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.