Hawking—Us vs. Them?


It wore me out. At Egypt’s popular tourist sites, I got besieged by hawkers selling their wares. They couldn’t be avoided. I steeled myself for the inevitable barrage.

Haggling in Egypt (image from middleeasteye.net)

The routine would invariably be the same. Some guy (it was almost always a male) would approach. He’d hold up something and immediately quote a price, say, one U.S. dollar. That seemed like the going price for many things. It’s an amount that I could easily afford, no?

I’d say no.

He would continue, “Only $1.”

“No, thank you.”

“$1.”

“No, I don’t want it.”

“Only $1,” he’d press on.

“No.”

This could go on longer. The thing is, he’d follow you as you try to make your way toward a temple or wherever you were headed. Eventually, if you’re resolute with eyes forward, he’ll drop back and bother someone else. If you so much as look at whatever he’s selling, the hawker will see it as an opening. He will be very good at reading your eyes, so my advice is to wear dark glasses to hide your curiosity. If you stop to handle the object, you’re as good as sunk. For pricier items, the starting asking price will be high. If you’ve dealt with haggling before, you know the drill. In an occupation where competition is high, the most aggressive will reap greater rewards.

If you do buy, you need to be careful. I bought a booklet on Abu Simbel. I noticed later that it had some water damage. Because I was still in the area, I found the seller and got it replaced. I wasn’t so lucky when I bought a T-shirt elsewhere that turned out to be too small, even though the seller told me at the time of sale that it was the right size. The moral: check your merchandise immediately after purchase.

It’s easy to understand the seller’s situation. Life is pretty tough in Egypt; the poverty rate is high and getting higher. Unemployment and under-employment affect millions of Egyptians. Selling something, however small, is significant. An amount that seems trivial to me might make a big difference to the seller.

But the high pressure made me less likely to do any shopping, let alone buy anything. It might be different if I were a shopper, but I’m not. I don’t have much use for souvenirs. That’s just me. Rather than dwell on the nature of the transaction, I could have switched mental gears with the attitude to help people instead, like one member of our tour (LB) did, who purchased the entire collection of knickknacks from a boy at a Theban temple. He didn’t need his purchases, I was sure. The boy gave him a heartfelt hug. It was simply an act of generosity. This wouldn’t be the only time I would notice LB’s largesse.

Hawking is a way of life in Egypt. I didn’t especially warm to it, but others on the tour seemed to tolerate it more. Some tourists think it’s rather fun.