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Buying Frankincense in Oman

Frankincense has a prominent role in the book. I needed to know more about it and I had the opportunity when I visited Salalah in Dhofar province in southern Oman, the frankincense capital of the world.

My wife Eva and I drove out into the desert to see a frankincense tree. It is actually more like a very dry looking shrub. The frankincense comes in the form of a gum-resin that bleeds from the tree.

Eva decided to purchase some of the crystallized gum in a souk in Salalah. I was nowhere near prepared for the ritual that ensued. There were myriads of plastic bags of resins ranging in color from light yellow to dark brown. The merchant told us that color determined the quality and regaled us on the various provenances of the resins we were looking at. Do I need to tell you that there were no prices marked on the bags of resin?

Eva settled on a mid-quality resin and the haggling began. It was animated but friendly. A price was settled upon and Eva prepared to pay because we needed to catch our waiting transport to take us back timely to the boat.

The merchant raised his hand politely, caressed the scented tassel on his pure white dishdasha, and asked us if we already possessed an incense burner? We said no. With a sweeping hand, he triumphantly pointed to a vast array of small incense burners of varying designs and proceeded to discuss the pluses and minuses of each design.

Some more time elapsed as my wife duly considered his recommendations. He offered sweet mint tea, dates and sweetmeats to aid us in our deliberations, but looking at our watches somewhat anxiously, we politely declined.

This time Eva had craftily elicited the prices of the burners ahead of time. A bargain was struck. More time elapsed as the merchant insisted on boxing the burner and tying the wrapping with a red ribbon.

We thanked him and turned to go. The merchant smiled politely and raised his hand once again. We leaned back from the entrance, maintaining our farewell crouch. ‘Do you have any unscented charcoal to light the incense?’ he asked, knowing full well the answer.

No haggling this time – we paid his asking price for a packet of small rounds of charcoal, almost impolitely grabbed the packet like a relay baton, and ran for the door – this time, the merchant wished us a pleasant day and ushered us out, waving politely. He had delivered a master-class in haggling to us.

I am sure that he punched the air gleefully and closed his shop for the day after we left. But we had our scented treasure and we made it back to the boat with minutes to spare…

Now the fragrant, perfumed smell of frankincense wafts throughout our house on special occasions. The incense burner and the charcoal work perfectly. Occasionally, I flap a newspaper at a complaining smoke alarm...
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