Live From the Longchamps Days Seven and Eight
by Jimmy Dunn
Unfortunately, I spent my seventh day in Cairo working in an office, but on the eighth, I visited the Khan el-Khalili, a must for all new tourists to Egypt, but perhaps more of a necessary evil for me. Of course, for those unfamiliar with it, this is a famous bazaar in Cairo which is just about always on the itinerary of standard Egyptian tours. I have visited every corner of it in the past and really prefer to shop elsewhere these days, though there are always some interesting items to be found in the Khan. In fact, that is why I went today, to find new products for our online store. Actually, its seems that 70 percent of the shops sell the same items, mostly souvenirs, some of which can be found in our online store, the Virtual Khan el-Khalili. However, we actually try to avoid many items which are simply too touristy, such as cheap statues and Chinese alabaster, and yes, one can find many items in the Khan that are not made in Egypt.
However, there are some nice shops, some selling fine jewelry, well-made mother of pearl products, antiques, books, good clothing and many other items. In fact, it would seem that one can buy just about anything there. Fridays are a holiday in Egypt, and I expected it to be less crowded then usual, but seemingly it was not. Throngs of people were walking about and it was very obvious how much tourismin Egypt has picked up lately, even for Americans. I ran into a number of them, confirming what we had already noted as a trend.
Traditionally, the merchants are sort of pushy, but perhaps just slightly less so than they once were. Many of the tourists are escorted by guides, who keep the hawkers at some distance. However, the guides take the tour groups to specific stores from which the guide will earn a commission on their purchases. That is normal, and actually makes up a considerable part of the guide's earnings. The same applies to other locations in Egypt, such as Luxor and Aswan and other stops in Cairo outside of the Khan el-Khalili, such ascarpet manufacturers, are also common. One of the reasons I really don't like shopping at the Khan (Khan is Arabic for a gathering of merchants) is because one is expected in most instances to haggle over the price of an item. In fact, some of the haggling takes place even when the tourist is not participating.
One may begin to pass by a t-shirt shop and the merchant will yell out, "T-shirts for ten pounds", but as one passes beyond, the price is dropped to five. I've actually noticed in recent years that the merchants will not lower their prices as much as they once would, but they are probably starting out somewhat lower. The worst shops for haggling, and usually the highest are those that surround the main square, but one is accosted by the hawkers most everywhere. Again, the worst are the really touristic shops, while those offering merchandise such as fine jewelry and more common items such as fabrics and better clothing are much more subdued. By the way, one can haggle for jewelry, but one will always be told that the price is based on the weight of the gold, which I suppose is partly true.
The hawkers have always used a number of ploys to get tourists into their shop. They vary over time, but I noticed today that several merchants were concerned for my safety, politely telling me to watch out for an approaching car and then trying to shuffle me into their shop. Most of the time, I say nothing to the merchants who are trying to get my attention. Another ploy is to act like I am being rude. Some merchants will act like their feelings are hurt as I pass by their stores without responding to their enticements. At other times, I might say la, or la la la, which is Arabic for no, but that doesn't seem to work any better than simply ignoring them. Several even asked for payment when I took pictures. Sorry guys, but I would soon be broke. I didn't buy anything, but took many pictures of items I wish to carry online and others for this article. In fact, I will rarely buy anything in the Khan unless I have one of my Egyptian friends with me, which I did not today.
That can actually make a huge difference, provided the friend is really a friend and not a casual acquaintance who offers to show you the Khan. In that case, he may be out for a commission as well. But a real friend can lower the price considerably. In fact, one of my own ploys is to take a picture of what I want and the store front, and then have one of my friends return and purchase the item without me, so that the transaction takes place completely among Egyptians. By the way, a number of people traveling to Egypt become friends with our BBS crowd in Egypt and after arriving, go to the Khan with them. All of the regulars on the BBS can be trusted and are good people. Another ploy I have used is to visit the Khan late in theday. It seems that as closing time approaches, the shops are a bit more eager to make a sale. Of course, for regular tourists, walking away after examining an item will typically reduce its price.
Actually, everyone at the Khan is trying to make money and who can blame them. They have to make a living and this is their work. However, some are a little less obvious. For example, the police will be overly helpful in hailing a taxi, but are almost assuredly receiving some sort of commission for this. Other Egyptians who do not appear to be merchants will attempt to strike up a conversation and then wish to show you a good store. I have no idea, but it would be interesting to know just how much money enters the Egyptian economy through the Khan el-Khalili.
Now it may seem that I am being overly harsh on the Khan. Actually, for a new tourist to Egypt, it is really an experience not to be missed. Its just that after dozens of visits, I usually prefer to frequent shops with fixed prices elsewhere in Cairo. Under the best conditions, one might buy an item in the Khan at a better price, but many tourists will pay more, and sometimes much more for an item in the Khan which can also be found in many other stores around Cairo. Nevertheless, it is a great place to find everything in one place, even though most of the shops are simply repeats of others, and that is why I go, but then, I am only taking pictures.
As a final note, I went to the Khan in shorts, as there is no problem with this where tourists are common. However, on the way back to the Hotel Longchamps, I decided to poke around and asked to be let out of the taxi some blocks away, in an area where there are few tourists. I ended up feeling very conspicuous. Actually, people in Cairo are use to seeing tourists and one can get away with wearing shorts most anywhere, but one will also stick out like a sour thumb as a tourist, particularly in back streets. I was looking for a place called the Bizarre Bazaar, which I had happened upon a few days earlier at a time when I was rushed and couldn't stop. Tonight, I will surely find this unique store, and perhaps a few others.
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