Walking past the butcher on Felastin Street I avert my eyes. Once we were best pals, bosom buddies, but then he realized his red dyed, sometimes fly studded carcases hanging from his shop weren’t drawing me in. I wasn’t tempted when he gave me a spiel on how much cheaper he was (and fresher!) than the plastic wrapped offcuts sold by the supermarket across the road. I thought our friendship would survive my economic nay saying. It did not. He blanked me next time so I thought, OK, fine and this went on until I appeared with my pal Steve in tow and the butcher gave me another burst of friendship. I didn’t tell him that Steve lived mainly on leaves. Now this is unlike the furniture shop man who always says hello even though I never buy anything from him either- but I’m coming round to that table out back. I may. I just may.
So there you have your two types- well two of several- but they exhibit the psychological basis for the weird version of economics seen in this crazy capital. For a start- the butcher has greed, ambition but also pride. He knows I think his meat is strictly dog meat and he has pride- so he stops being pally- which ultimately is a poor strategy since I am unlikely to buy from a grumpy git nor will I recommend him. Now the furniture man on the other hand has less pride- and maybe it will pay off. It already has in the sense that I have recommended him now- he’s on Road 269 by the way.
I have seen pride at work in such exchanges as paying for photos in the city of the dead, the cemetery squatted long ago and a favourite spot for journalists seeking colour. One family will show off a skull from the underground sepulcher they squat above, and pose with it for a few pounds. Next door will say no to twenty, to a hundred. Not interested at all. Pride.
Then there’s the apartment blocks. All round the eastern ringroad are stalinesque mini-towns of apartment blocks all built about a metre from each other. And these blocks remain unsold and empty for years- five years at a time or more- and now there is a recession probably 25 years. This couldn’t happen in the UK. No one can tie up that much capital. But in Egypt greed of a different order is at work. People are convinced that eventually some sucker will turn up and pay a huge amount of money. No one will sell at a loss. They’d rather not sell. And there’s some pride in here too. Taking a loss is also loss of face. Better to do nothing. Buildings are cheaper to build and so is land, so the exposure is less than in the UK or parts of the US, but still, people will sit on their useless building for years.
Then there is bargaining. This reflects neither greed not pride but creativity. All businessmen know that the physical money itself- how quickly it is paid and in what form can also be part of the deal, but this knowledge is restricted to big business mainly- not down on the street. In Cairo they are more sophisticated. In the West the medium of exchange itself does not come into the act of shopping. Money is as liquid as water, but in Egypt it’s thicker, more like blood out of stone. You see, no one has any change. You bargain like a demon to get the cab driver down to 5LE. But your lowest note is a 20. The cunning fellow only has a 10. You either wait and watch him make a song and dance about getting change by snaring a passing cab or you do the usual thing and give in.
Always have change. When I left the airport the other day the cheapest taxi was a mere 80LE- but the guy is guessing I only have a 100- and he factors in the parking and the tip and soon I might as well not wait for his pathetic show of no change. Of course the change is always hidden under a seat or behind the sunshades. My new one is, though, to ask for the change first as if it were part of a different transaction, one that might even prove more profitable than the existing one under discussion. Then, with the currency on display I produce my big note and get my change immediately. Also change appears faster when you refuse to hand over the note in the first place.
What is economics anyway? A series of human responses to situations mainly involving money or scarce resources. Scarce resources- so how do Egyptians behave when things are running out? Rather magnanimously actually. On the plane disembarking there is none of that covert manoevring you get in the UK. Everyone is allowed to get off in front of you- if they indicate as such. If you make a pathetic sign that you must cross the road, cars will wait. If you make no sign and pridefully stride out you won’t be run down but it will feel mighty close. It’s like there are two ways here: the big boys way where you get to act with dignity but it involves a fight or power tussle and the easy way- which involves begging and self abasement. In the coffee shop where I write the main guy is a creep. I love him. He brings me the paper and asks after my family. I smile and give him a good tip. It works. But in another shop the guy is stiff and formal- and rather brusque- he gets no tip- but he doesn’t care- he’s got to act like ‘himself’ rather than an effete toady.
People can also ‘be themselves’ by being creative. A man in Siwa offered to restitch the welts of my Timberland boots with coloured thread. He proudly showed me the special needle he had to perform this task. Why not? I now have the only Timberlands with red and blue stitching in the welts. I saw other foreigners with similar weird looking restitched footwear. Cheap Chinese shoes mean that cobbling skills aren’t needed so he has reinvented himself as a sort of plastic surgeon of footwear. Creativity.
I think one way to unravel strange economic behaviour is see when a financial transaction is in reality something else- like an opportunity for attention, in other words, and this is not meant in a derogatory way, self-expression. In Egypt people inject themselves into their job to the detriment of performance but to the benefit of self-expression. They get to be themselves more- be they minibus drivers or waiters. Now in the developed world we crank down on that- self censor- anything to get that tip.
I admire a people who don’t bend over for everyone bearing the mighty dollar. It’s refreshing- and infuriating too. But that’s life.