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Flickr has been improved! Almost all photos on this blog come from my Flickr Photostream. You can now go directly to a page that shows all of my Flickr photo sets by following this link. It's the easiest way to navigate in my on-line photos.

Friday, February 28, 2014

On Scale Street - An Egyptian Metaphor

One of my dreams is to buy two bananas and three oranges on the street where I live.  Let me explain.

The merchants of the Cairo streets are masters of merchandising.  You can't walk down a street without finding a beautiful display of fruits or vegetables.  Vendors spot a high-traffic area, make an attractive display, put up a price sign and they are in business.  This picture actually shows two fruit stands about 50 yards apart.  We usually shop at the one in the background.

But new technology is not a critical factor for either the merchant or the customer. The merchant will always have one of these old balance arm scales to weigh your (or more likely, his) selection.

And the the scale's product pan usually looks like it has been run over by a truck or stepped on by a horse.

Yesterday, on our way to visit a section of old Islamic Cairo with guest, Sharon, and guide, Roshdy, we found ourselves on "Scale Street."  Much to the consternation of everyone else, I fell behind the group, taking pictures.  The street is only one block long but it is lined on both sides with shops selling scales.

It was interesting to look over the the displays in front of the stores.  Yes, there was the latest product from China, ISO 9001 certified, capable of price calculation with totals.  But the majority of scales on display were the old balance arm models with a brass or cast iron base.

These scales are at the heart of my banana and orange issue.  Fruit is sold by weight and not by the "each."  Can I buy two bananas?  No.  Two kilograms - yes.  One kilogram or a half kilo?  Yes again.  Two bananas?  That just doesn't compute!  The smallest weight anyone has and can calculate for is a half kilo - a bit over a pound.  You might find a quarter kilo somewhere but the math is hard.  Now at 5 Egyptian Pounds for a kilo of fresh bananas (70 cents for 2.2 pounds) I shouldn't be concerned - but I still hope to be able to buy just two bananas one day.

And here is one of the balance arm scales, ready for use, in a picture I took yesterday along al-Mu'izz Street.  This vendor is selling seeds and nuts.  A close look shows the scale weights and also reveals that birds have been sitting on the balance arm enjoying the lentils from time to time.

Now for the metaphors and philosophy.  When I started coming to Egypt ten years ago, the few Chinese tourists were described as tightwad tourists who didn't want to spend any money.  Now they are the majority of tourists that still come to Cairo.  They are described as only wanting to buy expensive things.  They, of course, are manufacturing ISO 9001 certified scales for the whole world.  The Egyptians are bound to the technology carved as pictures onto the walls of the pyramids.  On the other hand, the Egyptian merchant's scale still works if it is kicked by a donkey, run over by a truck or mistreated by a pigeon.  And it never needs a new battery.

There is some metaphor in there for this country's problems.  Perhaps it has to do with reluctance to change.  Maybe it is associated with distrust of technology that the customer can't see.  I will leave it for some young liberal arts or political science major to pull it out.  I'm just an old math and technology guy who likes to take pictures and use computers.

Added Later:
Here are close-ups of some of the scale weights.  That's a 1 kg. on the left and two 1/2 kg. weights on the right.

Added Later Still:
I finally did find two new electronic scales in use.  One is in a fish restaurant in Alexandria and a second is, surprisingly, found along a street near the pyramids where this vendor packages food for the camels returning from their tourist rides.  He keeps a stock of pre-weighed bags ready for the camel owners.

Also, there are now a larger number of pictures in my Flickr Scale Street set.

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