By Heidi Noroozy
A couple of years ago, I started out a blog post with the statement that Persian culture is not for the socially lazy. At the time I was writing about taaroff, the Persian practice of extreme etiquette, but my observation also extends to shopping In Iran. Especially when it comes to the bazaar, where prices are negotiable and vendors keen students of human nature. At a glance, they can tell which customer will be an easy sell, which a tough bargainer, and when they can squeeze yet another few thousand rials out of an exhausted foreigner unused to the rigors of a typical Persian business transaction. You can read about my adventures in buying carpets here.
That shopping trip was an early lesson in the fine and often confusing art of Persian bargaining, which in Farsi is called chaneh zadan. Roughly translated, this means to "hit with the chin,” a reference to the way person's chin moves up and down while talking—or negotiating a business transaction. Naturally, I wanted to practice my new skills. The number one rule: Never let the vendor suspect that you are in the least interested in his wares. Even if you have spotted an item you simply know you can’t live without, the proper attitude to assume is one of distain. Pretend that another shop two doors down carries far superior merchandise. Otherwise, the price will soar into the stratosphere.
Rarely, though, do I get a chance to practice chaneh zadan. My husband’s Tehran relatives consider it a serious breach of hospitality to let me do my own dickering at the bazaar. What’s more, they know I would crumble in the face of a seasoned bazaari’s far superior skill. And when I watch the locals engage in this fascinating Persian ritual, I have to admit they are right. I lack the requisite finesse. But that doesn’t stop me from studying the art on every trip to Iran.
On a recent shopping venture, this time to find a pair of earrings at the Tajrish gold bazaar, my sister-in-law and I trekked through its dazzling halls for close to four hours before we settled on the right pair of danglers. It really does take that long to shop for gold, which is why we leave the men at home. They lack the stamina needed to do a proper job of it.
We popped in and out of postage stamp-sized shops, examining various styles and models, holding them up to my ears (careful not to dislodge my headscarf and reveal too much hair). Each time, my sister-in-law would thank the merchant and drag me out of the store.
“But I liked that one,” I’d protest.
“That man would never give us a good price,” she’d reply. How could she tell? Had I missed the demonic gleam of greed in the man’s eyes, or had he spotted the longing I couldn’t quite keep out of mine?
When we finally found the perfect combination of gold filigree earrings and bazaari to sell them to us, the chaneh zadan could begin.
The vendor named his price.
“Gerooneh (that’s too much)!” my sister-in-law said, the upward lift in her voice conveying just the right amount of mild outrage. (I need to practice that.)
The bazaari typed a number into his digital calculator and pushed it across the counter.
My designated negotiator cleared the screen and entered a slightly lower number in return.
The two of them pushed the calculator back and forth a few more times, adjusting the numbers up and down. Finally, they reached a figure both could live with. It was only about 30,000 rials lower than the original price, a difference of just a few dollars, but that had a lot to do with the way gold is sold. It has a two-tiered price. The larger, non-negotiable portion, is determined by weight, based on the global market price of gold on the day of sale. The variable portion is the cost of workmanship and the merchant’s profit.
They both turned to me to approve the final figure, which I did with a mix of admiration and relief. To me, an American used to fixed prices and quick sales transactions, the slight price reduction hardly seemed worth the effort that went into the deal, fascinating as it was to watch.
Which brings me back to that statement from my earlier blog: Persian culture is not for the socially lazy. Even a shopping trip is an opportunity for lengthy social interaction. Without the give and take of chaneh zadan, neither party can feel completely satisfied with the deal they’ve struck. I have some lovely new earrings to prove it.