Nile File: Aggressive Street Hawkers & Vendors

by Chris on October 16, 2011

The downside to traveling in Egypt right now: Increased attention from aggressive street hawkers and vendors.

Stalls at Khan el-Khalili, Cairo, Egypt

Before I went to Egypt, I had read about the country’s overly aggressive street hawkers. What I didn’t realize is that the country’s downturn in tourism since the Revolution would have the causal effect of making the few travelers who ARE visiting Egypt more prone to attention from street vendors and touts.

Street hawkers at Khan el-Khalili, Cairo, Egypt

My first encounter came in Cairo, where I ventured out to the famed Khan el-Khalili bazaar by myself. While I knew that haggling was part of the fun, I didn’t realize that I’d be running a gauntlet.  As one of the few tourists in the bazaar, I attracted the attention of every stall manager, and the shouting came at me from all sides.

Merchandise at Khan el-Khalili, Cairo, Egypt

Let me stress that I never felt unsafe during this walk. I knew that no one would actually accost me (I had made sure to dress in a long skirt with my arms covered and my hair shielded by a hat). But the constant sales pitches made it impossible to actually look around and browse. I couldn’t have bought anything even if I wanted to. The experience wasn’t fun, and I was glad when I got out of there.

Food vendors at Khan el-Khalili, Cairo, Egypt

It’s hard to blame the Egyptians for their behavior. Unemployment is high in the country and has become even worse since the Revolution. It’s a place where 40 percent of the population make less than $2 a day. And just as in many non-Western countries, business is conducted by negotiation, where haggling and banter is a central art of the negotiation.

Still. That didn’t comfort some of the other women on my Nile River cruise, who were left in tears by vendors at some of the major sights. Being polite got them nowhere, and their inability to walk quickly and brush off people abruptly made them even more of a target. They felt intimidated at every step.

Children hawking trinkets in Egypt

At the Colossi of Memnon, our van was approached by hawkers, mostly children, before we even opened the door. “Can’t we just skip it?” one woman begged. We stopped anyway, but she stayed in the van, clutching her purse. I felt torn at her reaction. On the one hand, I wanted her to buck up and realize that in poverty-stricken countries, rich Western tourists need to accept that they will attract vendors. In other words, deal with hit. On the other hand, I felt sorry for her that she was unprepared; clearly, no one had given her the tools to cope. Just bad all around.

Egyptian street hawkers at the Pyramids

These days, you can’t expect guides to step in. Violence erupted in Luxor recently when a vendor retaliated after hours against the family of a guide who tried to protect his charges at Valley of the Kings. And I saw the dirty looks that the vendors gave my guide Abdo when I said “La, shukran.” After one vendor barked at him, I asked him what he said. “They’re telling me that I’m ruining their business because I taught you Arabic,” he said.

Egyptian hawkers on the Nile

Even on our ship, we weren’t entirely at ease. There’s a stretch on the river between Luxor and Aswan where vendors approach the ships in small boats, hawking wares from the water. Normally, the haggling can be amusing and pleasant. But the sellers have become more desperate, throwing caftans and tablecloths at tourists on the top deck or at their balconies in the hopes that possession makes the sale. I got into one such throwing match with a vendor that resulted in me locking my door and closing the drapes, essentially hiding as he yelled at me from outside. Again, not fun – and certainly not an enticement to buy.

Dresses for sale in Egyptian market

That’s not to say that I didn’t shop. Abdo did take me to a rug store owned by his family where I bought a large fabric wall hanging. I liked it so much that I didn’t care that this was all part of the scam, that he would likely get a kickback from the sale. It was a good price, I could afford it, and he had been a great guide for the rest of the trip.

Photo, courtesy Librairieoumeldounria.files.wordpress.com

And I loved the Oum El Dounia shop in Tahrir Square that a friend’s husband, an American expat, took me to. Sure, the prices were more expensive (and fixed). But I learned that I would rather pay more for a better experience; if that’s my Western bias, then I’ll live with it.

Street hawkers near Temple of Philae, Egypt

We did have a better experience with vendors at the Temple of Philae outside Aswan. Here the vendors seemed different, not only in their ethnicity (many were of Nubian descent) but in their attitude. The store owners here even issued a statement saying that they wouldn’t bother tourists if they took a picture and told people back home that Egypt was safe to visit. Impressed by their ingenuity, I gladly complied – and chose to buy my souvenirs there.  We all walked away happy.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Cailin October 16, 2011 at 1:03 pm

That is so smart of those vendors at the end to do that with the photo.

This reminds me of a trip to a bizzar in Tangier, Morocco where I was getting hassled quite a bit but mostly likely not nearly as bad as what you were experiencing. Its definitely a kind of situation that you need to prepare yourself for.

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Iain Mallory October 16, 2011 at 1:17 pm

It is part of the culture out there and we need to accept it though Morocco now has laws to protect the tourist.

Love the initiative shown by these traders though I would have bought my souvenirs from them also ev en if I didn’t actually want any!

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Sophie October 17, 2011 at 5:03 am

We took a Nile cruise almost 4 years ago, and I remember sellers around the locks at Esna throwing wares on board. They had a sense of humour about it, though, so it wasn’t unpleasant at all. My children thought it was fun and interesting. Perhaps the humour has been lost after the recent unrest.

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Chris October 19, 2011 at 9:02 am

@Sophie – I think it’s worse now that there aren’t as many buyers. Of the 400 ships that go on the Nile, only 150 are in service right now – and none have more than 50% occupancy.

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Kent @ No Vacation Required October 18, 2011 at 6:48 am

Fascinating. That aggressive behavior can be shocking for people who haven’t experienced it before. Truthfully, though, it can get the best of anyone. One time, in SE Asia, we nearly went out of our minds dealing with vendors who were following us – not taking “no” for an answer.

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Jeff October 18, 2011 at 7:48 am

Reading this takes me back to my trip to Egypt. As you said, it’s hard to blame people once you understand how desperate people really are there. But, it’s also hard to have a leisurely stroll through the streets and markets.

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Mike October 24, 2011 at 9:38 am

Haggling is something I’ve grown accustom to ignore but when they’re right smack in your face then that gets really REALLY annoying. I just feel bad for them…but honestly I don’t want my home filled with crap. I try to bypass markets if I can.

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Theodora November 1, 2011 at 8:05 pm

Persistent vendors are common all over the developing world. Take the time to adapt and you will become immune. Have you visited Egypt before? Could you tell whether there was a difference from your last visit?

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Leslie Bonner November 3, 2011 at 4:30 pm

It’s ironic because when we were in Egypt in 2009 we would have bought more if we weren’t bombarded from every side. Politeness is taken as a sign of weakness. None of us could resist the children however.

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Jade Johnston November 4, 2011 at 10:16 pm

Its amazing how the aggressive behavior gets them the opposite of what they want!! I think its a shame since its their livlihood – but on the other side of the coin – if they want to make sales to western tourists then it is in their interests to learn what makes western tourists comfortable and more likely to part with their cash. I feel bad for the poor lady who didn’t want to leave the bus

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Angie orth November 4, 2011 at 11:44 pm

I had a very similar experience a few weeks ago. I understand both sides of the coin – with so few tourists to go around, the hawkers are more aggressive than ever. I can’t help but think if they’d have just left me alone, I would have bought SO much more stuff. As it was, I got tired of being harassed after two weeks. Still… LOVED Egypt.

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Kathryn21701 November 7, 2011 at 4:52 pm

I was in Cairo Oct 24th and Oct 24th 2011. The street vendors were extremely aggressive but after the first day, I was pretty much used to them and able to handle them. However, on Oct 24th, a vendor at The Mosque of Muhammad Ali was so aggressive that I became very nervous and turned around to try to find my husband to help me. As I was turning, I fell off a high step and broke my ankle The vendor took off running before I even hit the ground. This was a pretty scary situation.

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James Cook November 16, 2011 at 10:23 pm

When I worked on the Suez Canal we used to have lots of people come to the ship on small boats it can be hard dealing with them.

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