Equal Partners
by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners by Roland Ezri

Equal Partners

By Roland Ezri

"Women are the backbone of all societies. They do a substantial part of the work, and play a major role in raising the future generation yet they are largely powerless. The decisions that count are made by men and foisted upon women."

Writings by Roland Ezri

The Second Exodus – Egypt – XXIX. My Years at 12A Rue Khantaret Ghamra – Food (14 of 18)

The art of haggling

The act of buying the food was another matter altogether. And, it is more exciting than anything I have related so far.

First and foremost, you have to know how to bargain. If you accepted the prices as quoted by merchants, you will quickly find yourself in the poorhouse! Haggling exists in all societies, but it has been elevated to an art form in Egypt, and presumably in the rest of the Middle East. Virtually, all adults knew how to bargain, for it’s taught at a young age.

There were prix fixes (fixed prices) in some places of business. Department stores* come to mind. The sign “Prix Fixes” is seen as soon as you enter the store. But does it deter the clientele from trying to lower the price? Most of the time, no. “If I buy 4 shirts, will you …” “This sweater has a defect here, but I am willing to take it at half the price.” This for a perfectly good sweater. “I saw this pair of shoes a month ago; it’s obviously a slow-moving item; I am willing to take it off your hands, but you will have to substantially lower your price.” And on it went; and the so-called prix fixes were no longer that fixed. The stores did at times reduce some prices, and that, of course, was built in the prices charged on the various goods.

[* Most of the large department stores were owned by Jews: Cicurel, Oreco, Chemla, Gattegno, Ades, Cohenca, and Benzion. Department stores owned by non-Jews: Sednaoui and Orosdiback.]

Grocery stores and butchers also had “firm” prices. So much for a ratl (a measure of weight) of this particular cheese; or a ratl of beef for this particular cut will cost you … If you tried to haggle, you would be told, “if I sell you for less, I would be losing money.” Does that mean that there was no room for negotiations? Not really. You may accept to pay, say, 35 piastres for a ratl of cheese, but then you’ll tell the owner, “etwoisa,” meaning, put in some extra cheese. And he may do so; but again it’s factored into the price charged. (A businessman had to also be a good cost accountant!). By the butcher, you may ask for some free bones for the soup.

Some commodities did indeed have firm prices which were generally accepted by the public. I will provide some examples later on.

Ultimately, It was with street vendors that you had to bargain. Merchants hawking their wares went by our street during the morning on a more or less regular basis, less and less as the day wore off. There were 3 types:  Those that carried a basket on their heads, those that pushed a wheelbarrow, and the “aristocracy” who had a cart pulled by a donkey.

How my mother transacted with one of those merchants can be made into a play! Speaking of play, you’re invited to attend a play with 2 principal actors: A merchant carrying a basket of apricots over his head, and my mother.

I’ve picked apricots on purpose. They have a very short season; if you blink, you miss them. There is an Egyptian expression: Bokra fel meshmesh (tomorrow when the apricots will be available). If an unreliable friend asks you for a loan, and promise to repay you in 2 days, you may tell him, “bokra fel meshmesh.” Because of their short season, apricots bespeaks of unreliability; you’re in effect telling your friend that you’ll never see your money if you give him a loan.

Before my mother even consider buying a fruit that just came out, she will research the price. She will talk to the neighbors, friends, and the maid. She also remembers how much she paid last year. Armed with a tentative price, she is ready to confront the next apricot vendor that goes by the house.

There is now one going by; his meshmesh is apparently the best in all of Cairo! The maid rushes to the balcony and calls him, “ya osta,” and she indicates to him to come up. (Osta is a specialist in something, he is no specialist, of course, but it’s a polite term).

He is now at the door; there is some small talk before the parties get down to business.

Mother: “How much?”

Merchant: “For these beauties, and for you only for you ya setti it’s 20 piastres a ratl.”

Mother” “Woul ba’ea?” (Roughly translated: do you want to make a sale?)

Robert is going by and will be used as a diversion.

Merchant: “Ibnnek?” (Your son?)

Mother: “Aywa.” (Yes).

Merchant: “Allah yekahli.” (May God keep him). “I have five of my own.”

Of course, my mother reciprocates and asks God to protect his children. Then it’s back to the business of buying apricots.

Merchant: “I am lowering my price to 15 piastres, but I swear on the head of every one of my children that I am losing money. But I have no choice since you’re esteftah. (Esteftah means that she is his first customer, and it would be bad luck if he doesn’t make a sale. Actually, it’s 2:00 PM and his basket is three- quarter empty, therefore, she cannot be his first customer. But my mother will not point that out).

Mother: “My neighbor paid 4 piastres for apricots this very morning. I am willing to pay 4.50.”

Merchant: “Your neighbor made a bad deal. I am willing to give them to you for free.”

Mother: “I couldn’t accept; that would be taking the bread out of the mouth of your children.”

And so the dance continues. Eventually, the merchant goes down to 6.75 piastres, and my mother knows she’s reached the right price. How does she knows? I have no idea. I was a little boy at the time, and my only interest was to bite into one of those juicy apricots, and later on, eat the superb apricot jam she made.

Don’t go away! The play is not quite finished. There is the matter of the weight. The merchant doesn’t have a scale; my mother will weight them in the house.

Mother: “It’s 6 ratls”

Merchant: “Can I come in to check? It’s not that I don’t trust you, but with 7 children to feed, every malim (1/100 of an Egyptian pound) counts.”

Mother: “You can’t. I am here with my mother and the maid. There are no men; it’s all harim (women).

There is a bit of an argument between the two, but it’s all a sham. The merchant has weighed some of his apricots beforehand; that, and with a lot of experience, he can more or less estimate the weight. If he judges that he has been cheated, the sale can be aborted. That is not going to happen here. He has categorized my mother as a khawaga (foreigner) even though she speaks a perfect Egyptian Arabic. And khawagas can generally be trusted.

We are now the owner of 6 ratls of delicious Egyptian apricots. And not a moment too soon, for in a few days they will be gone. But we’ll still have the jam to enjoy for months to come.

The meshmesh play was a composite of the countless exchanges my mother had with merchants that came up to our door. What about the ones that cannot come up?

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