Our driver had just dropped us off from our all day Abu Simbel tour and we started out walking along Aswan’s corniche riverfront towards our hotel. From behind us I heard a hissing noise, once faintly, then a second time, more loudly: “Baksheesh!” Our driver, who had been paid well to drive us to Abu Simbel and a few other Nubian monuments for the day wanted to know where his tip was. On this occasion I ignored him – we were already walking away, his engine was running and there were other passengers in his van – but I later regretted this. As our guidebook mentioned, museum guards, bellhops and drivers are not paid well in Egypt and rely on baksheesh to supplement their low incomes.
Baksheesh is a Persian word that originates from the Pahlavi (Middle Iranian) language and has 3 basic meanings: charity, tipping and bribery. Charity baksheesh is paid to a beggar or incapacitated person, tipping baksheesh serves to supplement meager incomes, and bribery baksheesh motivates public servants to give you what you want. None of these meanings fully correspond to the North American or European concept of tipping, whereby 15-20% is added to a restaurant bill to reward good service from the waiter, and because of that most westerners have trouble in Egypt. For example, we found it odd that the 7-year old boy in Dahab who walked with our camels demanded baksheesh – all he did was walk with us for a half hour. We did feel that the policeman in Cairo’s Khan il-Khalili deserved a tip because he helped us get a taxi home, something that we were unable to do because of our inability to speak Arabic.
One thing that we had to watch out for was people initiating baksheesh-worthy services that we did not ask for, like the luggage porter grabbing our bags at the Aswan train station or the man in the Cairo station who offered to personally guide us to the car in our train. Museum guards at Egypt’s many fine temples are notorious for offering to show you an inscription or frieze that is allegedly “off-limits” in return for baksheesh. A guard at Giza’s pyramids graciously invited us to enter and take pictures inside a tomb he was guarding. As we were leaving, he pointed to the small “No Photography” sign, placed his body between me and the doorway and whispered “Baksheesh.” A bit perturbed, I handed him 50 piasters (about US$0.11). Without moving out of the doorway, he looked over the admittedly meager tip and pleaded, “five pounds?” I decided we’d split the difference, handed him more and brushed past him and out of the temple. While attempting to cross a particularly busy street in Islamic Cairo, a man started helping us cross without our consent. He guided my wife and daughter as they made their way across the intersection and once we made it to the other side we looked back to see a veiled woman screaming at him while holding on to his ear. Our guess was that he disgraced his wife by being seen with two unveiled women. We never found out if he was going to ask us for baksheesh. Technically, baksheesh is supposed to be voluntary, but at Jordan’s Petra my guide told us about the free horse rides down to the ancient carved sandstone city. He said, “The ride is free, but at the end you must pay baksheesh of two Euros.” Free? Must? Two Euros? What happened to the concept of voluntary? The whole idea of baksheesh had us on our toes.
We thought we’d found the “Rosetta stone” for baksheesh when my wife spotted the following in a guidebook: “Services such as opening a door, delivering room service or carrying your bags warrant at least one Egyptian pound. (US$0.22)” Armed with this knowledge, I was ready to tip the guy at our hotel desk when he helped me locate and call a computer technician in Cairo. Once we finished, I handed him some money but he waved me off and said it was not necessary. Back to square one.
Instead of trying to understand all the nuances of the concept of baksheesh, we’ve decided to just go with the flow. Whenever someone is performing a service for us, we get out a small amount ahead of time and have the money ready. We are also careful not to implicitly accept any services that we did not ask for. It’s not a lot of money and it makes getting around in Egypt much less stressful.