HOW TO: Barter With a Middle Eastern Marketeer

Adam Lichtenheld
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“Pay me 20 dinar!”

“But I only have 10!”

“You cut me! I make no profit!”

“You cut me! I don’t have any money!”

And just when it looks like a common street haggle might erupt into an old-fashioned public duel, the storeowner smiles, pulls you in, and starts talking like he’s an old friend. “How’s your family?” “Are you married?” “Where did you grow up?” These are all acts in his elaborate sales pitch—and it’s one that would put an American used-car salesman to shame. 

Before you venture into the souqs (markets) of Amman for a Koranic keychain or a hand-woven rug, read this guide to haggling. I guarantee it will help you maintain your pride—and your cash supply.

Step 1: This is Fun!

Convince yourself that this will be fun, even if you come away empty-handed. I had a friend who grew so fond of the chase that whenever he was bored, he would venture to the souq and haggle for items that he had no intention of buying.

Step 2: The Approach

Be confident. Most foreigners make the mistake of entering subtly, which is often interpreted as cold and standoffish by the shopkeeper. “The friendlier someone is, the more likely I am to give him a good deal,” one marketeer told me. Approach with a smile and a handshake. If you can offer a few words of greeting in Arabic (even if it’s muttering a few in’shaallahs) it will at least show that you’re not a complete dunce.

Step 3: The Response

Once the marketeer sees you eyeballing one particular artifact or fingering a certain scarf, he’ll pounce: “You like that? It’s very nice, and I have more!” (He will then dig behind his desk and drop an entire stack at your feet.) Respond with keen indifference. Drift away and start looking at other items. Make it look like you’re just poking around, looking for nothing in particular.

Step 4: The Laugh and Shrug

Once you find your prize, ask the price. You’re likely to get some exorbitant figure. Respond by laughing loudly and shrugging your shoulders in mock disbelief—this shows your adversary that you’re not as dumb as you look. 

Step 5: Halve It

Once you get over the initial “shock,” cut the marketeer’s proposal in half and offer it back to him. Keep a straight face and prepare for him to act a lot more incredulous than you just did.

Step 6: Separate Yourself from the Tourist

As your seller laments his poor fortune and goes on about not being able to feed his kids, rebut with the fact that you’re a dirt-poor student (even if you aren’t), that you actually live in Amman (even if you don’t), and that you’re not a tourist (even if you are). The more you can rattle off in Arabic, the better—just make it clear that you’ve been around for a while and you know what a fair price is.

(Note: Your claim of not being a tourist will be greatly aided if you take measures to ensure that you do not, in fact, look like a tourist. Leave the floppy sun hats, safari vests, and fanny packs behind.)

Step 7: Point Out a Flaw

Once the marketeer notices that you haven’t bought his pity act, he’ll probably remind you of the “high quality” of your potential purchase. He could actually be telling the truth—you might have to pay top dollar for an intricately-colored, hand-made kuffiyeh. But a careful examination will usually reveal a loose thread or a scuff mark—or the item may just be a piece of crap. If you still want it, emphasize and exploit these defects. For example:

Seller: “This scarf is hand-made, very nice. I give you very good price!”
You: “It has a 'Made in China' sticker on it.”

Step 8: Reference another Shopkeeper

If he refuses to budge on his (high) price, tell him that a marketeer down the street offered you 10 dinar less for the same product. If you’ve made the rounds you may actually be able to speak truth to this; if not, just be clear and convincing (pointing and making up a shopkeeper’s name may help you sell the fake).

Step 9: Fight Drama with Drama

If the negotiations ensue, get just as animated as they do by using wild hand gestures and exaggerations (“Ten for this? You must be mad!”). If they tell you that they can’t drop the price any lower, stick to your target amount and say that that’s all the money you have with you. Don’t get hostile—it’s all part of the game.

Step 10: Walk Away

If the marketeer is still charging more than you’d prefer to pay, unload a well-timed “shukrun” (thank you) and walk away. In a process where you need to appear consistently indifferent, this is the climax. Even as he starts after you yelling, “How much?”, continue to shrug him off. This is where you either have him—you make the purchase at your price and walk off with your hard-earned prize—or you move on to a different store.

Remember: Marketeers are pros. They can sell you something in nine different languages. After spending 10 hours a day convincing skeptical foreigners to buy Petra keychains for three times their value, they gather after hours at a back-alley café and discuss selling strategies. They revel in the nickname harami (thief), especially after they’ve separated some confused foreigner from his dollars and dinar. Don’t let that confused foreigner be you.

Valuable Arabic Haggling Terms
B’kam?: How much?
Ghalee jidan!: Very expensive!
Ma’shaallah!: Oh my god! (in response to a high price)
Ena Taalib!: “I’m a student!”
Sakan Houn: (f’il Oordon): “I live here (in Jordan)!”
F’il holoomak!: “In your dreams!”



Posted on 2/10/2009 by

Kara Davis

This is great advice! I'm totally out of practice haggling (and have a terrible time keeping a straight face), but I will definitely brush up on my Arabic before I head over to Jordan next month. Love the new phrases...

Posted on 2/22/2009 by

Allie Mahler

Allie Mahler

Great article! I really enjoy your writing style ..

Posted on 6/12/2009 by

Helen Appleby

Helen Appleby

Very amusing! I will keep this in mind :)

Posted on 12/01/2009 by

Anna Schwaber

Anna Schwaber

Very very true - best HOW TO on the subject I've ever seen!

Posted on 12/08/2009 by

Michelle Saltis

Michelle Saltis

Good article! This definitely holds true for other countries as well... I usually follow about the same guidelines, and most of the time come out with great deals. I especially noticed how in Mexico, the owners would charge the tourists 2 or 3 times the value, and most of them would simply accept! It is ridiculous; bargaining is always the best, and following this advice will help to not get taken advantage of. Good Job!

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