If there is one thing about Tehran I haven't missed is the way business used to be conducted in the city on a daily basis. Like its confusing street addresses and its, shall we say, eclectic architecture, business etiquette was murky, haphazard and frustrating.
Take bargaining for instance. One had to be an expert in nuanced body language and cockeyed psychology plus an endurance athlete to get through it. All those intricate labyrinthine rituals would have surely provided fascinating material for anthropological and comparative ethnic studies but left the average Tehrani exhausted after a hard day of shopping.
I remember my father negotiating prices with fruit vendors. After looking over the merchandize like an inspector followed by several minutes of opening chitchat, the vendor would, with a flourish of his bone handled knife, cut a sliver of the watermelon or peach or cantaloupe and make an offering of it. My father would then munch some, appraising the texture and flavour with all the aplomb of a wine taster, his expression never ecstatic lest the vendor be emboldened in his bargaining position.
After several firm head shakes and friendly pushing and shoving and coquettishly walking away and being called back, the parties would finally settle down to fine tuning of their differences with a vigor worthy of international protocol negotiators. Half an hour later we may or may not walk away with a watermelon under our arms.
While all that was going on I was usually standing a few feet away pretending the guy waving his hands and nodding his head and issuing final ultimatums was in no way related to me. The fact was I could never bargain. I was too shy or maybe just thought my time too valuable to spend it cajoling perfect strangers.
Just imagine, even if you spend an average of one hour a week bargaining, over an adult life time of say 50 years, the average person would spend 240 hours, a full 10 days, playing head games with fruit vendors and fabric sellers and bakers and butchers. Thank you, but no thank you. The fixed price market system in North America suits me just fine. And if I want to save money, I just make sure to watch out for sales or clip coupons on the weekends.
Judging by my infrequent encounter with Iranian businesses here in Vancouver not much has changed in the way Iranians do business with each other. When dealing with Iranian businesses you must first throw away all that you have learned about business etiquette in North America. You mustn't ask too many questions lest you offend the other party. You must certainly not ask about the exact cost, time of delivery or condition your merchandize will arrive in.
At the beginning doing business resembles a rendezvous with a lover, fraught with all the trepidations, tender gestures and kind suggestions. Once a few years ago at an Iranian notary public recommended by a friend, after the proprietor, an elderly gentleman with a sour puss, had typed and sealed the invitation I was to send to my mother in Iran for her tourist visa application, I asked the man for his fee. He of course responded with the customary “it's not worthy of you.” I was tempted to walk out just to see how far the old man would go to collect his fee.
Of course Iranians do business for the same reason as people the world over, to make money, and all that initial touchy feely stuff may end up in acrimony and bitterness of a love affair gone sour. That's what happened in my dealing with a local television station a few years ago. I had called to put in a casting notice for a short film. The proprietor of the one man operation was tripping over himself pouring out niceties mile a minute. The casting notice was to be slotted in the public broadcast segment of the one hour twice weekly show (he has since expanded his operation to a mini media empire). But after the first broadcast the notice was nowhere to be seen.
I contacted the station and inquired in my halting polite Farsi why the notice was not included in the subsequent broadcasts. Sounding outraged at my gall, the station proprietor told me off rather curtly and hung up. When I called him back perplexed at his sudden about face, it turned out that the first broadcast was a courtesy one and any subsequent broadcasts were billable. Had he conducted himself in a professional manner and laid out the proposition in plain business language from the outset I would have gladly shoulder the cost. Instead he played king bountiful turned ruthless business man. That was the end of our beautiful but brief acquaintance.
This past week I contacted an Iranian currency transfer shop to send a modest amount of money to Iran. The gentleman I spoke to on the phone was kind and courteous and made me feel like a dear family member. Since I don't often get the chance to make it to the city centre where most such businesses are located, I made arrangement to go on Saturday. The kind uncle informed me that to be on the safe side I should be at his office between 10:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. But when I got there around 11:30 the office was closed. I killed time for half an hour but to no avail.
Back in my apartment cursing myself for not having called ahead of time, I contacted the man. He apologized profusely; some business had taken him away from the office. He promised that he would inform his contact in Iran to proceed with the transfer of funds even though he didn't actually have my cheque in his hand. That was mighty big of him, and he made sure I realized it.
The next day I was to go to a restaurant in the same mini mall where the currency shop was located and leave the check in trust until Monday when the shop proprietor would collect it himself. Since I was giving him a cheque he then proceeded to ask me for my driver's license number and expiry date but also a host of other questions with the skill of a police informer. By the end of the conversation he had gathered a complete dossier on me. The only I thing I knew about him was his first name, Habib, a most ironic name had the transaction not turned out as smooth as it did.
Well, I went to the restaurant in the blighted min mall the next day but, you guessed it, it was closed. Again, I killed time loitering in front of the shop until the owner of the next door business, a kind elderly woman with a sweet Irish accent, having observed my aimless pacing and occasional angry cursing, informed me that on Sundays the restaurant may or may not be open, depending on the owner's mood and fancy.
This time I decided to play it smart. I would call the mysterious Godot, I mean Habib, on the spot and demand an alternative like getting his sorry rear end to his office and collect the damn cheque from me personally. Of course the silver tongued operator, never short of ideas, had something else in mind. Why not give the cheque to the proprietor of a bike shop also in the mini mall. They in turn would pass it to him on Monday morning. As it turned out, the bike shop owner and his sassy wife with the flirty eyes had actually never met Mr. Habib (if that was in fact his name) but had heard of him and assured me that his business was in fact legitimate.
So I took a leap of faith and handed them the cheque violating every rule of sensible business conduct in the book. Frankly I didn't care anymore; I would have given the cheque to the tattooed kid with pierced nipples loitering in the mall collecting pop cans and making cracks about terrorist camel jockeys going back to where they came from. I just wanted the whole thing over and done with.
By Monday morning the business was transacted and the parties were all happy but I was left exhausted. I never did meet Mr. Habib. He might have been a figment of my imagination. He may be the real “Deep Throat” for all I know, just a disembodied voice telling Woodward in that garage to follow the money all those years ago, resurfacing now to pull my strings to drop cheques here and there. Until next time.