I got to visit Cairo back in 2011. The first day we were there, we visited the famous al-Hussein Bazaar. The merchants at this Bazaar are some of the most renown in the world, known for their ability to haggle.
Being an American who grew up with price tags and exact change, I’ve always been a bit intimidated by haggling. My only saving grace is that I love to argue, so the process is actually pretty fun for me.
If you’ve never haggled before, it feels really strange.
You ask “How much?” and they quote you a price that’s astronomically too high – easily double or triple what the item is worth (and what they expect to sell it for). You have to act offended and offer maybe 10% of their asking price. It helps if you insinuate that no thinking human would pay such an exorbitant price for such obvious garbage.
Then the seller acts equally offended and praises the superior craftsmanship of the item, assuring you you’ll get nothing finer and no better deal at any of the other shops. You go back and forth until you land on something between 50-60% of the original asking price (if you’re a decent negotiator).
I made it out of the al-Hussein bazaar with my souvenirs and a good story. It was fun.
And the next day we went to the Pyramids. While we were there, walking around in the heat, I jogged over to get some bottles of water from a vendor. I grabbed one for me and each of my two friends, and when I got back, our local friend asked how much I paid. I told him and he laughed and said, “Didn’t you haggle?”
What? Haggle for water from a vendor?
No. I didn’t.
He laughed at me, and that’s when it really hit me.
Haggling at the bazaar isn’t a cute thing for tourists to do. It’s a way of life in Egypt.
It’s a deeply embedded cultural practice. Egyptians haggled over cab fare, something that, since we were foreigners we were totally unequipped to do.
That realization about haggling revealed some deep-seated xenophobia in me. I didn’t want to haggle for everything. I wanted to take a cab, buy a bottle of water, shop for souvenirs without wasting a bunch of time on arguing over how much to pay. I wanted price tags and barcodes.
It turns out, as open-minded and adventurous as I thought I was, I have some strong cultural preferences. While I might be flexible up to a point, at the end of the day, I’m really Euro-American.
Cultures value different things, and we’re all a product of our cultures. Which makes being multi-cultural a real challenge. After all, it’s not always possible to accommodate everyone’s cultural preferences. Some cultures, for instance, value timeliness – if you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re 5 minutes late!, while others wouldn’t dream of showing up to an appointment until at least 30 minutes after the start time.
So… which culture is right? And how are we all supposed to live together?
That’s a tough question, one that’s important as our little corner of Dallas becomes more and more diverse. We’ll see today that this is good news, because God has called us from the beginning to be one church of many people united but not uniform.