Lessons from an Arab shopkeeper

Respect the hard bargainer - the adversary who holds his ground and will not be taken advantage of.

arab shopkeeper 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
arab shopkeeper 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Everything I know about Arabs, I learned in the shuk. In days gone by, before the violence and mob mentality of the intifada completely poisoned the atmosphere between Muslim and Jew, one of the highlights for any visitor to Israel was a visit to the Arab market in the Old City of Jerusalem. There, in the myriad shops and stalls that line the ancient, cobblestoned streets, one could spend a marvelous morning engaging in the ancient art of negotiation with the venerable Arab shopkeepers. Every imaginable item - from a brass finjan to silver earrings to an embroidered kippa - was yours for the bargaining. On one of my first trips to Israel I went with a friend to the shuk in search of an authentic Middle-Eastern backgammon game. The shesh-besh boards for sale came in every size and color, made out of mahogany, marble, even pearl. But, alas, we were struggling students, and so we opted for the simplest wood version of this ancient pastime. MY FRIEND grabbed one of the games off the shelf, inquiring what it cost. "$15," said the merchant, "a special price for you, because you are my first visitor this morning, and I want to start out my day with a sale. In our tradition, if you make a sale with your first customer, you will have good luck all day." Buoyed by his seeming good fortune and the "special price" he was getting, my friend pulled the bills out of his pocket and handed them to the owner without hesitation. The Arab placed the game board in a plastic bag, muttered something under his breath, and turned his attention to me. "And now the same for you, my friend?" he inquired, already wrapping up a second set in anticipation of the sale. But as I had been duly briefed by an Israeli cousin on the rules of the shuk, I prepared to play the game the way it should be played. "Not at that price," I said confidently, plunking down a $5 bill on the table. "This is as high as I go." You'd think I had insulted the man's entire lineage as well as his manhood, the way he launched into a rapid-fire invective of Arabic curses that would make a camel-driver blush. Back and forth we went for several minutes, hurling insults and offers at each other, until finally we settled on a price of $10. When it was all over, the Arab put his arm around me and said, "It was a pleasure doing business with you; you are a gever." And then he added, in a whisper, "not like your friend, that pitiful changer of female diapers!" I UNDERSTOOD the message, even back then. The Arab mentality respects the hard bargainer, even if it costs a few dinars. You hold in high regard the adversary who keeps his ground and will not be taken advantage of; who stakes out a position and does what it takes to make the best possible deal at the best possible price. That is a man. But he who refuses to bargain, who accepts the first price and just walks away without a fight? For him, there is nothing but contempt. ISRAEL WALKED - some would say ran - from Gaza and Lebanon, handing them over to the enemy on a silver platter, and received nothing in return. No relinquishing of Arab weapons, no exchange of diplomatic relations, not even a flimsy promise of non-belligerency. The Arabs watched this in disbelief, and they mocked our ineptitude, our weakness, our utter lack of either the strength or the savvy to hammer out a decent deal. And that is why, strange as it may sound, hostilities broke out not in east Jerusalem or the Golan Heights - to which we still cling determinedly - but precisely in those places we unilaterally abandoned with a feeble shrug and a perfunctory salute. MYTHS ABOUND about us vis-a-vis the Arabs. There was no - "Golden Age" for Jews in Moorish Spain; the truth is that the Arabs regarded us as infidels then, no less than they do now. Jews were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks alongside Arabs; we were required to walk in the street so we would be physically lower than them. And the hype about Arab "hospitality"? That's also less than accurate. How many Jews have been murdered while sitting in Arab homes or offices, or breaking bread with an Arab neighbor? But there is a great deal of truth to the importance Arabs place on faith and fortitude. While I have no illusions that the Arabs will ever love us, they do have a grudging respect for any Israeli who holds his ground, who demonstrates strength and steadfastness and dedication to his cause. That is why they openly laughed at Ehud Barak when he showed restraint and bombed empty buildings in response to Arafat's terrorism; but had a healthy fear, even awe, of Ariel Sharon when he displayed the courage of his convictions. They know and admire guts, such as we displayed in the Yom Kippur War, but they sense and are disgusted by weakness, such as we displayed in the disengagement, and in our hasty retreat from Lebanon like a thief in the night. So before we pull the plug on Operations Summer Rain and Just Rewards, we would do well to make sure that we leave from a position of power, and that we call the shots as to when, how and why we accept a cease-fire. If we do that, if we maintain our posture and our pride until the end, our neighbors throughout the region - from the shesh-besh seller in the shuk to the dictators sitting in Damascus and Teheran - may think twice before trifling with us again. The writer is director of the Ohel Ari Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana. jocmtv@netvision.net.il