Saturday, March 20, 2010

Shopping In Egypt

I wrote a little earlier about why I hate tour groups. I know it’s not really rational or anything, but something about the way that you share exactly the same “cultural experience” with 30+ other people really irks me. I think now that I’ve slept a little, I can articulate what I mean: if you travel as part of a tour group, your identity becomes wrapped up in the identity of a larger group that, broadly, can be categorized as “tourists.” Your experience in Egypt (or any other country, for that matter) becomes one that has been developed over time to cater specifically to tourists, one that’s been warped to the point where it’s no longer genuine. It’s not a real interchange of cultures as much as it is an ethnocentric version of Egypt that minimizes culture shock and maximizes total dollars spent in the country. This is how the basic forces of econ work, and the place where they work in their most primal form is in street markets. [Footnote: I blame tour groups for this too, and here’s why: all tour groups face identical time and money constraints—they have a limited budget to visit a limited number of famous historical places in a limited amount of time. They naturally choose the same places to visit—the Pyramids/the Sphinx, the Cairo Museum, Coptic Cairo, etc.—which means it becomes very profitable for vendors to congregate around those places selling cheap goods to large numbers of tourists who, for the most part, don’t know the difference between “real mother-of-pearl” jewelry boxes and plastic ones, or goods that have been “hand-carved in Egypt” vs. mass-produced in Thailand. If there were no tour groups, it would be less profitable for merchants to gather in one place hawking cheap plastic stuff and more profitable for them to provide quality goods to local as well as foreign clients. But I digress—as much as I hate how they affect me, most tour groups are just unassuming old people who want to be taken care of rather than be out on their own in a foreign country, and I can understand why that would be appealing to some people. Just not to me.]

From Egypt

Being touristy is terrible.

The go-to tourist market is Khan al-Khalili, a walking open-air market where tour groups get dropped off for an afternoon, often horribly unprepared for what they are about to encounter. Every shopkeeper, vendor, assistant, beggar, and street performer wants their piece of the great big tourism pie and they are prepared to go to the ends of the earth to get it. From heckling (“Come into my shop, it is very good quality”) to flattery (“Barack Obama good USA #1”) to gimmicks (“Look, fake silk will not go through my ring, but real silk...”) to tactics such as lying (“This real Rolex!”) and pure shamelessness (“How can I get you to spend money here today?”), Khan al-Khalili has it all. I was reluctant to spend any money there at first, but I wound up buying a hookah and regretting the decision. Let me tell the story:

Me, Zack, Marty, and Luke were cruising around Khan al-Khalili when a guy invited us into his hookah shop. I have always intended to bring a hookah back to the US so I figured, what the heck. We started mixing and matching hookah pipes and bases, just to see what the options were. The pipes and bases were actually good quality, but I was getting a bad vibe from the shopkeeper—he was just a very aggressive salesman and I got the feeling that he was used to dealing mainly with tourists. I forget his name, but for reasons that will soon become clear I am going to name him “Shithead” for the purposes of this narrative. Anyway, Shithead spoke excellent English, which meant my usual line (“I study Arabic, give me the Arab price”) wasn’t going to get me a discount. I don’t know how else to describe him other than that he seemed like a real sleeze. Nevertheless, I was running on something like 3 hours of sleep and not functioning at 100%, so I put up with his sales techniques and started talking prices with him. Luke and I did a tag-team thing and got him down to 400 Egyptian pounds or just under $80, which is pretty much the going rate. I shook hands with Shithead and we made a deal.

The trouble started almost immediately—he didn’t have the hookah pipe in silver, even though that was the color I had wanted and what we had been negotiating for. I seriously considered walking at that point, but in my sleep-deprived logic I was thinking that I had already spent about a half-hour in the shop negotiating and was, time-wise, the equivalent of pot-committed. I chose out a new base to go with the gold and Shithead packed everything up into a carrying case. I paid and left, pretty happy with my purchase.

But then things got worse. We got back to the hotel and tried to smoke the hookah, but it wouldn’t work. It turned out that the hoses Shithead had given us were the wrong size for the pipe, and the base was also too large for the pipe. The thing was leaking air in three different places, so of course it wasn’t going to smoke. I realized that I’d gotten ripped off and after we got done with group dinner at 8 PM, I decided to take a taxi back to Khan al-Khalili to return the thing.

Shithead recognized me almost immediately and asked what was wrong. I told him that I wanted to return the hookah and get my money back, but he wasn’t having any of it. We got into a pretty big argument, and I was doing my best to be firm but diplomatic about the whole situation. He was being a total shithead and trying to throw me off in any way possible (at one point, he even argued that I owed him an extra 100 pounds, a retarded bluff which I called by threatening to find a cop. In retrospect, what I should have done was bribe an Egyptian cop to come in the store and help get my 400 pounds back, but I wasn’t thinking like an Egyptian at the time). Without going into the long and tedious details that come out when people are arguing about money, let me just say that my efforts to return the hookah diplomatically failed, and that I left the shop with a slightly more useful hookah (he fixed the hose issue and threw in some rubber seals) and 100 pounds of my money back. Both of us were bitter and cursed at each other as we went our respective ways. As I wandered around Khan al-Khalili I was struck by an inspiration: earlier that day, I had visited a shop that was completely different from every other one I visited—nobody was standing outside trying to reel in customers, it was actually a workshop, and the owner had taken 45 minutes to customize the gift I wanted for no extra charge. I managed to find this little shop again and explained my situation to the guy:

Nick: I bought this hookah, but it is shit. Where can I buy a good hookah?
Guy: Come with me.

So I start walking with this guy and we talk a little bit. His name is A’del and he’s one of the only shopkeepers who actually makes his own stuff (without giving too much away about Lucas’ gift, let’s just say he’s a good woodworker). We walked two blocks over from Khan al-Khalili to a less glitzy but much busier part of town—one thing about Cairo is that the city never shuts down, and more locals go out at night because it’s easier to get stuff done. He took me to a hookah shop owned by his friend min zamann—from way back—and it was incredible. Every hookah was legitimately handmade (I saw his workshop) and the hoses and silver had his name and neighborhood engraved on them. That’s the other thing—I got a silver and blue one, the colors that I originally wanted from the other store, and a much better overall shopping experience. And because I was shopping with an Arab guy, I got the real Arab prices—including extra hoses, rubber seals, and mouthpieces, the whole thing came to just under 200 pounds. I tipped A’del 100 pounds for helping me so much and smoked a celebratory cigarette with him on the way back to Khan al-Khalili. I learned a valuable lesson: the further away you get from tourists, the more interesting stuff you’ll find—and usually at better prices and with less hassle, too. For the rest of the trip, I applied this rule and was generally happy with the results—in Alexandria, we stopped by a little model boat workshop and while I didn’t buy anything, it was better than any of the stuff by the library and the Citadel. On the last night, I went with a couple of the girls to downtown. 90% of the stores on big streets were selling either poorly made girls’ shoes or leather products, but when we wandered down a side street we found an antique store that had tons of old, beautiful things. They had a rooster made of solid silver that had Arabic calligraphy in its tail design; I didn’t buy it but it’s the best example of the random things in the store. The owners were great and very patient—Saed explained the stories behind some of the products while Ahmad fitted jewelry for the girls. I spent every pound I had there (luckily, it was only about $60 US) and I’m really glad that I did so. That’s what tourism should be about.

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