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Bazaar shopping: a test of patience, exaggeration DATELINE: JERUSALEM


JERUSALEM -- "Coffee?"

It is the first thing a merchant says. "You want coffee, tea?"

Maybe you just want to get on with a purchase. No time for coffee. But it is too late. Nothing is done quickly in a Middle Eastern bazaar.

Relationships here have a deliberate, slow rhythm, and woe to the person who tries to hurry the pace. Local commerce, like diplomacy, follows certain inflexible rules.

The merchant has extended a kindness. You are expected to take a seat. It is an invitation to prepare for the labyrinth of negotiations to come. The discussion of a single purchase may take hours, days, sometimes years.

Any Westerner thinking of trying his hand at diplomacy in this part of the world could benefit from some experience at bargaining in the bazaars. The appearance of friendly conclusion is paramount, even if nothing is purchased.

Rule No. 1 is that progress will necessarily be slow.

The rug dealer here does not follow the habits of a salesman in an American mall. There would be insufficient pleasure and no chance for buyer or seller to display any skill. Every merchant is a would-be pasha, or official, with important patronage to dispense and favors to ask.

It doesn't matter whether the merchandise is rugs, jewelry or Bedouin tapestries. It doesn't matter where the transaction occurs. Behavior is the same in Damascus, Dubai, and the Old City of Jerusalem.

Accept the offer of coffee. Get acquainted. Talk about anything except the merchandise and prices, but remember that the merchant is measuring you for the task ahead.

Commiserate when the merchant complains that business is the worst since his grandfather's time. Discuss the age of your children or of his. Talk about any politicians except those of his country or your own.

By the time a boy delivers the coffee on a tray, a relationship is built. Each side acknowledges the plight of the other. It's not necessary to believe what the other party says, only to be seen to be listening.

Rule No. 2 in bargaining is to employ bluff, and to expect bluff from the other side. Neither the customer nor the merchant has anything to gain from stating at the beginning what he truly wants.

A customer buying rugs is, for example, expected to express half-hearted interest in several items, not only the one that genuinely interests him. Express disappointment that none is really to your taste; the merchant expects that.

To the customer's mild interest, the merchant will respond with an opening price that invariably is a shock. He asks at least double what a rational person would be prepared to pay. He may add that, for any other person except a new and honored friend, the price would be much higher.

This is a time-honored part of daily life. In the early 19th century, an Ottoman chieftain explained how he collected payments from the farmers who worked his land: "I allow the peasants to cultivate my estates, and I take from them my due -- and as much more as I can squeeze out of them by any means, and on any pretext."

You are the peasant.

A dealer in Bahrain imports new rugs from Iran and makes them appear older (and thus more valuable) by putting them in the street, for the cars and trucks to create the necessary wear and tear. In Jerusalem, a dealer tells one customer a particular rug is a valuable example of craftsmanship in a little-known area of Iran; for a more knowledgeable customer, the rug changes parentage and is from its true home, Afghanistan.

An English explorer, Charles Warren, discussed his strategy in the 1880s for dealing with potentially hostile tribesmen: "When I went into the desert with 300 Bedouin and no guard of any kind, I always acted as though I had a guard of 5,000 British soldiers just around the corner," he wrote to a friend. "It was all acting on my part."

Rule No. 3 is that haggling is to be expected.

After a second cup of coffee, make a counteroffer. It should be insultingly low. There will be another lecture about the desperate plight of the merchant, his family, his tribe, his country.

Sip slowly. Eventually the merchant lowers his price. Repeat the process.

"The transaction of business in the East always involves an immense waste of time," a guidebook of the 1890s warned. "The European will often find his patience sorely tried."

Peacemakers, take note.

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