Cairo : Market Daze

Cairo Travel Blog

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A rather peculiar drinks seller.

A day off to myself. "Phew!" At last.  I chat to Sarah (Australia) and Pierre-Marc (Canada) some cool people staying at King Tut's too.  Sarah's still suffering from what I'll refer to in my time in Egypt as Cairo Shock.  Only a matter of an hour into the city and she'd had her bags inexplicably checked a number of times (as a lone female traveller) and had her credit cards stolen in the process leaving her penniless and p**sed off.  She's a fairly hardened traveller as with so many of her compatriots but already she can't wait to get the hell out of Egypt and back to her friends in Europe.  Egypt, especially Cairo I get the sense can do this to you.

A somewhat eerie looking market clothes display!
  It has a habit of making critics quicker than it makes friends which is unfortunate.

Today I wish to immerse myself in Islamic Cairo.  Wishing for a cultured start to proceedings I head to the Museum of Islamic Art.  Completely over saturated as I have become on my travels with masterpieces of Christian cultural antiquity and genius I cannot wait to set my eyes on fine examples of the bedazzling geometric beauty of Islamic art and design.  Unfortunately the museum which my 2005 Rough Guide cites as then closed for refurbishment is still under refurbishment 3 years later.  Its seems this, as with so many projects in this country, is subject to Egypt Time (i.e. substitute approx 1 hour for every 1 minute of 'normal' accepted time to get an approximation of the true measure of how long things might take here.

.. and then times that figure by ten!). instead I amble around its surrounding area.  The Abdin Palace is nearby but commands yet another entrance fee.  Just about everything in Egypt involves an entry fee and over time these can really have quite an impact on one's travel budget.  For the scale of the local economy these fees often seem quite high when set against your expectations as a visitor hoping for more affordable culture than you're used to back home.  This is because fees are much, much higher for visitors to the country.  Often abruptly labelled as 'foreigners', whilst true this is a little unceremonious I feel.  'Guests' or 'non-nationals' would do just fine maybe?  Either way, the best discounts to be had are if you have a student card as these will get you approx 50% of just about all entry fees to most monuments, no matter how major, throughout the country.

The old, old wooden roofed entrance way to a more restrained and genuine market area of Islamic Cairo (over the main road from Khan El-Khalili).
  I did not have one of these, but I gather that with little effort fake passes can be obtained at little cost if you ask the right people... although far be it from me to encourage such disingenuous behaviour my fellow TBs! ;D  All that aside, I skip the Palace as it don't sound that interesting anyhows.

Time now to find my way into the heart of Islamic Cairo.  To plunge into the great market district of the City.  The labyrinthine little walkways and passages of the Khan El-Khalili souqs.  First off though, sensing a strong whiff of tourist incursion from within and around Khan El-Khalili itself I cross the busy Sharia Al-Azhar road on the pedestrian bridge and enter under a grand, slightly decrepit wooden islamic market gateway that I had spotted from Yassah's car on the way to The Citadel yesterday.

  This seems a section of the city's market life that is much less frequented by tourists most of whom are just carted in by the coachload to Midan El-Hussein at the eastern extremity of Khan El-Khalili and do little more than float around its least charming tourist dross souvenir market-shops for their allocated hour or so. 

To Khan El-Khalili one must head though because whether you find the shops and market stalls of any particular appeal in terms of their trade wares the buzz and the melee of human interactions and day-to-day Egyptian city life absolutely has to be experienced and during my time in Cairo forms one of my most enjoyable excursions.  A sense of ever-so-slightly merging into the bloodstream of a city that to me often feels it wants to keep you at arms length, rather than invite you in except for the frequent moments it wishes to reach out a little too close and dip its fingers, unbidden into your wallet.

  This area of the city also contains an incredibly high concentration of examples of Islamic architecture whether in the form of mosques, minaretts and building facades.  There is life and noise and people amiably reaching out for you attention everywhere.  A buzz, a dusty busy haze of activity.  The market daze...

... First perfumes.  Scents.  Delicate pyrex bottles of essential oils and presumably elixirs of love such as those offered me on previous occasions.  Aromas, colourful liquids and fascinating ungents and scented salves.  Arabian Nights.  Secrets of the Desert.  Remember your 'Mystic Pyramid' ladies. "You have wives?  You have wife?  You have girlfriends? You want gift?".  Nope.

"Where you from, Australia?" Nope, England.  "Oh England, nice people.  How now brown cow."  ?!?  Uh yeah, something like that.  Moving on through, towards central Khan El-Khalili along Sharia Al-Muizz.  The spice shops.  Sacks, samples and stacks or little artful heaps of colour, texture and beguiling aromas.  Salt rocks.  Black and green pepper corns.  Baskets of dried hibiscus for the nationally beloved karkade drink.  Piles of cinammon sticks, dessicated ginger stems, cardomam pods and crushed cumin.  Colourful little pyramids of spices, bright orange and ochre yellow curry powders, firework reds and flecks of golden saffron shreds sitting next to luminous blue mounds of indigo and browns, greens and rose-pinks of so many things to which I cannot give a name.
  "Hello. Hello!  Where you from, Australia?"  Nope,  England.  "Oh England! Come see, come see my shop.  Lovely stuff.  Come have a butchers.  Take a shufty at my shop." Uh, thanks but no.  Men sit on steps sipping small cups of steaming sweet black tea or karkade.  Watching the world and I go by.  Street cats skulk in significant numbers their shadows fatter than they are more often than not.  Its getting very touristy now.  heap imported cotton print t-shirts.  Bandanas and cheap, mass produced gelabiyyas for the discerning mug who wants to take a 'little bit of Egypt' home with them.  "Where you from, Australia?"  Nope, Englaaaaaand!  "Oh England, lovely jubbly! Come into my shop.
  No.  You want a business card?" 
No.  Cheap immitation leather belts and bags.  Fake brand sunglasses and knockoff watches clutched by hopeful young (very young!) street entrepreneurs.   An endless parade of trinket-touting shops with infinite reproductions of the pyramids as paperweights, the sphinx as bookends and frankly frightening looking large scarab beetles carved from alabaster or other materials.  "Where you from, Australia?"  Sh*t, what is it with the Australia thing?!  Nope, I'm from England.  "Oh Eeeengland, nice people.  Come into my shop.  Iz cheap az chips.  Cheapah than Asdah".  Hmmm.  No thanks. La shukran. 

Some architectural relief from all the hubbub as we seague onto the Bayn al-Oasrayn street.

Spices and colours! :)
  The impressive 185 metre stretch of the facades to the series of mosques and madrassa that form the Qalaoun-Al-Nasir-Barquq complex.  Some beautifully ornate facade carving and entrance decoration.  This apparently contains some very interesting islamic rooms and areas to enter and respectfully observe however today I am informed that they are closed which is disappointing... if indeed it's even true.  All about this area today a large class of local art or architecture students, predominantly hijab-swathed sketching girls are sat in the market sunlight and dust busily sketching away, copying out (often very skillfully) these fine examples of their cultural heritage.

"Where you from, Australia?" Nope, Eeeeengland!  "Oh England, nice people!"  Hmmm, yeah some of us.

Brass treasures.
  "You alone?" yeah.  "You take home gift for your wifegirlfriendsistermotherbrotherloverauntycousinfriend?" Wow, uh, nope.  Sorry.  This now the area of the market for reclaimed metals, copper plates, dishes and islamic mianrett-style tops for houses?  I'm not quite sure what they are.  The sound of soldering hammering and shaping.  Blinding arrangements of brass ware and and other glittering metallic treasures.  Aladdin's lamps.  Decorative plates.  The ubiquitous shisha or hookah pipes. "Where you from, Australia?" NOPE!  England.  "Oh England.  Tally-ho!  How now brown cow.  Thequickbrownfoxjumpedoverthelazydog ah?" Very good.  "Just a minute. Juuuust a minute you wan' come in my shop.
JUST a minute sir"
  No thankyou.  La shukran. La shukran.  The "no thank you mantra"you will get so used to in Egypt.  And so it goes on and on.  An endless cycle of meaningless, harmless and often amusing interraction with the locals.  Occasionally tiresome but mostly very enjoyable.  Always find time to give a response and a smile and to shake a hand or joke whenever yo feel and warmth, good feeling and amusement will follow in the wake of your stroll.  La shukran, la shukran, la shukran.  Eventually via a visit to the Mosque of Al-Hakim (baksheesh to enter) I reach the Northern Gate and turn back down some of the less trduged side alleys of the market district.  The mazelike heart of Khan El-Khalili if I'm honest is not worth much of a glance having been fully consumed sometime ago by the cancer of catering to the tourist dollar.
Part of the 185m facade of the Qalaoun-Al-Nasir-Barquq complex.
  The road you really wanna stroll down on your way back towards town is Muski which is a throbbing, tumultuous, palpatating arterial strecth of true Egyptian market life.  Colour, chaos, shouting, fabric, bustle, crowds, kids, carts, clashes, mad dashes, bartering, blaming, dirty, dizzying and mesmerising every step of the way.

So.  Where you from reader?  Australia per chance? ;D


Stevie_Wes says:
Its true Bart, I agree. I think the lone traveller provides a pleasant stop-gap distraction for the friendly shop-keepers to chat to whilst they await the next onslaught from the coach groups to wash through sprinkling dollars for plastic immitation King Tut effigies as they go :)
Posted on: Nov 17, 2008
alicegourmet says:
Well, a lot of "Australian" are descended from England. :D
Posted on: Nov 16, 2008
Biedjee says:
I quite liked Khan El-Khalili to be honest. When I was there it was filled with bus tourists, so the shop owners were quite interested in me as a lone traveller
Posted on: Nov 16, 2008
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A rather peculiar drinks seller.
A rather peculiar drinks seller.
A somewhat eerie looking market cl…
A somewhat eerie looking market c…
The old, old wooden roofed entranc…
The old, old wooden roofed entran…
Spices and colours! :)
Spices and colours! :)
Brass treasures.
Brass treasures.
Part of the 185m facade of the Qal…
Part of the 185m facade of the Qa…
Ornate doorway to the Qalaoun-Al-N…
Ornate doorway to the Qalaoun-Al-…
Mosque of Saiyidna Hussein in Mida…
Mosque of Saiyidna Hussein in Mid…
Yound students sketch away in the …
Yound students sketch away in the…
Um, nope not sure what these are m…
Um, nope not sure what these are …
Inside the Mosque of al-Hakim.
Inside the Mosque of al-Hakim.
Sleeping on the job.  Im not sure…
Sleeping on the job. I'm not sur…
The foot cleansing fountain within…
The foot cleansing fountain withi…
The fabulous Muski market street l…
The fabulous Muski market street …
photo by: vulindlela