In the Middle East, negotiating is an end unto itself. The objective is to negotiate forever.
Remember the sick birds? Not even the most God-fearing fundamentalist would have had a prayer for them, but the Arab neighbors near the kibbutz love sick turkeys because they can get them cheap. I loved to sell sick turkeys because a bird in the hand is worth more than two in the incinerator.
So, Mohammed and Youssef came by once every couple of weeks to buy sick turkeys, or what vaguely resembled turkey. But they had no idea they were dealing with a Yankee who learned International Relations 101 and was totally ignorant of Middle East culture.
“Look,” I told them honestly. “Six have broken legs, five suffer from bronchitis, three others have some stomach tumor and two more are in an advanced stage of Parkinson’s Disease.”
“How much?” asked Mohammed, after the usual two-hour ritual of sipping tea together and our lying to each other how much we are peace-loving friends.
“You can take them for 10 cents a pound,” I generously responded, not knowing the unwritten Middle East law that a seller must ask for three times the price he is willing to take. Mohammed offered eight cents. I replied, “No way. Ten cents is 10 cents. Take it or leave it.”
I was smart to know he would try to cut the price after seeing the merchandise, so I showed him ahead of time a couple of diseased turkeys that still were living. Figuring I was a dumb American who needed to learn the facts of Middle East life, Mohammed shook hands with me and we offered each other a false smile to disguise our mutual distrust.
I brought them all out, except for a couple that died on the way, and Mohammed declared, “I’ll give you eight cents a pound.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “We shook hands on 10 cents a pound. A deal is a deal.”
Mohammed, not having heard of International Relations 101, thought I was nuts: “What do you mean, ‘a deal’? Where do you come from?”
“I’m from the United States of America,” I responded.
Mohammed compassionately explained, “Look, when in the Middle East, do as the Semites do. You’re supposed to offer me nine cents a pound. Then, I come back with eight cents a pound. Then, we sit down for tea again and tell each other how we really are cousins. After that, we decide to continue bargaining tomorrow.”
I took the opportunity to educate Mohammed and Youssef about modern Western civilization. “We shook hands on 10 cents, and 10 cents is what it is going to be. Not a penny more and not a penny less. It’s time you guys started catching up with the 21st century.”
Youssef looked at Mohammed. Mohammed looked at Youssef. Both realized they were dealing with a turkey who can’t tell the difference between a dinar and a shekel. They returned home, bewildered by this disgusting Western attempt to enlighten 3,500 years of Middle East civilization.
Mohammed and Youssef’s families didn’t get meat for dinner, and I spent a fortune on kerosene to burn dead turkeys. Mohammed and his neighbors in the village stole some healthy turkeys from the kibbutz in the middle of the night. The next evening, I retaliated and severely damaged their TV antenna and injured several shirts hanging on a clothesline.
Three months later, Mohammed and Youssef were going nuts without TV and I was losing money because I had to pay for a security fence around the turkey barns.
The three of us met on the road one day. Each of us caught the other off guard, so we sat down and drank tea, convincing each other how there would be peace if it were only up to us.
We agreed to resume bargaining the next day over a new batch of sick turkeys. After two years, relations never have been better. We bargain every day. Mohammed and Youssef survive on their usual Middle East diet of pita and olives, without sick turkey meat, and I use the charcoal from the burnt birds to keep me a lot warmer than the beat-up space heater.