Sept 21, 2011
“Good afternoon sir. Please get in,” said the well mannered and well dressed cabbie in impeccable English. This greeting was extraordinary for taxi drivers in Cairo where I was employed. Most were illiterate. Very few could read or write Arabic, never mind speak English.
This guy smelled of pleasant cologne which was characteristic of higher class Egyptian men who always kept a bottle of spray nearby to combat the effects of the blistering temperatures, and he was clean cut and freshly shaven---not at all your typical Cairo cabbie.
Amazingly, I had no problem at all communicating with this guy.
Usually communication was dependent upon simple gestures or the names of a few key locations I had learned to pronounce. For safety’s sake, my business card had an Arabic labeled map with my residence identified on the back. At the outset, I would hand this to the driver and most would hop out of the cab to get it read by an educated bystander.
As time passed, and I learned the way to my favourite Cairo destinations, I was able to direct drivers by gesture.
While I welcomed the invitation to get into this cab and out of the blistering 100 degree heat on this hot September day, I ‘d never get into a cab before negotiating a price for a ride to my destination.
Throughout the Middle East, there are few fixed prices and everything is open to negotiation. To an outsider, the bargaining looks and sounds like an agitated quarrel soon to get violent.
So waving a banknote in the air, “I’m going to the Khan el Khalili market,” I said to the English speaking cabbie, “and I’ll give you ten Egyptian pounds for the ride.” This was the standard price I’d pay, about a dollar and a half Canadian, to anywhere in downtown Cairo from my residence in Heliopolis, a well-to-do suburb characterized by distinctive Turkish architecture.
“Okay, it’s a deal,” said the cabbie as he reached over to open the cab door.
The cab took off and we shortly swung past Hosni Mubarak’s Presidential Compound, a Heliopolis landmark not far from my residence that I was chauffeured past on my way to work every day of the week.
Some cabbies were reluctant to accept a ten pound offer from a foreigner and would drive off in a huff making gestures that I took to mean that they thought I was crazy. Such gestures are used frequently in negotiating prices and were tools I quickly picked up in perfecting my own bargaining skills for use in Egypt. Of course, unless you were nuts, you wouldn’t think of using such tactics in Canada.
One may think fare negotiations disrespectful and impolite, but it is a way of life in the Middle East. There are no firm prices. Every seller argues for more and every buyer argues for less. Buying anything is a game of wits and you’d lose your shirt in an instant if you failed to follow this custom. What most people lack in education, they more than make up in street smarts, guile, and cunning. From an early age, mostly spent as street kids, they all learn how to close the deal!
This Cabbie’s enthusiasm in accepting my ten pound offer without the usual bickering raised questions in my mind. Why did he want me in the cab so much? Why not the usual negotiations? Why is he so different from the typical cabbie? Is there something strange going on here? Should I be concerned about my security and safety? You never know about these things in a strange country where you don’t know the lay of the land.
Price negotiation was common for everyone getting a cab in Cairo as was a cabbie’s common refusal to provide the service. While negotiations with one cab driver were ensuing, it was common for two or three cabs to join the cab lineup hoping for the job. This lineup of cabs I thought was part of the negotiation game as each cab was hoping that my frustration with a refused offer would boost up my price for the next driver. All cabbies, it seemed, were in collusion to steal foreigners blind.
Anyway, once the cab set off, it wasn’t long before conversation ensued. “Where are you from?...and…What do you do?” inquired the cabbie.
"I’m from Canada and I’m Director of a Private High School preparing students to write the SAT examinations for entrance to Professional Schools in American Universities," I responded.
He would have known immediately that the students in the school were from extremely privileged families…and destined for the highest imaginable riches.
At that, the reason for the cab driver’s lack of bargaining in getting me into his cab became obvious.
"I’m trained as a lawyer," he said. "And I wonder if you’d have any influence in getting me a good job here in Egypt."
"Amazing," I thought! "He’s wondering whether a foreigner has influence in getting him a good job in his own country!"
This brought into sharp focus judgments I’d already made in observation of the students graduating from the school I administered. At the convocation ceremony, the majority of graduates were off to medical school.
Family influence and privilege are the birthrights for wealth and success in Egypt. Hard work, education, and intelligence are not the keys. Your life journey is determined at birth.
The rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer and nothing is able to break the cycle.
And that, in a nutshell folks, is the stark reason for the recent Egyptian revolution and the strife now flooding the Middle East.
And that revolution would be strongly supported by the tormented cabdriver and resisted strongly by the families of every student in my school.
Frighteningly, as in Egypt, growing income disparity in North America could lead to the same kind of strife.
More Reading on this topic as it relates to Canada and the USA
Growth of income inequality in Canada
Why Occupy? It's the Inequality
Kevin O'Leary gets a smackdown over corporate greed from Journalist Chris Hedges
Occupy Bay Street---Maclean's Mag
Occupy Toronto...the G20 and now Bay Street
New York Minute: Observations and Aims in Occupy Wall Street
Mic Check....Despatches from the Occupy Wall Street
An Activist's Guide to Occupy Toronto
Objectives of the Occupy Toronto Movement
Chris Hedges smacks down CBC/s Kevin O'Leary attacking protest movement
Why should Canadians care about the "Occupy" movement?
NYTIMES--opinion piece---Why the "Occupy Movement" frightens the rich