War of Wits

About Eritrea - History & Culture

When you go to a traditional market, it is for two reasons. You either want to sell your horse or you want to buy a gun. That’s in some lawless country.

As you take your half-blind horse to the market, you don’t want people to know. Your horse runs like a lion. A spirited Arabian horse, you say. He has participated in many famous battles and has served his master faithfully. That’s what you have to say to convince the buyer.

“How much?” asks a potential buyer.

The horseman does not want to talk about the price yet. He wants to sell the qualities and virtues of this horse before he decides to sell the animal. And it all depends on his power of persuasion and argument. With a bit of subtle lie and false honesty, one can even sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo or a heating stove to a Bedouin.

It is normal to get cheated in a market, in other words to get out smarted. And you don’t get angry for that. You have been given as equal a chance as the other man. You had your money, and he had his goods. In the end you let yourself be persuaded or even beguiled by the seller. It was a war of wits, and you lost. But it is worth trying, and in the process you learned a lot.

Before the arrival of the Italians in Eritrea, people went to the village market to buy and exchange goods. The market day was more like a holiday, a sort of secular pilgrimage, where encounters with people from different localities enriched the mind and sublimated the spirit. You want to sell the whole world, and expect someone to buy it. Really, the world is a stage and mankind its sellers and buyers.

You want to buy a goat or a sheep for the feast of Meskel? Okay, you go to the weekly-held market place chosen by the surrounding villages. You get hold of a sheep or a goat you had been eyeing for some time.

“How much is this one?”

The seller doesn’t automatically tell you the price. He wants to hook you first, and that’s how the bargaining and the haggling start.

Fortunately, haggling is not completely lost from our tradition. Although the shops introduced by, first, the Arabs and, later, by the Italians somehow contributed to the disappearance of the art of bargaining, there still remain traditional markets in Eritrea where one can haggle to one’s heart’s desire.

Once I went to a market in a certain Eritrean town with my uncle, Biniam, and wandered about in search of kitchen knives. Finally we spotted a stand where they sold all sorts of cutlery.

“How much is this?” my uncle asked pointing at a knife that looked like a dagger.

“What do you want it for” asked the seller.

“Just for the kitchen,” he said.

After being told the price, which he thought was a bit expensive, he started haggling. The seller took the knife and brandished it in the sun and asked Biniam to feel the sharpness. He then gave the wooden desk a sharp blow with it, and the knife remained there stuck deeply inside.

“That will be 150Nfa,”the seller said finally.

“One hundred will be enough,” Biniam asserted.

The man began to swear by St. George that he wouldn’t part with it for less than 130Nfa. And then swore on the tomb of his mother that he wouldn’t sell it for less than 120Nfa. And then on his sister bones that he would feel sick to see it go for less than 110 Nfa. And then he began to narrate about how far he traveled just to obtain such quality knives, and how bad he felt now that he was selling them at a loss, and that if he was there in that goddamned market baking in the sun it was because he preferred such a life to begging in the streets and so on and so forth.

Biniam left the scene and moved to the next stand all the time perking up his ear to hear the magic words that usually come as a grand finale.

“Okay, come, and take it. I better sell it at a loss than leave it to rust here,” he said before handing the knife to my uncle. Somehow Biniam still felt that the real price was again much lower than what he had bargained for.

Bargaining and haggling are the spices that give flavor to a monotonous life. Just imagine entering a supermarket and leaving the place after 30 minutes without uttering a word. Everything has a price tag and the last thing the cashier wants to hear is remarks about the weather or the rising prices in the town. You just buy and leave.

And now imagine you are in a bazaar in Istanbul and you want to buy a set of silver plates for the missus.

“Marhaba!” will shout the owner of the open shop and then ask you to come in and make yourself comfortable.

“What is it that you want?”

“Do you have traditional silver plates?”

“You have just come to the right place,” and he orders two glasses of tea, one for you and one for him.

He asks you to take your seat and the bargaining has just started.

The idea is that when a seller and a buyer meet, it is like two generals in a battlefield facing each other. Both are armed with words and wits and there is some booty to be had at the end of the ‘war’. The prize to win is the object for sale, either as it is or its value.

In the Arabian markets before the advent of Islam, even poets participated in the activities by declaiming their poetry aloud before people. It was normal that some merchants or hawkers tried to use that art in promoting their wares.

And then there are those who sing about their merchandises to passersby’s. Yohannes is one of them. He would say that his peanuts had come from the moon and that they were a sure medicine against all kinds of ailments and misfortunes including car accidents. People would laugh at these funny remarks and wouldn’t leave without buying.

Sometimes he would challenge them to come and make a profitable buy.

“Okay I will sell the whole lot (about a kilo) just for 20 Nfa.,” he would say.

And most of the time people bought his peanuts simply because they enjoyed his ‘show’ and he challenged them and shook them off from their slumber.

Once, there was a man who wanted his children to learn the intricacies of life in a very strange way. He just gives them some money and asks them to go to any shop and buy him this or that merchandise. He tells them to make the best bargain and win the day.

“Why do you do that?” a friend asked once.

“I want them to be smart and come out winners in the future life,” he said.

He then went on to tell, being able to know while still a child the qualities of the things you are buying, mastering the art of bargaining, learning how to handle the seller who is there to make the utmost profit at your expense, ignoring his beguiling remarks, and promotional offers, etc. enables you to get armed mentally to the face the world in the future.

They say the Orientals are the best diplomats in the world. They are also the best shopkeepers.

The opening of the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia can possibly see the art of bargaining making a comeback as free movement of people will result in increasing movement of goods between the two countries. If you haven’t brushed up on your bargaining wits yet, it is advisable you stay away from the market for a while before you make your way back home with kitchen utensils you didn’t even think you needed at a price you will cry yourself over to sleep.