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The Middle East @ Work

Here’s your money. Can I have some?

Meaw Mar 3, 2008

Somewhere I read a saying about Egyptians: If you drop your wallet on the street, an Egyptian will run after you to give it back. Then he will try to get you to voluntarily part with the contents.

After my short time here, nothing could be truer. Egyptians are extraordinarily friendly people. They shout “Welcome!” to strangers on the street. They seem genuinely warm and hospitable. They want to help you.

But they also want a tip for every single thing they do. Point you in the right direction? Five pounds, please. Carry your bag down a flight of stairs? Something for me, please. Five pounds? Is that all you have?

It is a serious conundrum for visitors. The boat driver who gave us an hour tour of the Nile was a lovely Egyptian man who’d worked on the river for 50 years. He sang us songs and laughed and took pictures with us. He praised Americans. Oh, they are wonderful tippers, he said. He said that a lot.

And when we gave him a 60 percent tip, he chided us for not giving him more. He tossed the money in his hand and said, “This baksheesh (cash). This is not good.” Yes, our tip only equaled 6 US dollars, but the boat ride was 10. Afterwards, the question we asked ourselves is: how much would be enough? When would he have said, “Thank you. You are most kind.”

I don’t know the answer.

I understand why people do it. Wages are low here. Life must be difficult on the lower end of the class scale. But what happened on our boat ride certainly soured the experience somewhat. I also fear that some of the tourists who’ve come before us have created expectations beyond reason. There has to be a line somewhere.

I suppose it is better than what you see in the US so often: someone on a street corner jingling a cup in his hand. I haven’t encountered one Egyptian asking for a handout. They want to do something for the money, even if you didn’t ask them to do it.

I did have one cab driver who, when I gave him a 10 pound tip, said something I couldn’t quite make out. I thought he said, “Usually we only get one or two pounds. This is too much.”

At least, that’s what I hope he said anyway.

— Scott Jagow

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