I saw him moments after descending from the bus before boarding the boat for the Temple of Philae in Aswan. It wasn’t the white stubble of his beard and close cropped gray hair that caught me. It wasn’t his erect posture in the flowing galibeyah gown or his flashing eyes or the smooth texture of his brown skin. It was the white cotton shirt in his hands.
Simple embroidery decorated the shirt pocket. A buttonless slit ran from near the pocket to the collarless neckline. Cut like a t-shirt but elegant in its whiteness in the desert sun, the shirt flapped like a flag in his brown fingers.
I walked directly up to him as his eyes caught mine. He instantly brightened, knowing perhaps before I did that he would sell me that shirt.
“Hello my friend,” he said. “Look, very nice shirt for you.”
“Hello,” I said, reaching out to feel the fabric.
“It’s beautiful cotton, touch, you see. I give you good price.”
It was beautiful cotton, soft and plush yet light for the desert heat. The cartouche on the pocket was understated yet elegant, reflecting the reliefs of the temple I was about to visit.
He held it up to my shoulders to show it was the right size. I gestured to ask if I could try it on.
“Yes, yes. This is the right size. Nice for you.”
“Not now,” I said. “I have to catch the boat to the temple.”
I was using the oldest ruse in the book, deferring any decision until later, not facing the reality of the trade, the back and forth of false anguish and protestations of a price too high, an offer too low. Plus, maybe I didn’t really want the shirt, maybe he wouldn’t see me returning with the hordes of tourists.
“You come back, I give you good price. What is your name?”
“‘Larry,’” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Mohammed. You come back, I wait for you. I give you good price.”
We shook hands and looked into each other’s eyes. Mohammed had the face of an honest man, a good guy. It was the first rule of sales: make the customer like you.
I’d also decided that I would pay no more than $10 for the shirt, because I didn’t need it, could get something similar for not much more money at home, and if it wasn’t a bargain I didn’t need to add it to my load of luggage.
When I’d climbed a few steps up the ramp on shore I spotted Mohammed, waiting in a line of merchants before the row of shops, scanning the crowds looking for me, the shirt draped over his arm.
“Come, come, my friend, I give you good price.”
We shook hands again, and rather than haggle on the street, as I expected we would, Mohammed led me up the road to his shop, the last one in the long row, the first when we got off the bus. When we stepped inside we were alone.
Again Mohammed held the shirt up against my shoulders to show it would fit. I took off my hat and glasses and set them aside, then took the shirt and pulled it on with Mohammed’s help. He was right, it did fit.
“I give you the shirt for only 150 Egyptian pounds. Very good price for you.”
Roughly thirty dollars.
“No, that’s way too much, Mohammed,” I said. “I’ll pay twenty pounds.” Less than five dollars.
“Oh, my friend, that’s not a good price. I must pay for the material and sewing, and something for me. You understand, I must make some profit. One hundred fifty is a good price for you.”
“No, Mohammed, 150 pounds is way too much. That’s very expensive. I will pay twenty pounds.”
It didn’t take long before Mohammed dropped to 140…130…120. I came up to 30…40…and I finally got to my last price, 50, but only when I told him I had to leave now, that he wanted too much.
“Okay, 50,” he said with a gentle hand to my arm as I started out of his shop.
“Do you have change?” I asked as I showed him a 100 pound note.
“Yes, yes,” he said, pulling a fistful of wadded bills out of his galibeyah. It took a moment but he found correct change, then reached for a plastic bag.
“No, no bag, Mohammed, I’ll put it in my pack. But may I take your photo?” I pulled out my camera to show him.
“Yes, yes,” he said. He backed up to his wall full of garments, a perfect background.
I took two shots of his handsome face, the rightward tilt suggesting tranquility, insouciance. We were friends now. We shook hands.
Then he reached to a rack behind and pulled out a red shirt, back to business. “Buy two, good price, this color—” he draped the shirt over my arm and reached back for a blue one “—this color also very nice on you.”
I handed the shirt back. “No, Mohammed, I need to go.”
He draped the red shirt over my arm again. “Good price, my friend, not fifty, forty for this one.”
Again I handed the shirt back, then headed out of the shop into the sunshine. Mohammed was right behind me.
He insisted I needed another shirt for such a good price. I was equally insistent that I didn’t need one. But the closer I got to the bus, the closer I got to offering him something and taking the shirt. Hey, it occurred to me, I could give it to my friend James.
I stopped short of the bus steps and said, “Twenty. I’ll give you twenty.”
“Oh, my friend—”
“Twenty,” I repeated. “No more.”
His friendly smile returned. “Okay, twenty,” he said, handing me the shirt. I gave him a 20 pound note, thanked him, and reached out my hand. He gripped it firmly, smiled, then turned and headed back to his shop.
On the bus I found James and held up the red shirt.
“James, do you like this shirt?”
“Yes. Very nice.”
“Do you like the color?”
I tossed it to him. “It’s yours.”
And it was. For not much more than the cost of a coffee latte in San Francisco, it was no longer Mohammed’s shirt. Now it was James’s.