How much do you pay the repairman? In the US, it’s fairly straightforward. He quotes you a price and you take it or leave it. In Cairo, usually, you don’t ask for the prices before a visit. The repairman does his work, then quotes you a price. If you ask for the price before the visit, this means you are a foreigner who deserves to be screwed.
Typically, a plumber who comes for ½ an hour to an hour to repair your kitchen or bathroom pipes will usually get between 5-10 LE ($1 to $2). However, several other variables can also complicate the final price. For example, where do you live? Are you in a working class neighborhood? Or in Zamalek, where most (rich) foreigners live? How good is your Arabic? Are you a fresh arrival? Does the repairman come with an assistant? Do they take more than an hour? Are the repairs complicated?
Now, fast forward to yesterday when Showky, the fridge repairman came to fix our refrigerator, which has been acting up for the past 2 weeks or more. The freezer does not freeze and the rest of the appliance is lukewarm, causing much of our food to spoil. Before Showky arrived, my good friend Mohammed Aly’s mother had told me to pay between 80-100LE and not a guinea more. I also repeated this very statement to my Korean roommate, who has been in Cairo for a year. However, when the repairman arrived and quoted her 250LE, she asked him to drop it only 25LE to 225LE. When I arrived, I didn’t argue with him, as I thought we could renegotiate after he finished. He spent a good hour or two replacing the Freon gas, making loud knocking noises here and there during my Arabic lesson. When he was finished, he asked for his money.
When I tried to renegotiate, he became furious. The smile turned upside down. Even my tutor Mustafa tried to intervene to say that our roommate did not have the right information and had made an ill-informed decision. They spent a good five minutes or more back and forth. I decided that it was all a big waste of time, so just paid the man.
When I asked him If he would return if the fridge acted up again, he said non-chalantly, “who knows?”
He was starting to irk me, so I wished him peace, “Salam Aleykoom” and ushered him out the door.
My tutor Mustafa and I agreed on this: much of life in Cairo is like buying a T-shirt at the Khan Al-Khalili Bazaar. There’s some give and take, and no price is ever set firmly.