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What is Baksheesh?

Baksheesh, rooted in Persian culture, refers to a gratuity or tip given to secure a service or favor. It's a token of appreciation that transcends mere money, embodying goodwill and often smoothing social interactions. This practice, while common in many Eastern countries, carries complex nuances. How does baksheesh impact social dynamics and economies? Join us as we explore its multifaceted role.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

One type of baksheesh, giving alms, is an important virtue in Muslim society.
One type of baksheesh, giving alms, is an important virtue in Muslim society.

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 includes giving assistance to beggars.
Baksheesh includes giving assistance to beggars.

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.

In Near and Middle Eastern countries, baksheesh allows government employees to supplement their minimal incomes.
In Near and Middle Eastern countries, baksheesh allows government employees to supplement their minimal incomes.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is baksheesh?

Baksheesh is considered to be one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
Baksheesh is considered to be one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

Baksheesh is a term used in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia to describe a small sum of money given as alms, a tip, or a bribe. It is deeply rooted in the social and economic practices of these regions, often seen as a gesture of goodwill or as a way to expedite services. While it can be a voluntary expression of gratitude, in some contexts, it may be expected or demanded, blurring the lines between tipping and bribery.

Is baksheesh considered a bribe or a tip?

The interpretation of baksheesh can vary widely. In many cases, it is seen as a customary tip for services rendered, similar to tipping in Western cultures. However, it can also be perceived as a bribe, especially when it is given with the expectation of receiving preferential treatment or to bypass standard procedures. The distinction often depends on the local customs and the specific situation in which baksheesh is given.

How much baksheesh should one give?

The appropriate amount of baksheesh depends on the context and the local economy. It is typically a modest sum, reflecting the cost of living in the area. For small services, such as carrying luggage or cleaning, a few coins or small bills are common. For larger favors or more significant services, the amount may increase. It's important to observe local practices or ask trusted locals for guidance to avoid overpaying or insulting with too small an amount.

Is it obligatory to give baksheesh?

Whether baksheesh is obligatory depends on the cultural norms of the region. In some places, it is expected for certain services, while in others, it remains a voluntary gesture. Tourists are often expected to give baksheesh more frequently, as they are seen as wealthier and may be approached more often for tips. It's advisable to be prepared to offer baksheesh in situations where it is customary, but one should also feel comfortable declining if the request is unreasonable or feels like extortion.

Can refusing to give baksheesh cause offense?

Refusing to give baksheesh can potentially cause offense, particularly if it is expected within the cultural context. However, if the request for baksheesh is excessive or unwarranted, a polite refusal is generally acceptable. It's important to be aware of local customs and to handle the situation with tact and respect to avoid any cultural misunderstandings.

How does baksheesh impact local economies?

Baksheesh can have a significant impact on local economies, especially in regions where wages are low and tipping supplements income. It can provide a necessary financial boost to service workers and others who rely on these small payments to make a living. However, reliance on baksheesh can also perpetuate low wages and create an expectation of additional payments for basic services, which can be challenging for both locals and visitors to navigate.

Is baksheesh legal?

The legality of baksheesh varies by country and the nature of the payment. As a tip for services, it is generally legal and accepted. However, when baksheesh crosses into the territory of bribery—such as paying to influence official decisions or to receive preferential treatment—it can be illegal. Laws regarding bribery are often strict, and it's important to distinguish between culturally accepted tipping and unlawful payments.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Mor

@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.

umbra21

@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.

turquoise

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?

SteamLouis

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?

ysmina

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.

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    • One type of baksheesh, giving alms, is an important virtue in Muslim society.
      By: Jasmin Merdan
      One type of baksheesh, giving alms, is an important virtue in Muslim society.
    • Baksheesh includes giving assistance to beggars.
      By: federicofoto
      Baksheesh includes giving assistance to beggars.
    • In Near and Middle Eastern countries, baksheesh allows government employees to supplement their minimal incomes.
      By: Stephen Coburn
      In Near and Middle Eastern countries, baksheesh allows government employees to supplement their minimal incomes.
    • Baksheesh is considered to be one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
      By: Eray
      Baksheesh is considered to be one of the Five Pillars of Islam.