Tuesday, May 5, 2009


For Christmas, I bought Jenna a lamp with a very cool heavy glass globe. The base of the lamp—the electric part—was very basic. It looked like something I made in high school electric shop. Plus there was no switch so in order to turn it on or off you needed to plug or unplug it from the wall. Earlier this year, the electric part of it broke, which was not a big deal. I just needed to take it to an electrician for repair, plus I could get a switch put on. It is the kind of thing that in the US people might throw away and just purchase a new one. Here, thankfully, much less of that takes place. People are incredibly skilled at fixing things.

So I took it to an electrician who has a really small shop in a basement on my street about 3 blocks away. I chose the heavy cable and asked him to put on a switch too. I asked how much it cost and he told me 10LE (less than $2), which is very reasonable.

Asking how much something costs is very un-Egyptian. For many transactions of this sort, you pay what you will when it is done. It works this way with taxis, tailors, barbers, etc. It is a bit uncomfortable for someone coming from the US, but once you figure out the implicit rules governing such transactions, you can confidently hand over the correct amount of money (it fadal) and walk away. Still, as much as I have done it, I always hesitate. But there is almost never a problem. I have ridden taxis over 100 times since I have been here and can count on one hand the number of times there has been anything resembling a dispute.

Though I have figured out taxis, I still have a problem with completely unfamiliar transactions. I have never had a lamp rewired so I spent a whole lot of time guessing at how much I should pay. Since I wasn’t sure, I asked up front so that any negotiations could take place before the work was done. Since 10LE was an obviously fair price for the materials and the labor, I left quite satisfied (and embarrassed that I expected someone to try to overcharge me).

I returned the next day to pick it up, and the teenager who quoted me the price was not there. There were three older men, one of whom was probably the father of the teenager. They had begun working on the lamp and needed to finish a few things. They were really nice and helpful. I waited for 15 minutes. He plugged it in and it didn’t work. He took everything apart. Another 15 minutes. He plugged it in again and it blew out the bulb. He told me to come back in an hour.

Still I was wondering if the 10LE price quote would hold up, especially since the person who quoted the price wasn’t there and this involved an hour of extra work. I left and decided that I would gladly pay 15LE for their extra time (like you give a taxi driver a little bit extra if there is a jam).

I returned to the shop. He plugged it in. It worked. “The price,” he begins to tell me, and pauses. I realize this transaction may not go down as I had rehearsed it in my head. He begins adding numbers with his colleagues in Arabic though I can follow it pretty easily because I know numbers. He comes back to me: “10 LE.” I paid and left feeling a little bit guilty and a lot grateful.

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