Final Sale

When it comes to down-and-dirty curses—the kind that make you feel cleansed and self-righteous—my friend Ricardo says there’s nothing quite like La puta que lo parió: terse, to the point, adequate for almost any situation, especially when followed by La puta que lo remil parió. (The lo means ‘it’, so if you’re addressing an individual, it would be: La puta que te parió! La puta que te remil parió!)

The emphases here are important. I’m not talking about Spanish’s normal accents. I mean the depth of feeling imparted to the first syllable of puta, which is normally stressed, but when used in these curses is stronger by several magnitudes: the p in puta explodes out of your mouth, accompanied by flying saliva. Similarly with remil: the l in remil is a labial that lingers delectably between tongue and palate before parió brings the curse to its emphatic close.

These are curses which—when said with intense passion and with as guttural a voice as you can muster—make you feel that you’re shaking your fists at the Fates that have brought you to a miserable state of affairs: La puta que lo parió! La puta que lo remil parió!

These curses can, if addressed to the thin-skinned, end relationships: they should be used judiciously. Beware of saying them around people who happen to have weapons in their hands, like a cast iron skillet. Be careful when using them around those who have—as the Spanish saying goes—sangre en el ojo: lust for revenge. In Latin America, wars have started over less.

At first, it’s best to try these curses on inanimate objects: a car that doesn’t start in cold weather, a hammer whose business end goes astray and lands on flesh and bone. Slowly, you can build up to aiming these curses at human beings: for example, during a frustrating moment when no one around you seems to understand what’s perfectly clear to you.

Ricardo swears by La puta que lo parió, but acknowledges that Arabic has some curses that give nearly as much satisfaction: namely, Koos omak and Koos ochta—the ch is guttural. Both have an onomatopoetic quality that makes translation (practically) unnecessary.

Even without the benefit of translation, you can probably figure out what these curses mean. They’re about mothers and sisters and sexual organs and prostitutes: the usual curse-fodder. And yes, they are terribly sexist and misogynistic, which is not surprising: Spanish and Arabic curses, after all, are generally hurled by angry males brought up in cultures where women are considered either pure as the first snowflakes of late autumn, or irretrievably sullied, like three-week-old urban slush subjected to footprints, mud, and soot. Nothing in between.

But the fact is, when one uses these curses, their meanings almost never reach the level of consciousness. What the words literally mean is not the message. Strong curses are simply a series of sounds that come from somewhere outside cognition, some deep gut-chasm that needs to express itself as anger, frustration, and extreme exasperation.

All of which leads to a story.

Once, when I was living in Jerusalem, I received a letter from a female acquaintance asking for a favor: would I mind going to the Old City and buying a Bedouin dress, then sending it to her? Oh, and please don’t spend more than $40.

It seemed an outrageous request, one that would end up taking up a full day. Though I usually enjoyed going there, it was a tense time in the Old City, one of those periodic flare-ups during which Damascus Gate is swarming with Israeli soldiers; a time when tourists stay away from the area and merchants are desperate for customers.

I wasn’t overly concerned about going to the Old City, where there would be no end of Bedouin dresses; but—because of the political tension in the air—I was reluctant to speak Hebrew while shopping: only English, so as to be taken for a typical American tourist.

There was a down-side to this. A merchant specializing in Bedouin goods would probably charge an American tourist more than he’d charge a local resident; but it seemed a decent trade-off: pay a tourist premium and feel less vulnerable as a result.

I went in and out of several shops before I found one that had a large selection of clothing that looked handmade, as if these goods had been crafted in the desert with camels chewing palm fronds nearby: exactly what I was looking for.

The shop-owner introduced himself as Abu Musa and he insisted that I sit with him and have some refreshments. We sat on two small backless chairs, leather-covered tripods, while he poured me a glass of mint tea. The table was flat, bronze and circular, perhaps two feet in diameter; it had been carefully beaten and etched. It sat on a tripod with inlaid legs. The shop had a cave-like feel to it, a musty smell, an Arabian Nights patina.

Abu Musa grabbed a sugar cube with tongs and gestured: did I want sugar? I thanked him and nodded. I stirred my tea without making eye contact with him.

“I have had my store here for many years,” Abu Musa said. “Oh, many, many years.” He put in a couple of sugar cubes into his tea and stirred. “In the old days, I used to put just one sugar cube. Now I use two. I think the sugar is not as sweet as it used to be, no?”

That was as close as Abu Musa got to making a political or social comment. I didn’t ask any questions about his attitude toward the Israeli occupation and he didn’t volunteer any. Instead, we chatted about the charm of the Old City and which hummus place I should go to. While we drank tea, he told me about customers of his, from all over the world. He showed me their photos and the dresses and other handicrafts they’d bought. He was proud of the quality of what he sold and seemed to be in no rush to sell me something.

When we finally got around to the dress, he displayed several. After a few minutes I picked out a blue one inlaid with beads, buttons, coins and tiny mirrors: the right amount of craftsmanship and beauty. The shopkeeper’s initial price was the equivalent of $120. Of course, this was his opening gambit and we both knew what would follow.

Unfortunately, I’m too much of an American to be comfortable with haggling. I’m not good at it. I always feel I’ve been cheated. I’d much rather be told a fixed price, take it or leave it.

But here I was, in the mecca of haggling, so I’d better get on with it. However, I’d been given a limit of $40 and figured that if it ended up above that, it’d be my responsibility to pay the difference.

We went back and forth. I must have heard “final, last, ultimate price” a dozen times, along with “I’m losing money selling it to you at that price” and all the other usual feints and jabs. He was gentle and soft-spoken and it was easy to believe him when he said his prices were fair and he needed to make a living to support wife and children.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get him to go below $80 for any of the dresses I liked. That was his last, final, ultimate price and he refused to go a penny lower. He had dresses he’d sell for $40 but they seemed shoddy and poorly made.

So finally, after about an hour of this, during which time no other customer came into the shop, I told him I’d had enough: no more haggling, no more conversation. I was leaving. At first, Abu Musa took this as one more attempt to get the price down, and he did come down a tiny amount. I told him there was no way I could pay that and walked out.

Once I was out of Abu Musa’s shop, there seemed to be increased tension in the air: Israeli soldiers had massed at nearby alleyways and young Arabs were also gathering. Had I stepped into the middle of a confrontation?

While I was standing there, deciding which way to go, I heard Abu Musa’s voice: “Koos omak!” he hissed at me. “Koos ochta!

Hearing these raw Arabic curses, some raw combative nerve in me jangled. Without thinking, I whirled. “La puta que te parió!” I hissed back at him. “La puta que te remil parió!

We glared at one another for a split second: two gladiators at an impasse. A standoff.

I looked around: Israeli soldiers… Arab kids lining up with rocks… and Abu Musa glaring at me. The air was pregnant with potential violence.

So I picked out a safe route, and got out of the Old City as quickly as I could.

ROBERTO LOIEDERMAN has been a journalist, merchant seaman, kibbutz cook and TV scriptwriter. He’s had more than 100 articles published in magazines and newspapers: L.A. Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Penthouse, Jewish Journal, Serving House Journal, Fifth WednesdayJournal, Santa Fe Writers Project, Tribe Magazine, etc., and he’s co-author (with Richard Linnett) of a nonfiction book, The Eagle Mutiny, about the only mutiny on an American ship in modern times.