Of bargains: grand and not so much

Bargaining is a big part of life. It is how prices are set, business deals get made, and political differences are hashed out. Sometimes you get the advantage, sometimes not -- and often it's the bargain itself that's memorable.

By , Editor

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    A rug merchant waits for customers at the Mecca market in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
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A hot wind blew off the Red Sea. Along with a dozen other reporters, I was camped out in an air-conditioned foyer at a royal palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, waiting for the Saudi foreign minister and the US secretary of State to emerge from crisis meetings in the weeks before the 1991 Gulf War. Hours ticked by. Reporters dozed. Somewhere near dawn, our Saudi handlers ushered in a rug merchant to distract us with his goods.

I was a tough but seasoned bargainer, tossing out the word “soumak” when he unrolled a flat-woven rug. Not to be taken for a rube, I began decisively, cutting the offering price of the tribal textile in half, all the while staying cordial with my new “friend.” I knew when to act miffed, when to say I could go no higher, and when to give ground.

Mabrouk,” the merchant said, pumping my hand as we finally closed the deal. “Congratulations, sir. You bargain well and have excellent taste.”

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I got my prize, plus a small brass coffeepot – and something even better: a great story. Robin, my wife and artistic director, had taught me to look for that tribal rug design. I had watched her 10 years earlier drive a hard bargain in the Hamidiya souk of Damascus, so this would be an excellent “Hi, honey, I’m home!” trophy. I could see my carefully acquired soumak spread out under the coffee table.

One day, I imagined, someone might ask the intrepid foreign correspondent if there was a story behind that rug. Well, yes,
 ha-ha, now that you ask: A hot wind blew off the Red Sea....

Some weeks later, I unpacked my bags, and Robin examined the rug. She seemed to admire the style. I told her about the negotiations, the back-and-forth drama, and the hearty “Mabrouk” that sealed the deal.

“Nice to have you home, dear,” she said.

The rug was placed under the table. A few days later, somebody spilled a tumbler of water on it. The colors ran, burgundy flowing into beige, brown into ochre. The wool puckered, and forever afterward the not-so-valuable and certainly-not-old dust catcher was known as “John’s famous mabrouk soumak.”

Our dogs enjoyed it. Goodwill eventually accepted it.

The larger point? Negotiations are tricky. Prices and values are not objective facts but markers of give and take, set by us when we engage with each other. When we negotiate, we know our starting position but cannot dictate the outcome.

Congress and the president of the United States are engaged in an epic negotiating session to try to figure out how much government should spend and tax and how to avoid plunging off the Jan. 1 “fiscal cliff.” The Monitor’s David Grant has dug deeply into the issues and explained them clearly and calmly in a recent Monitor cover story

Psychologists say that when you are negotiating, the important thing is to clearly articulate what you want, remain open-minded and genial, and be ready to make a deal. You may not get what you thought you wanted, but you don’t get anything by refusing to bargain. I wanted an impressive trophy. I got something that has lasted much longer: a story.

John Yemma is editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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