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What is Baksheesh?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Baksheesh is a term which comes from a Persian word meaning “present.” In Middle and Near Eastern countries, it is an integral part of daily life. The rules which govern it can sometimes seem confusing and arbitrary to Western visitors, who often associate it with political corruption and bribery. While corruption is certainly one aspect of baksheesh, the politics and social conventions governing it are actually far more complex. Travelers to the Middle and Near East should plan on carrying small bills to make the distribution of baksheesh — and their subsequent journey — much more enjoyable.

The first type of baksheesh is the giving of alms or charity. This is an important virtue in Muslim society, as alms giving is one of the Pillars of Islam. Beggars in the streets ask for alms both to support themselves and to offer pious Muslims an opportunity to demonstrate their faith to Allah. Religious representatives and holy men are also given baksheesh as a sign of respect for their status.

The next type of is probably familiar to many Westerners, because it resembles tipping. This is given as a show of appreciation, respect, or gratitude in response to a service rendered. When a bathroom attendant hands a guest a towel, baksheesh is expected; this is also true for people who open doors, carry luggage, or wait tables. Since many people live well below the poverty line across the Middle and Near East, this money can make a big difference.

Baksheesh is also used to get favors, or as an outright bribe. Because many Middle and Near Eastern nations do have severely corrupted governments, government employees use this money to support their minimal government income. These employees are often quite open about their requests for baksheesh, and will quote visitors a direct amount that it will cost to pass through customs without inspection, get through a heavily controlled border, or receive some other service. Baksheesh is also not targeted at tourists and visitors; citizens also pay to get family members out of jail, expedite a visa, avoid arrest, or to secure new phone or electrical service.

While some visitors may find requests for baksheesh grating or distasteful, they should recognize that the economic system that it represents is an important part of their cultural experience. This payment is not always motivated by greed, and is often a survival tactic undertaken by underpaid individuals who are attempting to make a living in a highly stratified society. Cries for baksheesh are an echo of a complex social, political, and economic system which has existed for centuries.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Sep 07, 2012

@umbra21 - Even with a local guide it can feel almost heart breaking if you're asked for baksheesh in a way that clashes with your culture. It's tough, but you've really got to remember that they don't mean it the way you're taking it.

I remember one of my friends spent some time with a family in West Africa and before she left they asked her for baksheesh (in fact, they asked her for a camel!). She was only a student and she thought they had realized that she couldn't afford something like that. To her, it was like they were saying they weren't really friends, they were just out to get whatever they could.

To them, she was a rich friend and it was perfectly normal for them to ask her for a favor.

By umbra21 — On Sep 06, 2012

@turquoise - Well, I think it definitely depends on the country you're visiting. The idea of baksheesh is fairly universal in different ways, but is always going to be wrapped up in the customs of the particular country, so you'd really need to research it.

I think the best way to deal with it is to use local, trustworthy guides who understand what is going on. Often people arrive in an unfamiliar country and go with the first guide they come across, or hire one, sight unseen, through the internet.

A better way to do it is to seek recommendations from friends, or from a travel forum. Travelers are more than happy to recommend someone and often local guides hired on the ground are cheaper than the guides that come with package deals. They'll be able to help you will all the local customs.

By turquoise — On May 03, 2011

Wow, one word has so many meanings. I think if I visited a country where baksheesh is given, I would be confused as to which baksheesh they were referring to.

Any tips on how to differentiate? Or is there a need to differentiate?

By SteamLouis — On May 01, 2011

I want to put out a different view on this subject.

I think that when we talk about different cultures, we should refrain from associating everything with corruption.

I don't think that baksheesh is always given because the government is corrupt, or because the employees are underpaid. I think it is mainly cultural.

In the U.S., we have clear lines between what is bribery, what is tip and what is a gift. In other cultures, sometimes the boundaries are not so clear. They might give a baksheesh for services or for a favor and not think anything of it whereas we would label that as bribery.

But we need to keep in mind that the baksheesh system belongs to a different culture and it might be difficult for us to understand. Sometimes "different" means "different" and not "wrong."

What do you think?

By ysmina — On Apr 29, 2011

Baksheesh is a big problem in Afghanistan right now. It is so deeply imbedded, that the American civilians and service members working on development projects are having a really hard time. They are trying to fight against it and prevent it, but it doesn't really seem to be moving in that direction. Who knows if they will every be able to beat corruption in that country. It is literally eating away at funds that are meant to be used for important projects.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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