GW Expat: Bartering in Bedouin markets

Junior Sam Buchbinder, a double major in political communications and Judaic studies, is spending the spring semester studying at Ben Gurion University in Be’er Sheva, Israel. A few times this semester he, along with other students spread out across the globe, will share his experiences and observations abroad as one of The Hatchet’s “GW expats.”

“You should buy these pair pants now, because when you get home you will feel that your soul is complete since you know you just bought a good pair of pants,” an older man with a muffled voice and scraggly beard shouts at me.

I told him in Hebrew that my soul will be just fine, and that a few minutes ago I saw the same exact pair for 20 shekels (Israeli currency), not the 25 shekels that he is charging. He challenges my claim, and reiterates that these specific pants with make my soul feel complete – those other pants just aren’t the same.

In an attempt to make him lower his price, because the other pants that I said exist actually don’t, I began to walk away into the sea of clothes, home appliances, hookahs, falafel, fresh fruit and jewelry that is the Bedouin marketplace. He doesn’t call me back to lower his price. I’ll come back next week I guess and see if I can bargain better.

Throughout history, Bedouins have traditionally been semi-nomadic herders and farmers of the deserts in the Middle East. In Israel, some Bedouin communities have begun to be settled into more permanent “recognized” villages by the government in an attempt to integrate them more easily into Israeli society, and to help provide them with many of the basic social services and city infrastructure allotted to all Israeli citizens. Today there are close to 100,000 Bedouins living in the Negev desert – 30 percent of which work in permanent, non-nomadic jobs in Israel.

The rule of thumb in the Bedouin marketplace is that you should pay half of the asking price. The trouble is that the initial price immediately is doubled when the first inkling of an American accent trickles slowly off your tongue. Usually they can smell a group of Americans 30 feet away. It’s actually quite amazing.

Even so, I return every week, in order to practice my bargaining skills, hoping that one day I will reach that halfway mark. The week after leaving the marketplace with my soul incomplete, I returned with the intent of buying a hookah for my room.

I had a plan. I would go to a few different stands that sold hookahs, look around for a moment, and not buy anything. I wasn’t going to fall into the trap of being the “typical American” buyer, I wanted them to fight over me as a customer. But that plan failed miserably.

I walked up to the first stand with a friend of mine, and we tried to look uninterested. Immediately the seller handed me a hookah which was “very, very good” that he was sure I would like “very, very much.” Everything in the Bedouin shuk is “very very good,” even if it is something as simple as a pack of batteries, or a toilet seat cover.

I told him that we were just looking, but he insisted that I hold it for a moment to see its quality. Hell, if I know by holding a hookah what its quality is – but I figured I should act like I do. Wrong choice.

I took the hookah, holding it by the silver, metal neck with which he handed it to me, and stood there only for a moment before the blue glass base crashed to the ground shattering into thousands of pieces. I stood there without talking, my mouth gapped open. Friends of mine who were at a jewelry stand across from where I was fled the area laughing, leaving me and my friend to figure out what to do.

I apologized immediately, offering to pay for the hookah – 80 shekels was the price. He refused to allow me to pay, as I later figured out that the glass bases are only worth ten to twenty shekels (about three of four dollars). Even though he wouldn’t let me pay, I felt I needed to buy from this man. After long, hard negotiations I came away with a hookah, of course paying no where near half the asking price – “next time,” I told myself.

The Bedouin marketplace is an experience unlike any other. The description in one guidebook reads that “they will complement your eyes, while charging you double the price.” Had I never visited the marketplace, I would have thought that description to be an exaggeration of sorts. I can assure you it’s not.

A week later, back once again, two female friends of mine were perusing a stand of nuts. The heavenly smell of the roasted nuts mixed with the Hebrew shouts of merchants selling their goods in a think Arabic accent. Immediately, the short, stocky man (like most there) selling the nuts says to one of the girls, “If your friend had your beautiful eyes, she could be a supermodel. How many bags would you like?” I kid you not – he said it as though he had read the guidebook.

Just down the road is the city marketplace where residents of Be’er Sheva and the surrounding Negev areas sell their fresh fruits, vegetables, fishes and meats. In one of the tin roofed storefronts is a small Bedouin coffee shop.

Old and young Bedouin men sit in the shop all day offering their two cents, not afraid to ask any questions, not afraid to share their opinions about daily life. They ask about Americans, and we respond with questions about their own people, the Bedouins. It’s here that I learn the most about what it is like to be a Bedouin living today in Israel; some things positive, some things negative.

Although I have been to Israel before for short periods of time, it’s experiences like these that make me understand why just a short visit to Israel doesn’t allow one to even begin to grasp the intricacies of a country that I used to think I knew everything about. I look forward to learning a lot more.

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