Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I Should Have Known Better

Farid was his name. I knew exactly what to do as he approached us. But I did not do it. His English was only passable, but as with most Arabic speaking men his gesticulations and dramatic expressions told us more than his words. He offered to be our guide, our historian, our guard, our interpreter, our friend, and even our confidant in the mystical Moroccan town of Tangier. Words like ‘kasbah’, ‘medina’ and 'souk' tripped off his tongue, teasing and tantalizing as they would any naïve tourist. But I was no novice. I should have known better.

Almost 40 years ago I had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into this world of shadows and suspicious looks, where bargains and bazaars were only found down crooked, narrow alleys that would challenge any cartographer. Even at 18 I had learned lessons that should have lasted a lifetime; that friendship with fellows like Farid was either cheap or deep, and it took years to achieve the latter. I learned that if one answers the question, "How much you pay?", or even hesitate a moment, one is making a sort of pact to purchase the item in question, if necessary after a lengthy, emotional negotiation. I learned that the value of something, even a life, is relative. I learned that it is easy to be deceived.

But, as with many lessons, I was bound to learn them again. I should have known better.
The first rule I forgot was, "Never equivocate". We had set off for an afternoon walking aimlessly and unescorted through the ancient town on the tip of northern Africa where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. We were determined to resist the unrelenting salesmanship of innumerable cloaked street hawkers. This could only be achieved with modest success by refusing to venture even a glance at the wares being sold, never slowing down, and deflecting any discussion by simply stating a polite but firm, "No thank you". But Farid used a tactic I had never experienced; the recommendation of fellow passengers who had just completed "a delightful tour" with their newfound, smiley Arab "friend". We were $60 suckers for this strategy.

After Farid negotiated loudly with a taxi driver, we were taken to the top of the hill upon which the town had been built over centuries ago. Then for 45 minutes we walked as he showed us churches and mosques, the city fortress walls, a view of the harbour, and even the Moroccan home of Barbara Hutton (of retail store fame). He briefly commented on Morocco’s history, culture, politics and architecture as we walked along cobbled alleyways. Merchants, for the most part, did not bother us, seemingly knowing of my earlier instructions to Farid that we were not interested in shopping or making any purchases.

But then I broke the second rule: "Never enter a store that sells carpets unless you intend to buy one."

In my experience, Arab carpet merchants are the equivalent of North American used-car salesmen. Once you are in their territory they will use whatever means are at their disposal to convince you of your need for their product. For some reason the goods in question are always being sold for a price that can only be whispered, as if to do more would disclose a secret and create a stampede of screaming buyers.

It all happened quickly and without warning. As soon as we entered Mohammed’s store I knew we were in trouble. Before I fully realized our fate, we had made our introductions and were politely and firmly ushered up tiled stairs to the second floor. Trapped. I should have known better when I noticed Farid was no longer with us, having abandoned us to the wiles of Mr. Mohammed, the consummate salesman.

We tried to politely confirm our lack of need or desire for his rugs, but he waved our weak protestations aside and motioned his young protégés to hold up carpet after carpet as he expounded the virtue of carpet design, history and quality. We graciously repeated our disinterest in purchasing. From fawning diplomacy and feigned disbelief to false pride and wounded dignity, he tried them all. Seeking to be courteous, we mistakenly acknowledged the good quality of his carpets and pointing to the one we liked best. At this point, feeling what he thought might be a nibble on his line, he began aggressively negotiating against himself, dropping his price from $1500 to $750 followed by $50 increments until he hit $300. I knew the tactical dilemma we were in when he asked the next question. We could not respond to his frustrated challenge: "Name your price; any price", without being lured in. So we repeated endlessly our firm but respectful, “No, thank you”.

After 30 or more minutes of his imploring and our refusing it was time to escape before we gave in due to fatigue or just to placate his persistent pitch. But even as we made our way to the stairs, he followed, unrelenting as he stood in our way and whispered in Renae’s ear, “Okay, $275. A crazy price!" Finally we made it downstairs and reached the outside door where we found Farid finishing his last of what must have been a number of cigarettes. But even then Mohammed begged us to buy the carpet at $250, then $225.
On the street I was embarrassed, exhausted and angry. Farid knew it. He no longer maintained his animated chatter. Our “friendship” was over. Having missed his opportunity for a carpet sale kickback, he quickly pointed the way to our ship and was gone.

Life is a series of lessons. The things I have learned, especially from Parkinson's disease, are often as fundamental as following the rules, like a paint-by-numbers picture. Farid taught me again that most of the time I simply need to remember the lessons learned and apply them to the circumstances. I should have known better.

1 comment:

  1. So good...a great illustration of the temptation process in james 1:13-16. Appreciated your insight that to even look or ask about an object is the first step to being obligated to buy it...then you are the defrauder if you don't go any further. The psychology of that wears on you. Also like the bare, crude truth you discovered leaving the store: your "friendship" was over! at least you got a pretty good walking tour of the city for $60 bucks!