Thursday, December 28, 2006

After being two of the thousands of people stuck in the London fog, we finally made it home just before Christmas, where we came bearing Egyptian, British, and duty-free gifts. Now that all the gifts have been opened, I thought I would write about our trip to Khan-il-Khalili.

Khan-il-Khalili is an ancient marketplace in Islamic Cairo. The Khan is probably the second largest tourist site in Cairo, after the Pyramids of Giza. J wrote about Islamic Cairo in the last entry, but let me just say that it is like a step back in time (excepting the ubiquitous motorists and the flashy gifts made in China). The best way to get to the Khan is via taxi. We chose to bring one of our Egyptian friends, Ahmed, thinking he might be a handy translator and buffer. (Turns out Ahmed, who is a suburban kid, hadn’t ever been there, and he was mistaken for a tourist almost as much as we were.) We were let off amidst speeding traffic at a green footbridge, which you cross to enter the main part of the Khan. We weren’t sure at first that we were in the right place, but we knew we were golden when we spotted a white lady with whiter hair wearing salmon-colored culottes.

We turned onto a narrow path that was unwieldy with piles of trash and dirt. Scrawny cats picked through the rubbish. To either side, several small shops belched out smiling Egyptian men who proclaimed, “Welcome in Egypt!” There were several hookah shops crammed next to kitsch – glass pyramid trios, pharaoh statuettes, amulets to ward off the evil eye, wooden boxes with Islamic designs representing eternity. There were many gold and silver stores, and other places selling precious stones, most of which are imported since Egypt has been mined to exhaustion. Several antique shops sported beautiful lanterns and dusty relics that looked as if they should have been piled in a barn. Here we found a similar sort of hawking as went on at the pyramids of Giza, though not nearly as persistent or irritating. Men walked out of their shops and promised, “Everything is free!” It seemed pretty tame to us, but perhaps we were simply more prepared for it, and we had a few more polite Arabic phrases under our belts.

We picked our way around trash as the paths became increasingly more winding and shadowed. Men and boys, hauling carts and carrying sacks many times their weight, pushed their way through the crowd, giving short whistles to indicate that they were coming. We learned to move quickly because they had no intention of stopping. (Later, Ahmed got smacked by the side mirror of a car as it passed. Many of the side mirrors here fold back, and that is what this one did.) One of the men said in Arabic, “Watch your back, woman!” just before he swept by me with what looked like heavy sacks of concrete mix over his shoulders. The further in we went, the dustier and mazier it got. Motorcycles sped through, as well as trucks spewing fumes and hip-hop. We asked for directions a few times and found people offering to share their food and drink.

Finally, we found the place I had been looking for: Casa Fernando – a papyrus shop owned by a petite man named Mohammed who speaks Spanish. He was wearing a denim shirt and chewing a small piece of gum. We informed him that one of our friends had recommended the place. He chewed suspiciously, looked us up and down, then invited us inside his shop, which contained stacks and stacks of papyrus with questionable stamps of authenticity. Two boys were arranging sheaves of papyrus on the floor, and Mohammed sent one of them off for drinks and made us sit down in chairs with seats the size of half my rear. They came back with a tray holding Lipton for James, water for Ahmed, and cold hibiscus tea for me. Then Mohammed pulled out a stack of papyrus and began rifling silently, tossing pieces haphazardly to the floor when I shook my head no. We were looking at dark brown papyrus on which there were traditional paintings of ancient Egypt – the papyrus was framed and supported by jute.

Once I started to show my interest in a few, the bargaining commenced. The first thing Mohammed did was quote a ridiculous price. Being somewhat stingy all my life, I was unimpressed. Then I offered a price I considered to be more reasonable, and he looked at me like I was crazy. “This is very old,” he said rather irritably. “That’s too expensive,” I said, wondering just when that paint had dried – was it last week, or last month? It was a lovely little dance. In the end, I got “ripped off,” but I managed to be firm about what I was willing to pay, and when it became clear I wouldn’t budge (to the point of my putting the papyrus on the pile on the floor), Mohammed gave me the price I had eventually quoted. It was great fun.

Tired of the Khan, we forced our way through a much more crowded area on the other side of the street. To each side in the narrow alley were all matter of fabrics – women’s clothing, blankets, rugs, etc. We had clearly left the tourist zone, as there were no culottes to be seen. We paused in a more open area where, in the span of a few minutes, we watched a motorcyclist ram through a crowd and a flock of sheep barrel past. Up to this point, I had been suppressing all references to misinformed films about the Middle East but could not help but remark here that this could have been the setting for the part in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones shoots the sword-wielding man in the streets of Cairo.

This open area brought us away from the crowded marketplace and into the streets of Old Cairo. We immediately found ourselves walking through a traffic jam, where a donkey pulling a cart leaned its head into the back of a honking Nissan truck. In one shop, a man made cast iron skillets, while next door another man wove baskets. Almost every shop, emptied of patrons, boasted beautiful handmade items – from intricate wooden chairs to walking sticks. I saw just one store that was full of people – this store had enormous sacks brimming with spices and herbs – ginger, cumin, hibiscus, mint. We stopped at a small grocery store for a drink and had to stay there with our glass pop bottles until we finished and could return them, and, as we sipped, we surveyed the place. Out on the street, the donkey still leaned its head against the Nissan, and horns continued to honk. On the way back to the main thoroughfare where we would catch a taxi home and pick up some roasted corn, I witnessed a man leaping onto the hood of a moving, honking car. Ahmed and J were ahead of me, and they didn’t hear me gasp. They also didn’t see the driver of the car laughing, or the man on the hood guffawing, nor the man who made cast iron skillets chuckling and shaking his head.


moonlight ambulette said...

i wonder how the midwest will strike you now, having been in the bright, dusty, noisy chaos of Cairo for so long. do tell!

Mandy said...

The cleanliness and ubiquitousness of American public restrooms - that's one thing that strikes me - not poetic, but true.