Arabic hustle I
Before I got to Morocco it had been three years I had been in a Suq haggling over anything from a tiny bottle of water to a nicely decorated bag. The last time was on the Syrian boarder with a taxi driver that would take me across the boarder into Turkey. This was in 2009 when I traveled back from the Middle East after completing my Cairo Semester at the NVIC. Since, the closest it resembled was just a couple of months ago at the Nouaille Arab street market in Marseille. Where Africans and Arabs would tell you the right (dirt cheap) price without even looking at you, making me wonder more often if the price wasn’t to low than if they tried to scam me.
When I arrived in the Sahel a couple of weeks ago I noticed quickly that it was much easier to get to know the right price here than north of the Sahara. Take for example the hajj of the king of the ancient Mali empire in 1324. King Kankan Musa is still known as one of the most extraordinary of African kings, this peaked when he set out on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Being a devout Muslim he was accompanied by 60.000 servants of which hundreds to carry all the gold. He donated a lot of gold along the way, as charity is encouraged during the hajj Passing through Cairo the local people hustled so much gold from him and his entourage that the global price wouldn’t recover for a generation. This unsurpassed wealth aroused the interest of European merchants that were doing business in Cairo at the time.
There are already enough people (unfortunately a major part of them influential politicians) ridiculing Muslims, Arabs or anyone that lives further to the south or east of Germany. So, before it appears that I am a xenophobic person describing the Middle-East to be populated with a lazy bunch of Arabs, I would like to point out three little examples of hospitality and kindness I have encountered in the region. They are just a few of the many nice people I have met in the region. The fact that one the one street corner you get scammed big time, while on the next you get invited to come and visit one’s family to have dinner for free is as well one of the things that has surprised me over and over again.
Let me start with a recent example of my hosts in Casablanca that even though I stayed around for a week they insisted I was the guest and thus they did not allow me to pay anything. One evening I tried to hand some money to pay for my part. One said to me while shaking his head: “Your making a big mistake Kays..”. Also, when I was studying in Cairo I would be invited to drink tea with Egyptians that passed by hearing me speak Arabic on the street (and noticed the unusual combination with my light skin color). Not in their shop to show their merchandise as some of you may be thinking, because they did not have a shop or even work, but at a cafe. Although a cup of tea would cost 40 euro-cents at most, they would insist to pay the whole round. Sometimes including more ‘white’ classmates as well. For a jobless Egyptian it costs an arm and a leg, but it was practically impossible to explain that it was not a disgrace if I paid, so I became pretty sly in tricking them so you would pay first. For example to go to the toilet and hand the money to the waiter on the way. This resulted often in a startled look saying “your making a big mistake..”.
While staying in Damascus, Syria, in 2009 I rented a car with three friends. For a weekend we drove through the desert and passed by a deserted Byzantine city. After standing around in front of a closed gate for ten minutes a dirt bike appeared on the horizon with two men on it that unlocked the gate and waited for us until we got out again and invited us over for a meal at their families nomad tent. We did our best to take in all the Arab formalities (order of introducing yourself, men/women seating in the circle etc..) and they served us a great meal for a place where you could only see sand as far as the horizon. After shaking hands, thanking for the meal and wishing each other a blessed continuation of our lives I asked what we owed for the meal. The man refused the first two times (compulsory in Arab politeness) and insisted after that that I should only give as much as we would appreciate. Giving too much would insult their honor and he would refuse, so we gave him an amount that was much more than any local meal would cost, but which would hardly buy you a Happy Meal from McDonald’s. The man took the money and without counting it he started thanking us extensively. To this day we still don’t know if we paid the right amount.
Around the same time in a coastal town in Syria I was confronted by the fact that scamming happens a lot more in one place compared to another. I mean: tourist area = scam alarm. When I started to haggle over something little which such vigor that the next moment the seller just stared at me in horror and I found myself staring shamefully at my shoes. He was probably wondering how a someone from safe and secure Europe could be that harsh to a poor street seller like himself. I had build up an unusual amount of distrust and toughness in haggling. At that moment I was confronted by the fact that my first couple of lessons in haggling had been in Jamaa al-Fna, Marrakech, and the course had been completed by the tough and sly ways of the merchants in Khan al-Khalili, Cairo. A little ashamed of myself I payed the price he asked (which is very unusual) that was probably just was a minor amount above the ‘local’ price.
But in the Middle-East there are street-sellers, taxi-drivers or just someone on the street in the tourist areas that will certainly do everything to pull a scam on you. The next post will be a little guide to make sure you keep your money in your pocket without losing friends. Or maybe as King Kankan Musa must have thought when he came back from his pilgrimage; I have numerous friends from east to west, but no more money to go and visit them.