One of my favourite bits of Monty Python's Life of Brian is when our unMessianic hero takes to his sandals to escape from a multitude keen to anoint him as its saviour. Realising he could use a disguise, Brian stops at a beard stall in the market, the kind that sells fake facial hair to women so they can attend men-only stonings. He picks up a beard and asks the stallholder how much. The man tells him and Brian tries to hand over the money. "No, no, no," says the proprietor, wearily. "You're supposed to haggle."
"Haggle?" says Brian. "Yeah …" explains the man. "You know – 'Four? For that? That's not worth it!" Brian tries, but finds himself bemused by one of the murkiest sub-sections of retail. We all think we can haggle, but like Sean Connery impressions, few can do it properly.
I found my own skills tested last weekend in Morocco. Most of the trip had been spent in the opulent Mazagan beach resort about an hour from Casablanca, a city (or a plywood facsimile of it) which once featured in an old movie. Of course, once I heard that the present-day metropolis featured a recreation of Rick's Café, I was dusting off my white dinner jacket and spellchecking my letters of transit.
When we got to Casablanca, we had an hour to kill before our dinner reservation at Rick's, so went to the old market. It smelt like a camel's jogging bottoms and was about as relaxing as a Motorhead gig.
We both wanted new sunglasses, so stopped at a stall and picked a pair we liked. I said to the guy: "How much for both?" "200 dirhams," he said. "Phphphphphph," I retorted, blowing air flabbily through my lips.
"How much you want to pay?" he asked. "100," I said, wishing I had Brian's beard to stroke. The man (and every stallholder in earshot) guffawed. "This is quality!" he said, tapping a fingernail on the lens of my glasses. Of course, haggling etiquette demanded I then offer 150, with the dance going on until accord was reached. However, I was beginning to get hungry for dinner at Rick's, so took my wife's arm and turned on my heel as if to leave.
"Okay, okay, okay mister. 100 for both," said the man, giving me a look as dark as the inside of his dish-dash. We paid him and scuttled off. I felt both victorious and a bit of a heel, but took comfort in the fact that, had I actually paid him the sticker price, I may not have escaped with my life…