19 Apr 2013

How political negotiations work in Lebanon


It’s a warm spring afternoon in Beirut, the birds are chirping and Hamra street is as busy as usual. There’s a lottery salesman staring into the distance, and occasionally he takes a puff from his cigarette then goes back to staring. An old woman is trying to cross the street, and nearby a family is watching the scene from a balcony on the second floor. A typical calm Beirut Afternoon.

A man strolls into a shop and starts inspecting the bags on display with as much disgust as he can summon. The salesman look at him then goes back to reading his newspaper. The psychological warfare has begun and neither man wants to reveal any interest. It’s a battle of nerves, skill and composure.

The customer decides on an opening gambit. He sighs as if the bags on display have thrown him into an existential crisis, then points half-heartedly to one of the bags and asks “how much is this one?”

The salesman looks up from the newspaper: “you are a man of good taste, that’s one of our best bags. It’s 100 dollars.”

The customer draws two incredulous arches with his brows, whistles and says: “What do you think I am, a tourist? Don’t plan your retirement on this sale. I’m Lebanese, now how much is it really?”

“God forbid. I promise you I’m only making five dollars on this sale. Come downstairs with me I will show you the receipt. But I don’t want to make any money on this, you look like a gentleman, I will give it to you for $95.”

“I’m trying to buy a bag from you and you are performing a comedy show. I don’t buy bags every day, I have to go to a relative’s funeral in Jordan. (Both the salesman and the customer know this is a lie, but the rules stipulate that you’re not allowed to point that out.) Do you want me to take my clothes in a plastic bag? Because of you, I will have to do that. You have no mercy.”

“I am saddened for your loss. My condolences, this is God’s wish. Your story has really affected me, I will take a loss on this. $90 for you.”

“This is not meant to be. I am going to your neighbour’s shop, I heard that he’s a more reasonable man.” He makes for the door, the salesman pauses a bit then says:

“Be a patient man. How much do you want to pay?”

“$20”.

“$20? Are you trying to start a fight? That’s it, I’m fed up with this business, I’m closing the shop.” He pretends he’s about to move, but the customer decides a quick follow-up is needed.

“Look all my cousins will need bags. Give me a good price and I will send them here. How does $30 sound?”

“How about I give to you for $30 then take my children out of school and have them beg on the streets? Would that satisfy you? Because that’s the only way I can give it to you for $30. $80 is my last word.”

“I will tell you what I will do. We will skip dinner for a few days just because you’re an inflexible man and give you $40 for it. I can’t pay one Lira more, I swear by God.”

“I will give you this Chinese one for $40, why do you need the Italian one? It’s not for you.”

“What will the neighbours say if I they saw me with a Chinese bag? You’re trying to ruin my reputation? $40 is a good price.”

“My brother, I told it cost me $95, I am already losing money on this.” Here he takes out a calculator and starts punching numbers at random while muttering some figures. Then he looks up:” Ok, just for you, I swear, I wouldn’t do this for anyone else, take it for $70. This is my final last word, not a Lira less.”

“Here’s $50, take it and give me the bag. But you’re robbing me, I swear this is illegal.” He tries to forces the money into the salesman’s hand, but the latter withdraws his hand quickly.

“God forbid. Khallas, that’s it, take it for free. I’m not taking any money. Here.” As he says that, he starts packing the bag and tries to hand it over to the customer.

“You’re insulting me. What do you think I am, a beggar? I am going to cancel this trip.”

“You are so stubborn. You have broken me, I have never met a customer like you before. Here, have it for $60 but please don’t tell anyone. They will think I am crazy.”

“$55 it is. Yalla, shake my hand and pack it for me.”

“No way. Not going under $60. I don’t know what I am still in this business.”

“Ok, I swear by God you have exhausted my soul. $60 and you give me three of these pens with it.”

“$60 and I will give you one pen.”

He shakes his hand and takes the bag. “Have a good evening. You are a man of impeccable taste and generosity.”

“God forbid, you are the best customer I have ever had.” The customer takes the bag and walks way, as he leaves both men are left celebrating their victories.

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Now to understand how political negotiations work in Lebanon, for example the current debate about the election law, imagine that there are 20 salesmen and 20 customers and try to picture all the possible permutations of the scenario above repeated between all of them. A decision can be made only when they all agree. That will give you a rough idea of the complexity involved.

Actually, make that 19 salesmen and 19 customers, but that’s my last word.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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