A shopping trip to one of Egypt’s bazaars is a world away from the prosaic high streets of the UK. KIM SMITH has some advice for hopeful hagglers.

Shopping in Egypt is an artform. You need to play the part of a strong and brazen enterpriser, to differentiate between bona fide and bogus and to not be taken for a fool when talking moolah with the stall owner. They say E£200, you tell them E£100. Should they give you an eye as evil as the pendant on the jewellery you’re haggling for, don’t be intimidated, it’s all part of the game. Be prepared to go a few more rounds before settling somewhere close to half the original asking price. Smile, say thanks very much and buck up for the next transaction.

From a local point of view, haggling is expected and encouraged almost everywhere. It’s a form of interaction between tourists and locals. Yes, it can be exhausting and sometimes you wish prices were set, but that would lessen the fun. Like most games, though, there are rules and a certain protocol to follow.

Firstly, you’ve got to do some legwork and research what’s available. Even before you depart, ask around, trawl the internet and, of course, print out this yarn and pack it somewhere safe. It’s wise to make a prioritised list of items you fancy and not veer too far from it. Also, think about your purchases – if you’re trekking the Sahara, do you really want to lug around stone carvings, water pipes and a bust of King Tutankhamen? Leave the elephantine shopping for cities at the end of your trip.

Finding out the going rates helps avoid eager Egyptians pulling a fast one on you. Asking a local worker, driver or tour guide can sometimes be helpful, but they are just as capable of tomfoolery as a stall owner. Why? Commission incentives, of course. A friendly hotel worker or restaurant waiter might be more trustworthy.

On arrival, it’s OK to give in to the temptation of checking out the shops to get an idea of prices and what’s on offer, but don’t actually buy anything at this stage. If you shop up a storm straight away, you’ll be drowning in self-pity at the end of your trip when you realise how much you’ve been ripped off.

Although haggling is very much the norm, some established shops have fixed prices and won’t budge much, if at all.

Supermarkets – where stock is computerised – and vegetable markets – where produce is cheap as chips – don’t take part in the game.

Don’t cross the border between fair and insultingly tightfisted, either. You have to keep things in perspective; Egypt is a cheap country, especially when you’re converting pounds sterling to Egyptian pounds (£1 buys roughly E£10). To avoid getting shop-owners offside, draw a line under what is not worth haggling for. Anything priced at E£10 or below isn’t worth the battle. Not only will this mindset make life easier, it’ll save you time and energy. Shopping in Egypt can be draining and if you dicker with everyone, the chances are you’ll be spent before your money is.

It’s generally better to take to the shops in groups of three or four – buying in bulk will often save you money. Aside from that, the experience can be daunting, especially for first-timers. The determination of some salesmen to sell their stock can make them a bit overzealous, as they try every trick in the book. Some will tug on your arm in desperation, while others will relate how you’ve broken their heart and livelihood by not buying anything from them. Don’t be alarmed, they won’t hurt you. Just be firm and say you’re looking around.

If you can’t reach an agreed price and think you’re being asked to pay too much, offer your final price and walk away, putting the ball in the trader’s court. Chances are, he’ll call for you to return and agree to your price, but if he doesn’t, it’s unlikely you’ll get the same item for a better price anywhere else.

Most traders know a little English and will use it to lure you into their stores. They are also highly skilled in guessing what country you’re from before you’ve uttered a word. Captain Cook, Captain Cook, we know who Captain Cook is,” some will say to Australians. “Perth, Melbourne, Sydney” others recite, trying to entice sales with their recognition of where you’re from. You can’t help but smile, especially at some of the kids who walk the streets closing in on tourists with a bagful of bracelets, talking about the famous seaman and kangaroos. You can also expect to be approached while sitting at cafés and restaurants by salespeople as young as six.

Be wary of sellers at tourist attractions as their prices will mostly be more expensive. They will also follow you for a while before accepting defeat.

Lastly: if a price seems to good to be true, it probably is; always be polite; and have fun – it’s not like you can enjoy the pleasures of haggling on any old high street, is it?

Shopping list tips

Authentic papyrus
Papyrus paintings sold on street markets are likely to be made from banana and sugarcane leaves. For the real deal, go to the Giza or Luxor Papyrus Museum. Cost depends on size, image and artist. You can get a small painting for E£50 (£5).
TIP: Students get half price in museums and identification is rarely required.

Traditional sheesha pipe
Smoke like an Egyptian and get yourself a sheesha pipe. As common in Cairo cafés as coffee cups, the sheesha is a symbol of the Arabic world. Also known as a hookah or hubbly-bubbly, they come in many sizes and colours. Don’t pay more than E£100 (£10).
TIP: Ask the shop owner to show you how to set up and prepare the sheesha and get a few packets of flavoured tobacco thrown in for free.

Perfume and hand-painted bottles
Perfume emporiums are the most reputable places from which to buy hand-blown glass perfume bottles and flower essence. Prices start at about E£50 (£5) for a modest perfume bottle. The markets also have perfume, although it’s mixed with oils and alcohol to make bigger quantities. Thus for the same price you’ll get a bottle three times the size, but the essence quality will be lower.
TIP: ‘Cleopatra’.

Again, be careful where and what you buy and bargain hard, especially for ‘tourist’ jewellery (usually with a pharaonic design, such as the cartouche or key of life). If you’re paying more than E£300 (£30), buy from a specialised jewellery store to lessen the chances of being duped with dud quality.
TIP: Luxor, which houses most of the country’s jewellery workshops, is the best place to buy. You can also get your name written in hieroglyphics or Arabic on a bracelet, ring or pendant.

Egypt, well known for its quality cotton, produces a mixture of traditional and modern clothing. You can snag a basic traditional Egyptian dress for E£50 (£5) and delicate woven scarf for E£25 (£2.50).
TIP: White clothes get dirty beyond rescue in dusty Egypt, so wait until you leave to wear your new threads.

Most markets have a shop brimming with paintings – with the added bonus of the painter at work at his easel. Be careful when haggling, because it can be insulting if you offer a ridiculously low price. An artist in Dahab spent two days painting my masterpiece, so rather than asking for a discount, I tipped him. It cost a mere E£220 (£22).
TIP: Befriend an artist in Dahab and, if you’re staying for a few days, put in a request.”