Shopping and Selling

You might be picturing a Nile tour of Egypt as all tombs, temples, pharaohs and pyramids. Well, yes, that’s right. But attached to every monument and port of call are vendors and hawkers and merchants and salespeople and outstretched hands awaiting a tip.

You have to tip everywhere and for everything. Including using the toilet. Our tour guide Mohammed (more about him below) made sure we each had a few 5 and 10 Egyptian pound notes in our pockets; that’s 18 to 33 cents American. At least one attendant stood guard at each public toilet. You’d hand over the tip; they might give you a few squares of toilet paper. On the door to a men’s room in the Cairo International Airport, a sign said, “This is a free toilet. There is no tipping.” Just inside the door were two men demanding to be tipped.

OK, so that’s just the way the economy works. During our years living in Europe, we’ve grown accustomed to almost no tipping. In France, if you enjoyed the experience of a restaurant more than usual, you might give a euro or two to express your pleasure. Every time we return to the US, we have to adjust to the 20% restaurant tip, the taxi tip, the porter tip; that’s just the way the economy works. On the tipping spectrum there’s Europe, then the US, and then Egypt.

Tipping is just the way it is. Then there’s shopping, which is much more fun. However you do need to want to shop. In Egypt — at least along the tourist routes that we traveled — if you so much as glance at someone, you are very likely to be tugged (figuratively) into a negotiation before your next breath.

Outside almost all the archeological and monument zones, there are stands and stalls and shops and free-range hawkers. If we were interested in stopping and practicing our bargaining skills, then, no problem. However, most of the time, we just wanted to enjoy the site and the scenery. We learned quickly that we had to keep our focus straight ahead and make no eye contact. Even so, vendors would plant themselves right in front of our trajectory; they always scooted out of the way just before collision.

That said, shopping, when it’s our idea, is great fun. Before each stop that could include some purchasing, Mohammed would recommend how to approach the negotiation. In some places, he said aim to pay about 50% of what the vendor first proposes. In other places, he said that getting a 10% “discount” would be a success. Armed with his guidelines, and with a budget in mind, we found the bargaining entertaining.

At one of our port stops, a collection of stalls lined the river edge just opposite our river boat.

The usual items were on display: clothes, towels, linens, artifacts and tchotchkes, including a lot of knock-off pyramids and King Tut heads. One vendor had placed himself on the sidewalk between our boat and the the line of shops. He was selling T-shirts, one of which caught our fancy; the front was covered with hieroglyphs. Mohammed had said, “Don’t pay more than 100 pounds for that.” That’s about $3.30. The second we started raising our eyes toward the vendor, he jumped into vaunting one shirt after another. We portrayed mild disinterest as best as we could for a few minutes. Then we asked for the price of the T-shirt that we wanted. He said, “700 pounds!” We played aghast. He proclaimed high quality. We said, “We’ll pay 100 pounds.” He personified incredulity and grievance. After a minute or two of enjoying his performance, we said, “Sorry, but if you accept our offer, you’ll make a sale. If not, well, bye.” Per the playbook, we started to walk away. He called out, “OK! OK!” We exchanged cash and shirt. As we authentically started to walk away, he held up a couple more T-shirts and said, “You want these too, right? Same price?”

Our organized tour included a few sanctioned stops at legitimate local stores, including for rugs, for alabaster objects, for Egyptian cotton linens and clothes, and for paintings on papyrus.

Cute but concerning young rug makers

The routine was for a salesperson to make a little educational presentation, which usually was rather interesting. A tray of bottle water, fruit juices, sodas, tea and coffee would appear. “Please, have something to drink. No charge!” Then we’d have time to check out what was on sale. In the same manner as the street stalls, but much gentler, if we stopped in front of some item, a salesman would materialize just behind our shoulder. (The women worked only behind the cashier counter, not out with us customers.) Thankfully, Mohammed would materialize behind our other shoulder. He’d advise quietly about quality and price. 

The papyrus art salesman was particularly interesting. He demonstrated the process of making papyrus paper from raw reeds.

Out of all our vendor experiences, the most fun and most amazing were the river “pirates.” As we started our cruising down the Nile, Mohammed explained that river “pirates” would likely come alongside the boat near some of our port stops. He recommended playing along if we were interested, and bargaining hard. If we agreed to buy something, we’d have to be careful not to toss down our payment before receiving our purchase. The “pirates” might just power away. 

Sure enough, on our first afternoon motoring upstream on the Nile, a small boat with two vendors sped up to us, matched speed, and tied a line to the hull. As our boat towed them along, they called out, “Hello! Hello! Hello!” These were two go-getters: rendezvousing on the fly — or “on the sail.”

An inventory of products like towels, shawls, table cloths, shirts and dresses filled the hull of their boat. The “pirates” called out, hawking their stock in raucous shouts. 

A few of our fellow passengers on the upper deck, three levels above the river surface, started to ask to see what the vendors had to offer. Up flew a table cloth. And then a shawl. And then a shirt. (They have very strong throwing arms.) Our fellow passengers had a blast checking out what popped up, and negotiating by hand gestures and English. Purchases were made. Money was tossed down into the boat.

Later that evening, further upstream, our boat had to halt before easing into some river locks. A half a dozen other boats moored near us, all waiting their turns in the lock. Now we were much easier targets for the “pirates.” No need to match speed and cast a line onto the motoring cruise boat. Hellos started ringing out. Immediately we heard a couple of our fellow travelers dash up the stairs to the roof deck, exclaiming, “Oh good, we get to bargain some more!”

Learning from Mohammed

We visited the major sites of Egypt thanks to a well-organized tour by Trafalgar. From our first bus excursion in Cairo — to the Pyramids, of course — through our week on a Nile River boat and back to Cairo, one tour guide took care of us. His name is Mohammed Taha. He was, we guess, in his early forties. Fortunately, and as we had expected, he was knowledgeable and articulate about ancient monuments and culture. Less expected was how personable he was, how much he paid attention to little details to keep us safe and comfortable, and how much he shared about his life and contemporary Egypt.

We were always very aware that we and our fellow tour members were outsiders, in a little bubble, witnessing Egypt but not really interacting with it. We were aware of being Westerners in a majority Muslim country. Especially from our river boat, we saw simple villages, dusty towns, and jumbled cities go by. We couldn’t help but wonder what life is like for Egyptian villagers and farmers, workers and bureaucrats and professionals in immense and chaotic Cairo, the vendors of T-shirts and souvenirs who called out to us everywhere we went… We accepted that on this type of tour and at this stage of our traveling life, we just skim the contemporary surface.

So what Mohammed shared opened a few doors onto what we couldn’t see directly.

Mohammed volunteered that his marriage had been arranged. He said that the arranged marriage wasn’t forced on him; he chose it. His family introduced him to quite a few candidates over the years, and he had the opportunity to say yes or no. It was the same for each woman whom he met; they could accept or reject the men they were introduced to. Mohammed said that quite a few women had rejected him! But, after many years, he and woman who is quite a few years younger than he agreed to marry. They had met each other twice before the decision. They view their married relationship as one that they would start building from the moment of that decision.

The purpose of the marriage is to have children. That’s it. Mohammed sees getting married and having children as a necessary moderating force on men.

(All this certainly made us wonder what it is like for anyone who doesn’t fit the standard of being straight, wanting a family, wanting to live within the rules of an extended family, and the rest. There must be a lot of anguish and pain hidden behind the traditional screen.)

He lives with his wife and children in a large family house. His parents as well as siblings and their families live in the house. One of his sisters has special needs, and will never marry. All the family takes care of her. The family kitchen is for everyone. Mohammed, as the eldest son, has had and continues to have and will always have the responsibility of going out early each morning to buy the bread for the family. Mohammed seemed to have no interest in moving out with his family, to have a place of their own. Living with the extended family is his choice.

Mohammed also talked about the Arab Spring and what has happened since then. We already knew that the current regime in Egypt is dictatorial, and that this dictator took over when the elected Muslim Brotherhood was in power. We really didn’t expect that anyone would talk about politics during the tour; we’d read articles about jailed journalists and dissidents. But Mohammed jumped right in. He said that as a younger man he had participated in the Arab Spring. He demonstrated on the streets of Cairo along with thousands of other Egyptians. He wanted the end of the Mubarak autocratic rule, and the establishment of a democratically elected government. 

With the concordance of the military, Mubarak was overthrown. Elections brought the conservative fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood to power. But the Brotherhood, despite populist election rhetoric, set out to turn Egypt into a theocratic state like Iran, not an inclusive democracy. Mohammed, like many other idealistic demonstrators, was shocked, dismayed and deeply disappointed by this outcome of their efforts. When Abdel Fatah el-Sisi and the military seized power one year later, Mohammed saw it as a necessary remedy to the destructive rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. He concluded that the Egyptian electorate, himself included, was not yet ready to participate in a full democracy. The country first needs stability, economic development, and education, Mohammed said.

Perhaps what Mohammed told us is exactly what he things and feels. He seemed authentic in his telling. His apparent candor, and the thoughtfulness of many other things he told us, made us rethink a bit how to consider the current authoritarian regime. But after returning home from Egypt, we read a few articles in the New York Times that report on the el-Sisi regime’s repressive treatment of political opponents, critical journalists, bloggers and social media communicators, and LGBTQ+ people. We also read about the regime’s focus on big infrastructure developments, including a new national capital in the desert outside of Cairo; and on cronyism among the military elite, and lack of focus on education and social programs.

All of which makes us think that perhaps Mohammed sees that he has to tell a tale that justifies the existing regime. Especially to foreign visitors. The regime is relying hugely on income from foreign visitors, especially in the wake of covid. To express anything contrary to the official message might be very dangerous. We really don’t know.

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