Haggling is a high art in Pakistan, and given my Pakistani heritage, I like to think I’m quite good at it. But bargaining isn’t always about getting a discount; often you’re simply trying to avoid getting stung. Few things are exempt – I’ve even seen aunts haggle over half a kilo of aubergines! I realise that the custom of bartering can make outsiders feel uneasy, but here’s the thing: for us, haggling is a matter of honour rather than humiliation. Consider it a form of cultural expression. It’s not about being a miser or trying to buy something you can’t afford, it’s simply about paying a good price and not being exploited.
My extended visits to Pakistan have taught me how to drive a hard bargain. I know that many Pakistanis, born and bred in Britain, just don’t have the inclination or the experience to haggle, and they end up becoming notoriously easy prey. As a bystander, I’ve frequently heard shopkeepers make an astute admission whilst quoting a price to a relative: “I’m giving you the local price, not the price we give to foreigners!” That’s why I try to blend in as much as possible. I’ll stick to the local lingo and avoid speaking English lest my broad Yorkshire accent gives the game away. And until the deal is sealed, I won’t discuss payment options - “Do you take Barclaycard or American Express?” Yet the shopkeepers are somehow blessed with a seventh sense with which they can sniff out tourists like me. Something as subtle as my comfy Clarks’ sandals or my demeanour can betray that I’m thinking in pounds rather than rupees, and, lo and behold, up goes the price! A friend of mine was once charged 10 times the usual fare for a short taxi ride in Islamabad!
I’ve also learnt not to go shopping unless I have the stamina for the obligatory bartering. It really pays to be firm. The trick is to save your gasps and squeals and appear indifferent, even when you stumble upon that wall hanging you’ve been hunting for, which will look perfect above the mantelpiece. Instead, I’ll try to appear as unimpressed as possible; I’ll even baulk as soon as I hear the asking price. Voices will be raised, there’ll be lots of hand gesticulating. Just as my mum and aunts do, I’ll point out a flaw. I’ll put the item down dismissively. I’ll even pretend to leave the shop as a last resort, hoping that the threat of losing a sale might make the shopkeeper surrender.
When mum and I holidayed in Marrakesh, we relished the chance to test our bartering skills in the souks and wondered if the Moroccans would make us look like amateurs. I’d been wistfully admiring the intricately painted tables which were unfortunately too bulky to bring back on our return flight. As we explored the meandering alleyways, we came across a pair of tables that seemed perfect – they could be folded to fit inside our luggage. We nonchalantly left the shop to discuss our strategy away from the shopkeeper’s earshot. I was so thrilled with the find that I was ready to pay the asking price, but this went against my mum’s honour. She eventually negotiated to pay just a third of the price we were quoted. Although we were thrilled with the purchase, that episode preyed on our minds. It was inconceivable that the shopkeeper would sell the tables at a loss. So, we pondered, he must have incorporated quite a mark-up in the price he quoted. How else could he have slashed 66% off the asking price and still earned an indisputably healthy profit?
We upped our game later that afternoon in a different souk. I had chosen a set of tea glasses and we were determined not to be outdone again. We got down to fixing a price and rejected the shopkeeper’s argument that he’d be selling at a loss. We knew we’d worn him down when he lost his patience with us: “You are even worse than our Berber women!” He spat out. High praise indeed!