Bargaining in Cairo

"For you," the merchant murmured, "three hundred Egyptian pounds."

I guffawed. Three hundred pounds? For a little wooden lute? I wanted the rababah, to hang on my wall back home, but I wasn't about to pay $55 for it – not when I knew it was only worth $10.

"I can't," I said.

"What price, then?"

"I would insult you."

"No, what price?"

"I couldn't pay more than thirty pounds," I said.

The man recoiled in dramatized disgust. We continued our bids in the dusty alleys of Khan El Khalili, where throngs of merchants have sold their wares since the 14th century.

Mostly the merchants hawk junk – cheap statuettes and fake papyrus – but the rababah caught my eye. The instrument featured two strings and a bulbous sound-box, and the bow was a strung arc of reed. Sure, the rababah only played one octave, and I would never learn it as a serious instrument, but I hadn't tested my bargaining skills in ages, and this item alone was worth haggling for.

"Twenty U.S. dollars," I said. For effect, I drew a folded bill from my breast pocket, right where I'd planted it; I'd set my final price before we even started.

The man held out his hand, conceding. We exchanged instrument for cash, and I walked off with his business card.

Two days later, I bought the same instrument off a ragged child for $3. The average for each: $11.50. Not bad for being out of practice.

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