(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Fizzle Fizzle Bang Bang

They say smell is the strongest sense tied to memory, but they never said which memory. The smell of electric keyboard adaptor fizzling and smoking reminded my of my childhood labors in the kitchen mixing cookie dough with an overheating beater. Things like that really help calm you down.

The 120 volt adaptor brick was smoking, of course, because I had plugged it directly into a 220 volt outlet. See, my shipment from the states had arrived — all 16 boxes — and in my excitement I forgot to remember that old electronics are like old people: they have their one way of doing things, it works for them, and why don’t you go bother your brother for a change. None of this “dual-voltage” new-agey bullshit. Anyway: bang.

Christmas comes early in the Gulf.

My first reaction was very American. After making sure the smoke did not mean well, and that the fizzling wasn’t the sound of the wires warming up to make music, I looked online to see how I could replace the thing. Out of stock and vogue, I could find it only on eBay, and only shippable to the US. And shipping it from the States would cost seven times more than the thing itself.

But Hanukkah comes earlier.

And then I looked out the window, and I remembered where I was. For me, ordering replacement electronics would be like Venetians ordering Dominos, blind to what’s around their every corner. I live in the Miscellaneous Electronics Boutique District, as it’s known by no one, and they can do anything.

On my second try, I found a confident repairman ready to charge me 80 dirham ($22) for the job. I was so shocked and happy that I didn’t want to argue — I was going to pay 20 bucks plus 140 for shipping for the US — but I had to… just a little.

Haggling isn’t nickle-and-diming like we see it in the West — it’s a game with no stigmas attached that makes the whole business worthwhile. For that reason, impersonalized online ordering and phone-call vending seems to be of little interest to a lot of people. My job tracking down items never-delivered to the University was aggravated by people who just thought it was no fun to deal in a context where someone bought, someone sold, and that’s all. In losing the physical connection, we lose the uncertainty and action that dates back to times of trading when one goose didn’t always equal two chickens. In the American shopping ideal that we should sign tabs without even looking or caring, we miss the interaction that makes a person be a person, and not just a slip-signing or card-swiping robot. The jury’s in: haggling makes you not a robot.

A day later, I came back to the shop asking in English if it was ready (didn’t know how to say “adaptor” in Arabic). Another employee pulled it up, tested it and said, that’ll be 80 dirham.

Oh no. Arabic time.

He said 70
Yeah, but there was additional work.
Nope, yesterday we said 70. It’s 70 dirham.

Part of me wanted to get upset — yesterday’s repairman had written 80 right on the box — but then I remember it was a game. In a culture averted to placing bets, this is the gambling — but everyone’s in control: if you didn’t like the game, you don’t sell, or you don’t pay anything. Come back tomorrow.

In this game, though, I was forced to make a bad move — I had only a 50 and a 100 dirham bill. I wouldn’t give him a 50. That, in the haggling game, is known as “shortchanging the shit” out of someone. So I handed him a hundred and hoped. And sure enough, he gave me 20 in change, grinning.

“Hey wait!” And then I saw it: he had been grinning the whole time. What might have looked like “cheating” was just a joke — an awesome joke that could only be made in a context where money is distinctly less taboo. He had another 10 dirham bill ready in his hand; he didn’t want to hear me say anything, just to know that I had noticed — just to know that I was playing the game, too.

Where in the US could you jokingly pretend to cheat someone without facing a six-shooter, a slew of accusations, and the bottom of a steel-toed boot? Certainly not in the Old-Western-CSI-Cop-Drama-Dancing-With-The-Stars-Robot America I remember. Certainly not in the Mecca of ready-to-pounce politeness and card-counting adultery. Yes, as I stereotype the land I came from, I know I’ve truly started to fit in.


  felice holman wrote @

This is a super insight into the art of haggling. It takes it a step further than we knew it would go.

  gabe wrote @

aren’t you going to explain how the mint tea fits in to all this? though, from our experience thats another whole book.

dirham dirham bills yall.

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