I have a perfunctory snort of dismissal when anybody mentions shopping. It usually feels like a ‘waste of time’ to travel, hoist all the body weight around go to a place and then choose. That statement usually brings a howl of protests and a stern look of dismissal from the missus and her bevy of supporters which quickly cause my feelings to change!
With that kind of disposition, the chances that I would go shopping in Cairo were as remote as remote can get. But throw in some history. Throw in some pieces of stories of culture and discovering a ‘way of living’ and am already in the car waiting for the drive to the market place.
Khan el khalili in Cairo, is a market place that dates back to the 13 century. And for that sheer reason, I went armed with a camera, open ears and a curious mind.
Imagine an age old marketplace where you could practically get some of the most pristine stuff under the Sun. Stuff like Paintings, trinkets, spices, jewellery, perfume and the like. Narrow lanes that erupt from intersections and shoot into another maze of crowd, colour and cacophony to soak the senses.
“It is crowded”, I say. Only to be corrected that after the revolution and all the political instability the number of tourists have fallen starkly. “By as much as 75%”. Normal is when “there is no place to place your feet on the ground” I am told.
The next I know it was a couple of hours later. It was such a feast for the eyes and ears. For one, it is home to some of the smoothest talking salesmen the world can ever see. Whatever they were selling.
There is a lane for Jewellery. For clothing. For spices etc. And all of them have ever inviting people who do it with such ease and flourish that you could swear that they had come to your marriage! Or at least, bought you a drink. Or something close.
The first look at me, got most of them to say, “Indian?” and upon hearing the affirmative “Namaste”. Then followed the sweetest of talk laced with a countless “My friend” to sell you a perfume that was scented for the Pharaoh or the outstanding painting that you had no idea to buy. Or clothes. Or spices. Trinkets. Whatever.
We were sufficiently warned of the need to ‘negotiate’ by almost every single person except perhaps the officer at the Immigration counter who had a rather businesslike approach and just stamped our passports. Practically everybody else asked us to negotiate. Such kind people they are.
Here is a description of a deal, just to labour that point.
The friend that I am with, is interested in Papyrus paintings. “A thousand Egyptian Pounds for this wonderful painting” says a young man displaying a large painting which looks beautiful to me. He has deep eyes and a sing song accent that is adorned with love and decked with concern for the whole world. They negotiate. The young man reels of stories of why he must sell at that price. Features. Benefits. (If ever you need to the learn how to negotiate with charm, you must take lessons from here)
Time and my friend’s patience wilt the price down from the 1000 he started with. At 600 Egyptian pounds, the young man lowers his volume and says, “Ok 550. But don’t tell anyone. I will lose all my respect amongst the traders here. They think I don’t sell for anything less than a thousand pounds”.
“You called me ‘friend’ and quoted a 1000 pounds when we started”. My friend almost wails. “Ah, that,” the young man replies. “That is the ‘Enemy price’. The price I am quoting is a ‘friends price’” and they go on.
The persistence, and more than anything else, what catches my imagination the smoothness with which the soldiering on takes place with no forceful argumentative stuff that is so typical in similar markets!
My friend soldiered on. It reminded me of an intricate chess game ever as I was clicking away at this chess board with Egyptian characters on display at the same store. Finally the deal was done. 550 Egyptian Pounds. For TWO paintings!! The money exchanged hands and we walked out happy. My friend was sufficiently chuffed and suitably thrilled.
Until about half an hour later, when we were offered two painting for three hundred pounds.
I didn’t know who was having the last laugh between them, but all the trade, commerce and bright lights brought the smiles out in me. Markets indeed were in conversation!
My friend, for some reason, was in a deeply contemplative mood. Perhaps it was something that we ate during lunch.