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.
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.