Denver Bar Association
November 2010
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In the Valley of the Kings Baksheesh Rules

by Daniel J. Culhane

The Valley of the Kings, near Luxor, Egypt, is one of the world’s archeological treasure troves. Experts have discovered and excavated dozens of tombs of Egypt’s richest and most famous pharaohs, including Ramesses III, Amenhotep, and Tutankhamun, also known as "King Tut."

The tombs boast dazzling murals—vibrant, bright, and vivid, even after nearly 4,000 years—thanks to the fact that the tombs were largely undiscovered and untouched over the centuries.

On any given day, perhaps 15 of the tombs are open; they rotate the collection to preserve the tombs from the air, light, and other intrusions inadvertently brought in by tourists, in an effort to preserve the priceless ancient murals for future generations. Photography is prohibited, and many areas are cordoned off to make sure that the tourists do not get too close to the walls, to ensure that the murals do not suffer from the warm, damp breath of visitors.  

Guards watch carefully making sure that everyone abides by the rules. They walk nearby during your visit to these priceless treasures, frequently reminding: "No pictures! Do not cross the rope!" Then, after carefully reminding the visitors of these rules, every guard surprisingly follows up with: "Want to take a picture? Want to cross the rope?" All it takes is a small bribe—known locally as baksheesh (the same term used to describe charitable giving and tipping). Usually 50 piastres, worth about 9 U.S. cents, will suffice.

All of this was an eye-opener to me, my wife, and two children, ages 9 and 11, as we made our way through 29 countries and four continents on a year-long adventure last year. We do not consider ourselves naïve, and we know that corruption exists in many places, but we still were surprised the corruption we saw was so widespread and blatant. Our experience in Egypt and elsewhere made us rethink just how important the rule of law is, and how easy it is to take it for granted here in Colorado.

We realized there are two factors that contribute to the effective rule of law. The first is the government’s part—the legislation and enforcement aspects. The other, less obvious requirement for the rule of law is cultural respect for the law. As we learned, the rule of law mainly exists within the culture of the society, not in the enforcement apparatus.

This idea occurred to us on our second day in Cairo, as we struggled to figure out how to walk across the street. Cairo is a modern city in many respects, and has plenty of modern traffic lights and other infrastructure to regulate the flow of traffic. But nobody pays the slightest attention to any of it, making it a life-threatening experience to simply walk across the street. Cars do not slow down for a red light (although they do slow down to weave through cross traffic) or pull over for a police car.

A street with four lanes (according to the striping on the road) might have seven cars plus three motorcycles wedged into it at any given time, each twisting and turning to edge in front of its neighbor to move ahead. Cars honk their horns every time they jockey for position with another car. In one memorable 30-minute taxi ride, I estimate our driver honked his horn 500 times. This is just how it’s done.

The locals understand how this works. To cross the street, you have a staring contest, of sorts. The pedestrian and the driver of the car they want to walk in front of signal their intention, and they come to an invisible agreement about who will go first—usually whoever is bigger (that is, the car), unless the pedestrian makes it clear that he is not stopping, in which case the car will slow down. One technique that the locals seem to adopt to speed the process along is to avoid eye contact, which signals to the pedestrian (or the oncoming driver) that the other does not intend to stop. (Hey kids, are you sure you want to go to the Cairo Museum? Wouldn’t you rather spend the week here at the hotel?)

Crossing the street was so bewildering to us that we asked Mohammed, a friend of a friend who lives in Cairo, what the deal was with the traffic. He explained that the government would prefer people to obey traffic laws, and that’s why they spend millions of dollars putting in traffic signals; however, the real problem is that nobody pays any attention to them, because that’s just not how the culture in Cairo works. Mohammed thought that if the police actually started giving tickets and trying to enforce the law, people would get used to it. But he wasn’t sure how that might happen, because people don’t respond when police flash their lights, turn on their sirens, or blow their whistles. How the police might give traffic tickets when nobody pays attention to them is just not clear. So, the traffic in Cairo is really a cultural issue, not a law enforcement issue.

Our respect for the rule of law grew when we had an interesting encounter in a local restaurant we came across in a less touristy part of Cairo. We walked down the Nile for a few kilometers and found ourselves in a neighborhood that was nothing like the hotel district where we were staying. Wanting to experience the local culture, we took the advice of a kind and elegant stranger with a polished British accent and went into a small local eatery. We ordered some food and started eating, but began to grow worried as some young men working in the restaurant gathered uncomfortably close around us. We made a hasty exit after agreeing to yet more baksheesh.

We were not altogether sure whether we were in danger and whether we were being threatened, but we knew we were far from help. As we hurried back to the more tourist-friendly districts, we wondered what would have happened if we had a situation that really required help from the police. Supposing somehow the police showed up, what would have happened? Would they have supported us and helped us safely on our way or would they have joined in and demanded yet more baksheesh? We wondered if this is how recent immigrants to the United States feel—that maybe the system is stacked against you, including the "law enforcement" that is supposed to protect you.

A few days later we visited the Great Pyramids. As with the King’s Valley in Luxor, there were innumerable "guards" (some in uniform, some not) there to tell you what the rules were and to help you violate the same rules. At first, we were glad to have the uniformed police around, because we had heard of a scam in which a person offers to take a picture for you, and then sells your camera back to you. The one police officer we spoke to insisted that the family should pose for a picture with him—and then he demanded some baksheesh for the privilege. Protection, indeed.

Our close encounters with a radically different form of "law" gave us a new respect for the rule of law and our own culture’s largely respectful view of the law that allows our society to function as smoothly, safely, and honestly as it does. Perhaps our legal system is not perfect, but I hope I will not take the enormous social benefit our system provides for granted any more.

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