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Shopping for a Husband: Tactics of the Cairo Merchant

Jessica Von Wendel

I have to have a strong positive outlook if I am going out shopping in the United States, because by the end I usually feel self-conscious and flat out depressed.  Walking the mall surrounded by all the billboards of the ideal body image or being surrounded by the “in crowd” that is hip in the latest fashions deflates anyone’s self image.  I don’t go shopping to feel better about myself; I go shopping out of necessity.  Unfortunately, when you are traveling you have to shop because everyone back home wants a piece of where you’ve been.  I braced myself for entering the largest bazaar in Egypt.  The Khan al-Khalili Bazaar located in the heart of Cairo. 

          I never felt so beautiful.  All I heard were the merchant’s whistles and the occasional calling of “You want an Egyptian husband?  I’ll give you five million camels!”  If this is a marketing strategy it worked.  I would smile and that would initiate a casual bargaining exchange where I could usually get a pound knocked off for another smile.  I was given gifts from the merchants such as a bracelet, a silver ring, and one man even gave me his heart in the form of a pendent.  These Egyptians really know how to get a woman to spend her money.  Instead of making her feel fat and self conscious by displaying size three manikins in the windows, they recognize her presence whatever her appearance.

 I was curious as to whether it was just Western women who got this kind of treatment from the male merchants as a way to sell souvenirs, or if local Egyptian women got the same cat calls.  As seen in Farha Ghannam’s article “Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation, and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo,” Sadat explains that “his infitah was motivated by his belief that each [man] would like to “get married, own a villa, drive a car, posses a television set and a stove, and eat three meals a day.” I met two girls my age attending Cairo University and asked them if guys ever give them that kind of attention.  They both rolled their eyes and said “Of course!  There are so many single men; they try everything and are very blunt.”   

          Whether the Egyptian merchants are seriously looking for a wife or if their ploys are just a clever marketing tactic, their strategies must be first-rate.  There is too much competition from the guy selling the exact same thing only two booths down.  These merchants not only know how to communicate in almost every major language from English, German, Italian, French or Spanish; they also take an interest in their customer.  They asked questions about where I’m from, what I think about Egypt and about family.  By the time I had given my life history I felt obligated to buy something.  I knew they were still trying to sell me something, and I even found that as an admitted American I was charged more than when I played German or Canadian.  After all what are five million camels, let alone five dollars, to an American woman? 

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