidan, the brilliant desert sun blinded me as I started to cross the street. I heard a young male voice calling out, "Khanum, khanumeh Amrika!" I turned around but saw no one I knew. Just then a young boy rushed up beside me and thrust the wooden pen box into my hands. "Please, Khanum, you wish to buy this?"
"No, thank you." I shook my head. "Your master’s price is far too high."
"Khanumeh Amrika, he says I must give this box to you. He wants you to have it so badly."
"Okay. Fifteen tomans – that’s my final offer for such an old and useless box. Please inform your master that he needs to start selling boxes made of plastic or aluminum if he really wants to make a profit."
"But Khanumeh Amrika, he has reduced the price to only twenty tomans. Please look at it - a genuine antique, not a fixed-up modern box like those of his competitors. He knew you were a schoolteacher who needs a fine pen box for your classroom."
"Fifteen tomans. Not a rial more. That’s my final offer." I wore a plain blue cotton dress. My brown kerchief was still firmly on my head. Without makeup and being of average height and weight, I really didn’t stand out in the crowd. How had this youngster found me? We stared at each other for a long time.
"Okay. Fifteen tomans (two US dollars)," he said in a sad voice. "It’s yours, Khanum." Fifteen tomans – almost a third less than the original asking price and a little better than the middle price. Still, if I had held out for thirteen, Savina would be even more proud of me. On the other hand, this was going to be my last chance to take the box back to Rasht with me. "Okay. Fifteen tomans." I dug deep down into my purse and we exchanged money and box.
"Thank you, Khanumeh Amrika," he murmured, quietly slipping away into the crowd. I had found a perfect souvenir of my trip to Isfahan. If Savina asked me, as she surely would, "What on earth do you plan to do with this old thing?" I planned to hand her another really nice box – one made of sturdy plastic I had already picked out especially for her.
Jennifer B-C Seaver
(RPCV Iran 1966-68)