Free Market Economics – Egyptian Style

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Yesterday a few of us wandered our way down to the Khan Al-Khalili souk in Old Islamic Cairo. This was once called the Turkish market and there is still a Turkish section where you can see metal workers, carpenters, and other artisans producing their crafts right on the street. Unlike our malls, all of the stalls selling the same thing are grouped together. At first this seems like the vendors are putting themselves at a disadvantage – if all of the shisha pipe shops are on the same row they are guaranteeing greater competition among themselves. However once we really started to get a feel for the size of the market I realized that this flocking was a survival strategy – like geese and fish on the discovery channel. Native Egyptians don’t have the luxury that we do of browsing the colorful stalls and bantering with the shopkeepers – they know what part of the market sells scales and they go directly there when they need to buy one – if you’re selling your scales near the vegetables, no Egyptian will take the time to find you. Also I’m convinced that the shopkeepers have their own mini OPEC-like agreements to keep the prices high for foreign suckers like me.

Khan Al-Khalili Souk

The souk is like a distillation of all the sights sounds and smells of Cairo. Walking past the spice vendors is an almost dizzying olfactory adventure – as is walking past the cages of live chickens and rabbits. The colors fluttering in every direction made me feel like I was dropped into a watercolor painting, and the hagglers, chickens, donkeys, and welders together make a cacophony that rivals the car horns in downtown Cairo. It is overwhelming to say the least.

I don’t think I would have made it had I come to Khan Al-Khalili a week earlier. For a mountain kid this city feels like standing in the middle of a hurricane of cats and taxis and dust. But the start of classes has given me a good focus which has helped me relax a little and start to widen the blinders over my eyes. I’m starting to notice things everywhere that I hadn’t seen before; the restaurant tucked behind the crumbling garage that I hadn’t been able to see past earlier, the towel lady at the rec center on campus who grinned ear to ear when I asked her how to say towel in Arabic (فوطة in case anyone is wondering), the kid in the market hiding behind his mom’s abaya. Also ants have crazy long legs here. I have to try and get a close up pic for next week.

I think it started on Wednesday during the bus ride home. I was leaning my forehead on the window – dozing my way through another blaring traffic jam. I closed my eyes for a minute and when I opened them I was looking directly into the eyes of an elderly woman perched on a tiny balcony – just big enough to fit her old wooden rocking chair. The vaulted 6th of October bridge the bus was traversing took us right past her apartment and put the two of us directly at eye level. She held my gaze until the bus had nearly crawled past her range of view, and then she went back to her world watching the traffic roll by. I went back to mine wondering why I hadn’t noticed the beautiful red sun sinking below the minarets outside my window.

The rest of the bus ride home I watched as first one, then two more, finally about fifteen kites popped onto the darkening skyline. One of them was flying close to the bridge and I saw that it was fashioned from plastic bags stretched across a hexagonal frame made from sticks tied together. Below two brothers hung from their apartment balcony – delighted by a breeze strong enough to set their creation soaring. I couldn’t help but think back to the pile of nylon kites in bright colors and fancy shapes sitting forgotten in the back of our garage at home.

Switching tracks entirely, the final round of the presidential election starts today. Everyone is a little unsure of what is going to happen. There were two big court rulings on Thursday – one which maintained that Shafik (the last Prime Minister under Mubarak ) is allowed to run in the election, and the other which found the parliamentary elections last November unconstitutional and dissolved parliament. The funny thing is there is no constitution yet. Reactions are varied, but everyone agrees that this represents a step backwards in Egypt’s road to democracy, and many are nervous about the military expanding their power even further. This weekend is one to watch in the news – history is in the making in Egypt right now.

The first week of classes was great, but I’ve already written way too much. Hopefully I’ll be able to talk about them more next week. And I promise those Euro pics are coming soon!



6 responses to “Free Market Economics – Egyptian Style

  1. Hey Stephen! Thank you for your beautiful insights and photos showing us your little piece of our amazing world. I thought my day was exciting when the dogs’ ganged up and killed a young errant raccoon this afternoon… not too exciting compared to yours. Keep up the updates! Say a prayer for Jacob– landed in NYC today to work for a week with Urban Impact teaching ESL to immigrants in Queens… Love and Hugs to you!!

  2. Hey Stephen – Reading your blog postings is like taking a miniature trip to a very foreign land. Your descriptions and ability to capture the essence of your experiences is awesome and I love imagining what you are up to that very moment. So keep them coming, and enjoy all that teeming life and chaos. Laura W.

  3. Wow!! Ok-you never shared what an incredible writer you are on top of everything else you are good at! I’m loving reading your blog! It’s incredible to hear what you’re doing and experiencing! Thank you so much for this! Love you!

  4. Stephen you are really an amazing writer!! I love this. What great descriptions of everything. I’m very curious about those long-legged ants. Miss you and love you!

  5. Hi, Stephen! Laughing about the ‘for a mountain kid’ thing-I can totally hear your Mom’s voice saying, “You guys are mountain kids-you don’t know anything about TRAFFIC” at some point when we were all together… love reading about what you’re up to over there (and it is very well written, by the way). One of these days we might even catch up with you in Cairo! Keep up the good work & enjoy your classes & the chance to explore

  6. Stephen,
    You are right you wrote waaaaaaay too much. 😉 hahaha. goodluck reading mine if that was too much! i like your fancy vocabulary. i want to see a picture of the long-legged ants. long-legged creatures should stick together. And yes you are a foreign sucker. me too. shoot.

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