Of bargaining

leather purses lined up on wall of shop

“It’s camel leather!”


I probably wasn’t the first ignorant foreigner to fall for that trick. But unlike most foreigners, I had a friend beside me who revealed the claim as rubbish. Camels are too valuable to be able to sell cheap street merchandise made of their hides.

I narrowed my eyes at the shopkeeper. “You lied to me! Shame on you!”

He sheepishly tried to make amends, but his customer was no longer interested.

Living in North Africa requires me to be functional at bartering with shopkeepers and street vendors. If no price is listed on an item, I must accept an exorbitant price or hone my bargaining skills.

Often, a shopkeeper will take me aside and lower his voice: “For everyone else, it is 150, but for you it is 130.”  As if he doesn’t tell every customer the same thing. At times, shopkeepers add phrases like: “…because you have North African friends” or “because you live here.” If the price still seems unreasonably high, I add, “And I’m a student. Do I get a student discount?”

Once, as I was bartering in Arabic, a shopkeeper told me “You are not a tourist. You are a North African!” Given the context, I took that as a compliment.

Using Arabic helps those selling realize that I am intentional about what I am buying. It also clues them in that I might know reasonable prices. After speaking to a restaurant owner in Arabic, he listed a fair price for a meal and I accepted. But when I asked to see a menu, he had none to give me; the only menus were “tourist” menus!

I may bargain for a while, but when I know my last price and I say my last price, it is my last price. It is what the item is worth to me and if I can’t buy it for that, I don’t want it. Sometimes the shopkeepers drop their prices to meet mine, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, I am walking away when they call me back. Perhaps it’s the threat that others will get my business when I say, “No thank you. I will keep looking at other shops.”

Bargaining used to terrify me. Now, after seven months, I have accepted this piece of the culture. Until I finish language study in another seven months, I might be enjoying myself.

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