Cairo Stories and Tips

Aladdin's Cave of Treasures

Khan-El-Khalili Photo, Cairo, Egypt

Egypt's souks and bazaars are magical wonderlands, offering the visitor an eclectic mix of trinkets and souvenirs. The quality can vary greatly, so always inspect the items closely and be prepared to haggle over the price.

Whilst on first encounter, it may seem to cater excessively to tourism, explore deeper, and the narrow alleys become a bustling hive of small workshops turning out attractive jewellery and copper- and glassware. Here, you can buy direct from the artisans and cut out the middleman. And uncover that one hidden treasure that's been eluding you ~ like a Tiffany-inspired bracelet at half the cost you'd pay back home! It’s a treasure trove, filled with little box sets of backgammon and chess made out of hard woods and inlaid with intricate designs of mother-of-pearl, bone, or ivory.

Sheeshas or HOookahs (water pipes) are a fixture in every coffee house, and an exotic gift to bring back home. Decorated with stainless steel or brass fittings, the pipes use a special fragrant tobacco, loosely packed into a clay pot. Delicate little glass trinkets, perfume bottles are fashioned into intricate shapes. Undulating like a houri dancer, they come in various sizes and make wonderful gifts. Garish, glittering, and jangling with sequins and bells and beads, the belly-dancer's costumer is another popular purchase.

Decorative boxes and an array of kitschy paraphernalia fill the market stalls, alongside traditional handicrafts often made by local artisans. Egyptian copperware and MUSKI glass are produced in Cairo's Khan al-Khalili, while Bedouin jewellery traditionally comes from Sinai. The best hand-woven silk and cotton is made in Akhmim in Middle Egypt, famous for the quality of its weaving.

The Art of the Haggle

It pays to take some time to acquaint yourself with the art of bargaining. Buying and selling in Egypt is traditionally a highly ritualised affair, in which bargaining is far more than just haggling for a cheap price. The aim of the exercise is to establish a fair price that both vendor and buyer are happy with. As part of the process, a shop-owner may well invite you to have a cup of tea or coffee and may literally turn the place upside down to show something. You should not feel obliged to buy because of this, as it is a common sales practice and all part of the ritual. Bargaining even happens in city-centre shops, over goods which appear to have a fixed price. It is in the souq, however, that it becomes necessity if you want to avoid paying greatly over the odds.

Once you have identified an article that interests you, especially if it is an expensive one, be brave enough to offer half the price quoted by the shop-owner. Don't be put off by feigned indignation or mockery on the shop-keeper's part, and only raise your next offer by a small amount. Through a process of offer and counter-offer, you should eventually arrive at a mutually agreeable price. If you don't reach a price you think is fair, then simply say thank you and leave. Making to walk away can often have the effect of bringing the price tumbling down.

In theory, although you may feel uncomfortable, no one gets cheated. You, the buyer, have set the price yourself, so it follows that you are happy with what you have agreed to pay. The shop-keeper, for his part, will never sell at a loss, so he will certainly have made a profit on the deal.

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