Friday, June 30, 2006


Everybody here’s a salesman. It’s really quite remarkable to see. When it comes to selling, there are two tactics that seem most prevalent. First, there is the tactical and sudden amnesia on behalf of Egyptian salesmen when it comes to speaking English. As I walked down the street the other day, a man came up to me and asked in good in English if I wanted to buy some French perfume. Even though I’ve only been here three days, I think that I’ve become fairly proficient in turning away salesmen because they stand at every turn. But this guy was different. He found a way to keep bugging me for three blocks. When he asked if I wanted perfume, I said “No thanks, not today.” He immediately replied, “No English. No English.” Hardly batting an eyelash, I switched to Arabic, “No, I don’t want it.” To this he replied, “I no understand.” This took place over the course of a block, this interaction interspersed with his sales pitches. Then I cut to the chase, saying no in alternating English and Arabic: “no, le, no, le” etc. Somehow, he seemed not to understand this. I could barely suppress a smile as he continued to insist that he didn’t understand. Finally, he opened the perfume’s package, tearing the plastic wrapping and saying to me, “Now you give me 14 pounds. Give me 14 pounds.” At this point I began to get a little nervous because he’d opened the package and I was afraid he’d insist more emphatically that I buy. And so I stopped in my tracks, faced him, and said “NO!”, all the while the waving my arms emphatically over my head. With that, he sulked off, dejected. Clearly, when all else fails, one must resort to the ever-reliable realm of international hand signals. I have had other experiences with salesmen claiming not to speak English, so I know that this is a trend, but I’ll save those for another day.
The other tactic of being a salesman in the city of Cairo, as it is anywhere, is persistence. Let me give you two examples. Yesterday, as I walked down the street, I saw a family sitting on the corner. As passed, I saw the mother shove her youngest daughter to me. I kept walking, but she ran along beside me, waving a pack of tissues at me, telling me that she was selling them for one pound per pack. At this point, I’ve learned to cut to the chase, mixing forceful no’s with just ignoring her. But still she persisted. First she tried shoving the tissues into my hand and under my arm, the theory being that if I actually possessed the tissues they would be harder for me to turn down. When that failed, she took the pack of tissues and pushed them up against my face. She held them there for a few seconds before I, yes you guessed it, turned to her and waved my arms wildly over my head. With that, she ran away.
One more example. Today I went apartment hunting. The first apartment I saw was run by a landlady named Sr. Sohayr. She was an adamant salesman, going over the details again and again, as I sat patiently. After the third time she went over the fact that the washing machine was a new one, I told her what she wanted to hear: that I was interested in the apartment and would call her later about it. This was a lie; the apartment was a nice one, but it met none of my specifications. But I told her I liked it and spared myself a fourth go at the washing machine. I then made the fatal error. Dr. Sohayr asked for my cell phone number, and I gave it to her. Over the next four hours I went on to receive FIVE calls from Dr. Sohayr. She called to give me more details on the apartment. Most of the information was repetitive, but presented as if it were new. She even offered up her son as a friend to me: “If you live in my apartment, my son will be here and he will become a friend to you.” Every time she called, she told me that there were various other offers from other people but that she was saving the apartment just for me. The number of other people who made offers on the apartment fluctuated depending on the call.
On another subject, I want to point out an interesting merger of cultures I experienced last night. I went to watch the sunset on the roof of my hotel last night. It’s truly an amazing sight because the Egyptian sun takes on the form lets you look at it much earlier than the American sun does. I was able to stare at that big gold orb for the last forty five minutes it hung in the sky.

As I sat there, high above the city, watching the sun swing low, the music on the speakers was of a lonely Arab chant. I think this was a prayer chant but I’m not totally sure. I began to settle back in my chair, reflecting on just how truly Egyptian this setting was, and then the irony all hit me. As I watched this amazing scene, I realized the humor in the fact that I was drinking a Heineken while sitting on top of a Hilton hotel. Somehow this clash didn’t particularly bother me. For once, for one moment, these two cultures existed in perfect harmony.

1 comment:

karen may said...

they probably just think you are a master at bargaining. i have heard that in the middle east you dont get the best price until you are literally walking away from the seller....