Visiting a Souk
After breakfast in the hotel lounge, we took a hotel car to Khan Al Khalili – a sort of bazaar in the Islamic district of Cairo. The hotel cars are more expensive than using local taxis, but they’re easier than trying to explain in non-Arabic where we want to go, and we know they’ll have seatbelts and not take us to the wrong location. We found places in the guidebook that looked interesting, booked a car to take us there and then walked back to the hotel. Neither of us especially like museums or monuments, and this proved a good strategy for seeing some of ‘real Cairo.’
The car dropped us, and we walked round the corner, into a myriad of ancient lanes lined with stalls, a whole mishmash of sights: Chickens and rabbits and pigeons in cages. Men pulling wheeled carts. People balancing crates on their heads—one young man on a bicycle had a plank on his head stacked with eish baladi the local flatbread. Stalls selling fruit, and cloth, and drinks.
There were stray dogs and skinny kittens—cats were everywhere—sleeping on a food-cart hotplate, sharing a beggar’s blanket, curled under stalls. We watched eish baladi being fried in a sizzling vat of oil, hoisted out by a net on a long pole, the oil dripping off, then heaped on a stall for the flies to feast on. There was a fabric shop, with burst sacks of fresh cotton on the street outside. The streets were busy, with uneven hard-packed mud to walk along, and I felt as if I had wandered into a stage set. It was marvellous. It was also the wrong place! We checked the map, and realised we should have been across the street, in the lanes that make up the bazaar—we were in a market intended for locals (much better, in my opinion).
When we entered the bazaar proper, it was very crowded. Many of the shops were aimed at tourists, and stallholders called to us, inviting us to look, telling us they had the best products, the lowest prices. We had come to look, not to buy, so we disappointed them. Like all roads in Cairo, traffic and pedestrians shared the space. There were tuktuks here (we didn’t see them in the centre of the city) and they mingled with the lorries and bikes and pedestrians, vying for space in the narrow lanes. The air was full of pollution and spices and the sharp tang of limes from a nearby stall. A woman sat on the kerb, her short round body swathed in flowing black, selling bunches of mint. Children sat nearby, screaming at cars when they passed in some noisy game. Men with shiny round trays carried glasses of tea.
We passed the faded finery of ornate mosques, and crumbling walls, and red brick buildings; all powdered in brown pollution. The road was often uneven, often with holes or dirtied by dog mess.
When we reached the centre of the market it was even busier, and many of the products were the same as you would see in an English market—cheap clothing and plastic houseware. Inflatable legs were strung over the walkway, modelling various brands of trousers. Large dolls (like American Girl Dolls) stood in rows, modelling baby clothes. There were windows displaying sexy lace underwear on voluptuous mannequins—yet all the real women seemed to be covered from head to foot in flowing robes. (No one seemed to see the irony of this.)
Random men approached us at intervals, to practise their English, or to give unwanted directions. Always polite, always with smiles, sometimes overly persistent. We smiled back, and walked on.
There were constant car horns. Speakers blasted a sport’s game commentary or an Islamic sermon. The call to prayer echoed from minarets. I saw smiles, lots of smiles, especially when we responded to vendors’ calls in our limited Arabic. There was also lots of spitting in the street, and fingers pushed up noses, and loads of shopping carried on heads—all very different to an English market.
It was a fabulous walk back to the hotel. The sun was hot, the air thick with pollution, but there was so much to absorb, so much life to be part of. Wonderful.
Thanks for reading, I will tell you more about our visit in another blog. Hope you have a lovely day. Take care.
Love, Anne x