Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Surviving Egyptian Street Markets. Or, "Souk the Rich"

If you come from a Western nation you are not going to be prepared for street markets in Egypt, or presumably elsewhere in the Arab world.  We are accustomed to price tags, and receiving change, and clerks that wait passively behind a counter for you to deliberate on your selections.
Entrance to the street market in Aswan
In Egypt you will not do well.  Most visitors end up buying things they really don’t want, and paying far too much for them.  Alternatively some people end up being needlessly rude and tarnishing the image of their country.  Let’s just not do these things.
Really, nothing says hyper capitalism like the name of a dead Communist revolutionary
The merchants in Egyptian bazaars are amazingly aggressive, impressively poly lingual, and masters of psychology.  You are no match for them.

So we have to even the odds a little.

Learn a few basic phrases*.  If you are being pestered to the periphery of physical intimidation then the hawker has gone too far.  Look right at them and say “La, shadeerkey”  This means “no my friend”. ( I will only use phonetic spelling.)

Now the merchant is wondering if perhaps you are not a total patsy.  Maybe, as we would say here in the States, you did not just fall off the turnip truck.

Another useful word, as I mentioned yesterday, is “bokrah”.  Along with a slight wave of the hand it suggests you might come back tomorrow.  With a sub text of “not very likely”. 

But appearing to speak a little of the local language poses problems of its own, some of the merchants will start asking you questions in that language, and my supply of Arabic is depleted all too quickly.  So my son and I adopted a different strategy. 

First, and this is always a good idea when traveling, we wore absolutely generic clothing.  Do not give anyone a clue as to your nationality.  There are different sales tactics for Americans, Brits, and French.  I think the Egyptians have pretty much given up on the Germans.
Incognito in Giza
As you slowly walk by the stalls you will be addressed in English.  Show no sign of comprehension.  Next up is French.  Still nothing.  By this time the merchant is guessing away…Irish?  Dutch? Russian?  No reply.  We would always look daggers at them and mutter a little if they guessed Belgian, but that was our inside joke.

If they have no language in common with you their advantage has been much reduced.  Often as not we would just keep strolling, but sometimes there were actually some wares of interest.  I would look at my son and say “Warzazeek”.  This is the last name of some friends of ours, and was our pre-arranged signal to stop and browse.  We had a few other phrases that meant things too, one for let’s move on, another for laugh out loud for no apparent reason.  In each case the words sounded vaguely Eastern European, and were liberally admixed with glottal gibberish and what little I know of Klingon from being a serious Star Trek fan.**

The salespeople did not know what to make of us. 

On the uncommon occasions where we actually might buy something I would look straight at the proprietor and say “Anna min Tegwar”.  This means “I come from Tegwar”.***

Faced with somebody whose primary tongue is the mythical “Tegwari” and who seems able to speak and understand a little Arabic, the merchant just prattles on and mostly pantomimes things.

We, being guys and all, were not actually all that interested in buying stuff, but a few souvenirs for the folks back home were called for.  In these instances I would once again look the street merchant in the eye and say, rather poorly, “Ich can auch ein bischen Deutch sprechen”.  (My German is actually not bad, but I tried to dumb it down a little in keeping with my role as a possible diplomat from a backwater Central Asian republic).

At this point actual negotiations can take place.  I figure we get a little latitude on prices because the reputation of Tegwarians for thrift and bluntness is unknown, and that of the Germans is already past redemption.

So in the end we probably paid only two or three times what we should have as opposed to the four or five times real price that most Americans have to settle for.

A final word.  Don’t be a jerk.  These folks have to make a living, and in general we Westerners can afford to support their economy a bit.  Were this not so you would not be crossing oceans to see the sights in the first place.  If you simply must know the “appropriate” price for things most guides-if on a guided tour-will be honest with you, even if they likely have several relatives in the business.  But I think having a little fun with the process and paying a little extra is preferable to an exchange where you get discount trinkets you really did not need at a cost of increasing ill will towards your homeland.
River pirates.  the water borne merchants are obviously easy to avoid
*Sure, in an ideal world you would learn enough Arabic to let fly with "By the Beard of the Prophet, you are a thief and a son of thieves."  But we must be practical.

 **Ghuy'cha' Belgique PetQ! (This is saying something very nasty about Belgians in Klingon.)
***TEGWAR is actually an acronym for “The Exciting Game Without Any Rules”.  It comes from the marvelous baseball story “Bang the Drum Slowly”, and was a fictional card game with made up and ever changing rules.  Ball players would use it to fleece local rubes back in the days when they, the baseball players, were actually underpaid!


Borepatch said...

Awesome. Your "don't be a jerk" paragraph especially.

T.K. Tortch said...

I'm from South Carolina in the States; in the late '80's I was studying at Edinburgh University. A friend of mine from Georgia (U.S.) I took a long trip through various parts of North Africa. We developed a number of diversionary tactics similar to yours, such as not responding to English unless we were interested.

Sometimes, when pressed, we would deploy a geographical diversion by stating (in bad English) that we were from South Carolina or Georgia, figuring most hawkers wouldn't know what to do with that. But one day in Morocco we told a troop of boys aggressively pushing one or another gewgaw that we were from South Carolina. One of the kids had on a baseball style cap, backwards; he grinned about as big as you can imagine and turned it around. It read "U.S.S. South Carolina". Apparently the Navy had paid a visit recently!!

Tacitus2 said...

TK Tortch

At first I thought that sounded a bit odd. Traditionally US Navy ships named after states were only battleships, and the battleship
South Carolina was decomissioned in 1921.

But I learned something today. There was also a cruiser named South Carolina from 1970 to 1999. This would seem to fit your encounter, as she spent time in the Med.

US naming conventions for ships are looser than British conventions. Carriers in particular seem to be a hodgepodge.


T.K. Tortch said...

At the time, if you had asked me was there currently a Navy ship named for South Carolina, I would have guessed "probably", but before that I hadn't given it any thought. We weren't totally surprised to find out one existed; we had noticed a U.S. Navy ship parked in one or another port, Casa or Tangier I guess. But the odds of that particular ship!!

Morocco was an interesting place, especially if you broke off the more established tourist tracks and routines. Once we learned to manage the screen of hawkers and grifters efficiently were were able to engage with locals more as visitors than tourists, with a much richer experience as a result.