Haggling in Cairo – June 2007

Having spent time in places like Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey, and Dubai, I can’t help but be affected by some of the cultural practices that I absorb while there.  One of the recurring themes I’ve observed is the necessity to negotiate even the most mundane aspects of life.  Want to take a taxi ride in Egypt?  If so, you’d better be prepared to negotiate intensely.  Looking to pick up some souvenirs at the bazaar in Turkey?  That’s like a game of negotiation Stratego. 

In order to survive, I’ve learned to become adept at such time honored negotiation strategies as the exaggerated sarcastic laugh, the look of utter shock, the low-ball offer, and most important of all, the walk away.  Of course, these skills are far less applicable stateside.  I’ve seen my parents recoil in horror when I’ve tried to encourage them to haggle, Middle Eastern-style, in Maine. 

This May, I found myself in Egypt for a conference.  I took my “game” to the superdome of haggling, the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar in Central Cairo.  Since I’d been there before, I figured I would be an unstoppable force of nature in the negotiations.  After a half an hour of wandering the stalls of various hawkers, I set my sights and prepared for battle.

Before I explain my approach to the negotiation, it’s probably best to pontificate on my overarching philosophy for negotiations in the bazaar.  In the past, I have made the mistake of walking away from a negotiation over a few dollars for the sake of foolish pride, only to regret forsaking the purchase when I’m back in New York and it’s too late to change my stance.  Accordingly, I have learned to stay the course and make the purchase lest I suffer pangs of regret on the plane home. Still, I try to get the best deal I can – I’m a Yankee after all (not like that – I’m a Sox fan). 

Returning to the bazaar, I entered the shop and saw a brass sculpture that I wanted to purchase as gift.  I approached the proprietor and offered a handshake to start the process. Unfortunately, the open sore on his hand precluded the gesture.  Next, he offered me the obligatory cup of tea (this is a classic invitation to haggle), but I declined as I had limited time to chat.  Then, the fireworks began.  He offered X, I offered Y. He lowered his price by 50%; I increased mine by 10%.  I smirked, I scoffed, and I walked out of the place paying about half of his original asking price.  Although I had considered employing the walk away, I was in a hurry.   Still, I felt I had done well.  Of course, ignorance, as they say, is bliss.  On the way out of the bazaar, I saw a shop selling the very item I had just purchased.  For kicks, I engaged the proprietor and quickly got him down to Y without even getting to the offer of tea.  My confidence shattered, I skulked away defeated.  

A few days later, I had a chance to employ another cultural tactic that is widely accepted in the Middle East and South Asia – the baksheesh.  A baksheesh – or “tip” – is a facilitation payment, or basically what is commonly known as a bribe.  First of all, let me clarify that I am unequivocally opposed to the payment of bribes in a professional context.  They are unethical and immoral, not to mention illegal.  I know that my CCD teachers at St. Ignatius would have never taught me to support such a practice.  At times, however, a little baksheesh is an essential part of getting things done in a place like Egypt. 

Case and point:  I arrived to the ruins of a tomb built in the 3rd Century AD, only to find that they were closed for the day.  Of course, the woman who took my $5 at the door neglected to tell me that when I purchased my ticket.  As I approached the door to the tomb, I was met by a caretaker.  He rattled the locked, smiled, and said: “baksheesh.”  I dug some Egyptian pounds out of my pocket, and magically the doors swung open.  I must have tipped well, because he proceeded to give me an energetic tour of the site in Italian and Arabic.  Don’t ask – I was confused too.  A few minutes later, we heard footsteps approaching, and a security guard with an AK-47 entered the scene.  While, it appeared that the gig was up, the caretaker smiled, gestured, and again said: “baksheesh.”  A few pounds more and we were making the rounds together like the three stooges, except in this case, one of the stooges was carrying a Kalashnikov.  

Of course, I have concerns over the entire ethical underpinning of the baksheesh. Paying baksheesh only encourages the persistence of a practice that is both annoying and economically inefficient.  Moreover, it unjustly favors people who can afford to make payments over those who cannot.  Still, while the baksheesh is a fact of life in many places, it doesn’t work everywhere.  A few years ago I arrived at New Delhi airport and realized that I was incredibly late for my flight.  In a moment of desperation, I approached a guard at the side door, dug some rupees from my pocket, and exclaimed, “Baksheesh?”  He looked at me with disgust, swatted his hand, and muttered, “Get in line.”


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