Much more than commercial centers, Cairo's markets provide the most dramatic kind of street theater. Camels parade, hapless dogs are beaten for sport, and you can bargain for anything from tents to wedding favors to chicken parts.
In the beginning, there was a souk, an open-air market. That was the point where wanderers from Desert A met up with nomads from Desert B. The houses, the streets, the cities, the temples, the gods within them and the angry prophets who called on people to believe in those gods, all came out of the souk. It was also the oldest form of theater, because that is where the first dialogue was invented: between A. who had to communicate with B., sometimes with hand gestures and facial contortions, sometimes with marks drawn with a stick in the sand, until they arrived at an agreement, and then embraced and parted ways.
In the big, alienating cities of our day, which spawn dense skyscrapers and air-conditioned malls, the souk is sometimes an awkward reminder that, just as there once was nothing there, in the future there may also again be nothing there, and again Nomad A will emerge out of the desert and encounter Passerby B, and again a market will grow out of this Ground Zero.
The city invented the idea of order, and the souk is the enemy of order. It's the site of metaphysical chaos. Maybe not in synthetic cities like Tel Aviv. In Cairo at night I saw the police coming to raid downtown sidewalks to clear them of peddlers, those most wretched and defenseless people whose goods are spread on a piece of fabric or cardboard. When they hear the police siren approaching they fold up their makeshift stands and flee, crowding into courtyards, swallowed up in entranceways or stairwells. The police chase after them and catch one or two. Their confiscated merchandise is tossed into the police truck and they may surely expect to receive a little beating as well.
One evening I saw one such victim at the corner of 26th of July and Sharif streets, pleading with the police officers, slapping himself on the head as if to express remorse for his actions, while they just laughed. Light spilled from the display windows of the respectable upscale shops. His merchandise was men's underwear. Last year I bought three pairs of "Pierre Cardin" briefs from one of these peddlers. It was on the sidewalk by the Azbakiya Gardens mosque, behind the National Theater building. The guy asked me where I was from and I said faransa (France). And he said: "I'm a Sa'idi," meaning from Upper Egypt, and he shook my hand.
And then the police came. His companions on the sidewalk, a young man selling "Dunhill" silk ties, a Sudanese fellow with a suitcase full of "Rolex" watches, and another guy hawking furry red cushions embroidered with the words "I Love You" in gold thread, were all faster on their feet than he was. That's how it goes.
We arrived in Cairo on a Friday at five in the morning, knowing that the biggest show in town was about to get underway in four or five hours. For if you haven't seen the Friday market under the Basatin highway bridge, you haven't really seen or understood Cairo. An American book I once read about Cairo's urban space defined the city as something between a "tomb" and a "bomb." And the Basatin souk, known locally as suq al-juma' ("the Friday market"), is the perfect example, in a very limited area, of an exploding population that has chosen to spend its market day in a city of graves. For if you glance right and left you'll see that the whole place is made up of mausoleums. Some of them have been taken over by living people, who have built houses and shops atop the graves, and some have been left to the dead, including Egyptian luminaries like Umm Kulthum, whose grave I used to visit.
Every Friday, perhaps she hears from a distance the symphony of the shuk that blossoms below the highway overpass, the coughing of the trucks that come to unload their goods there at dawn, from ornate "Louis Farouk"-style cabinets and sofas to heaps of cellular telephones that were stolen throughout Cairo during the preceding week. And then there are the chickens and ducks and pigeons and fish and cats and dogs. Let us pause for a moment by the dog section of suq al-juma'.
A dog's life
Their barking and mournful howling can be heard from afar. A symphony of canine misery. The thing that distinguishes it from human misery is that the human being who tied up the dogs with leashes and iron chains can now abuse them at his pleasure. The biggest dogs are the ones that most stimulate the crowd's impulse to cruelty. And if they are black, then their fate is to be the most accursed on earth. The owners, who have tied up their dogs with very short chains that choke them with every movement, stand there and toss things at them, like lit cigarettes, and then get a kick out of seeing the dog get its tongue burned and seethe with fury, its eyes bulging.
The audience sits a safe distance away on wooden benches. From time to time, a daring youth will venture close enough to the animal to beat it on the nose with a branch or stick. Others approach and wave their arms wildly in order to scare it, and to see the animal become more frightened and confused, with its tongue hanging out of its mouth, due to thirst. At competing stalls, other dog owners try to grab the crowd's attention with abuses of their own.
One guy, with a half-dozen sheepdogs to sell, kicks one of the dogs in the ribs. The animal doubles over in pain while its companions tense up with fear, run about and entangle themselves in their chains. And here, in a cage perched high on a pedestal, is a fearful poodle that just the other day was probably some wealthy matron's spoiled house pet. If you thought that at least this creature would be shown some mercy, you were sorely mistaken. This little "snob" is going to be taught a lesson. His current master pulls hard on his tail and encourages potential buyers to do the same. The dog wails piteously. What a sissy.
It's all happening in the small nook between the bridge's concrete supporting pillars. The concrete creates an echo chamber, and also traps the dust that is kicked up by the dogs' feet, which grows into a big cloud whenever a new dog is brought in to be sold and the others bare their teeth at him and he has to be gripped firmly so he won't sink his teeth into them. One wishes that this grim theater would somehow end with a positive moral, that one of these wretched animals would break free and sink its teeth into the backside of one of its human tormentors. But such endings are only to be found in novels. For the most part, dogs here live a dog's life and die a dog's death.
The human mass crowds among the stalls, not necessarily looking for something to buy, but just seeking to go with the flow, slow as that may be. From the scrap iron market, it flows to the old Bakelite dishes market, and from there to the clothing market, which is always the liveliest. The competing vendors call out their enticements. Some stand atop their stalls and shake their hips and beat a drum and play music and sing songs extolling the nightgowns on offer for seven pounds. And we should note that the line of clothing stalls is situated right next to the area where poor families from the countryside bring their chickens and ducks to sell. A baby about the size of a chicken peeks out from a woman's dress, and she calls to our photographer to take his picture.
Amid the great, faceless crowd, one portrait stands out. It was at the market for ornamental fish, where you find countless aquariums, fish of every color, a thousand curious spectators and a thousand buyers pointing at the fish they want, which will be slipped into a plastic bag for them to take home. One vendor introduced himself in French. He is a Coptic Christian who teaches French at a school in Abbasiya. In the summer he has to work at another job. When I lied and said I was from France, he seemed very pleased to meet a "compatriot."
Cairo's national theater
A taxi driver who suddenly appeared like a heavenly savior took us in his broiling hot black car, whose windows wouldn't open, through the southern City of the Dead and through the Sayida Aisha neighborhood, to the next souk on the list. I noticed a decal with a picture of Christ on the glove compartment and deduced that he was a Christian. He proudly told us about the many Muslims who have been converting to Christianity lately, because in Christianity miracles occur. Do miracles ever happen to Muslims? "Just look," he said, pointing to the dusty cemetery road.
All the tourists go to the Khan al-Khalili market, tempted by the smooth-talking vendors and the stalls selling papyri, T-shirts, perfume, spice extracts and souvenirs. This is Cairo's true national theater: the chance of a lifetime to be both spectator and actor in an endless play in which you are supposed to be tempted to buy the other's lies and to sell him yours, and all in a delicate verbal sparring that takes place in narrow confines in which your face is right up against that of your interlocutor, whether in his crowded shop or outside, where a thousand bodies are pressing by you, pushing and shoving.
The cry of "Pssss," that you hear near you is supposed to tell you that you're blocking the way for some "emergency vehicle." This vehicle usually takes the shape of a porter hauling a load of crates, or a hawker of pita bread - an amazing acrobat who balances a heaping tray about the size of a dance floor on his head while pedaling his bicycle and making that "Pssss" sound, which is something of a cross between clashing cymbals and an ambulance siren.
Don't try to just be yourself in this place, because no one will believe you, and you'll come out behind in the haggling. Let's say you have your heart set on a brass tray. When you enter the shop, you must inquire about the price of every other item there except for that particular tray, and only at the end, very casually, in a bored tone of voice, ask its price. And the vendor will always act like he's not at all eager to sell anything. For he, too, is a graduate of the Khan al-Khalili acting school.
The Khan al-Khalili also means the Fishawi cafe, located in Al-Fishawi alley, which is also known as the Cafe of Mirrors, thanks to Greek writer Stratis Tsirkas' novel "Drifting Cities." It's one of those places that seem to have been there forever. You feel like the narghila-scented air was exhaled straight from the lungs of the ancient Pharaohs. And the Fishawi cafe is also the sweet light that is reflected endlessly in the big mirrors, in which you can unabashedly stare at people without seeming indiscreet. You sit there and the souk comes to you. A poor woman selling peanuts puts a handful of peanuts on your tray. If you want, you buy. A peddler of leather purses wants to demonstrate that his purses are not made of plastic, and as proof he lights them with his lighter. And the wreaths of white jasmine flowers hanging on the arm of a black-clad woman peddler are the big hit at all the tourist-filled tables. Just one pound (about 17 cents) apiece. What's one pound? Portraits from Roman times show that such wreaths used to be placed in the hands of the dead. Perhaps to mask the stench of the corpse.
Secrets of the souk
There's a secret club of those who really know the Khan al-Khalili. Each one has his own secret vendor and the secret alleyway where he buys things, whose existence others are unaware of. The secret pact among those in the know is that you don't reveal the secrets of the souk to anyone who's not part of this secret group. At most, you give only the most general explanations. For example, no one will drag out of me the secret of where the vendor of millefleur beads, which have become very rare nowadays, is to be found. Or those round silver charms, engraved with images of demons, that chase away headaches and heartaches and other aches and pains. I will tell you that the name of the vendor is Mr. Abdel Aziz. And that his shop is in such a noticeable spot in the souk that you don't even notice it. A shop selling new silver objects, which is always filled with customers but also with people who come to pawn silver objects they received as wedding gifts or an old family heirloom that belonged to their dearly departed mother. You barely notice the rickety steps leading up to the second floor, where the real Aladdin's cave awaits. That's where you find, in piles on the floor, jewelry from the Arabian peninsula, huge bridal jewels from Yemen, earrings from Turkmenistan that weigh a kilogram and make you wonder what sort of mammoth ears could possibly wear them (The answer is that these earrings are not hung on the ear, but on the head-covering, near the temple). And all is calculated according to the weight of the silver, regardless of the amount of toil that went into making a piece.
What does Mister Abdel Aziz talk about with his laborers on the hidden second floor? Not long ago, the Israeli researcher Gabriel Rosenbaum revealed the secret language of Cairene smiths, in an illuminating article in the journal Pe'amim (Issue #90). Would you believe - it's Hebrew! And indeed, Mister Abdel Aziz does speak Hebrew when instructing his worker to calculate the price of a gram of silver. And they also have secret nicknames for a stingy customer or a thieving customer, for someone worth the trouble of waiting on and for one who is never going to buy anything and is just wasting everyone's time. Your colorful millefleur beads, which came out of Venice centuries ago to tempt the Africans with glass and purchase slaves and gold and ivory, over time became the coin of trade in Black Africa. Especially the bead called "chevron." Mister Abdel Aziz sold me a little sack filled with these beads. But that's as many secrets as I'm willing to give away.
In her book "The Arts of Egypt," Lebanese author Denise Ammoun includes the tale of the Cairo tentmakers market, know as the Khayyamiya, which is outside of Bab Zuweila, the southern gate to Fatimid Cairo. This is where the tentmakers sit, where in the past they sewed grand, elaborately decorated tents for the war campaigns of Egypt's rulers, and portable palaces for Bedouin with refined tastes. Today all that's left of this tradition are the colorful holiday tents which we Israelis would recognize as "mourners' tents." These are put up in wake of either joyous or sad events, in order to contain large numbers of visitors who won't fit in the house. The sheets of fabric that make up these tents are made of patches, fabric remnants that were cut in different kaleidoscopic shapes and attached to one another and to the underlying fabric by the applique method.
The souk is a street lined with small cubicles, in which tailors sit cross-legged on high benches, sewing the patterns of the patches with needle and thread, in tiny, rapid stitches, making cushion covers, or bedspreads. On rare occasions, a wealthy customer from the Emirates will even order an entire tent.
Leave this souk and head west onto Ahmed Maher Street, which leads to the infamous Bab al-Khalq Square. Here, on weekdays, prisoners are unloaded from blue prison trucks with barred windows, to be tried in the central courthouse overlooking the square. They shout from inside the stifling tin boxes, hands holding out a crumpled bill, pleading with someone to buy them a bottle of water. The prisoners' families sit on the curb and try to communicate with those inside.
In the meantime, peddlers sell to those waiting here everything and nothing; but even in this nothing there are divisions and specialties. There are wooden kitchen utensils, spoons, dark wooden bowls. In a dirty alleyway nearby, a carpenter is busy building a high-standing, three-legged butchers' table. He fills in the spaces and sands the surface to make it smooth. The wood is of such poor quality that it keeps splitting and he has to keep on filling in more holes. Sisyphus would have felt right at home here.
An even smaller alleyway branches off from the carpenters' alley. At the end of it sits a blacksmith who for the time being has taken up as a tinsmith, since with Ramadan approaching, there is more of a demand for lanterns. Here is the center for the manufacture and sale of Ramadan lanterns. Lanterns made of tin scraps from cans whose labels have been peeled off, affixed to colorful pieces of glass. Is it really possible that from this one tinsmith come the hundreds and thousands of lanterns on the street, in hues of gold and silver, looking like old-fashioned kerosene lanterns or fantasies of magic lamps, the kind from which genies are said to emerge and grant all your wishes?
A mint offering
What is a souk and what isn't? Let's take the souk that surrounds the Sayida Zainab mosque. Is it really a souk in its own right, or is it merely a long, twisting tail of stalls meant to meet the needs of the pilgrims who come here to ask the qedeisha, the saint, for salvation? And who was Sayida Zainab? Was she really the sister of Hussein, who fought alongside him in the battle of Karbala? Or was she a cousin of the sainted Sayida Nafisa, who is buried in the northern City of the Dead and attracts her own streams of pilgrims? In any event, she is one of the patron saints of Cairo, and one of the most popular. This is obvious from the number of people who continually swarm around the large mosque, which has been renovated numerous times and whose floor is covered with green rugs.
Not everyone comes here to pray. Many come because it's cool inside and you can stretch out between two pillars and catch some sleep - never mind the noise of the big vacuum cleaners operated by the barefoot mosque workers. Some sit and read, and some actually do pray, the most fervent among them choosing the inner hall where the saint herself is buried. The buzzing of the fans mixes with the buzzing of the worshipers, and from beyond the curtain, wailing is heard from the women's section; wails of joy and of pain.
One perspiring pilgrim, who traveled a long way to get here and who carries a green flag of Islam that does double duty as a cane, has come to circle the tomb and bow down, while he cries out loudly. The government police officers keeping tabs on the site aren't pleased with this fellow and his exclamations. He argues with them about something they are preventing him from doing. Eventually, it becomes clear just what this thing is. He came to fulfill his vow to the saint: He promised her that he would scatter four sacks of mint leaves over her tomb. The policemen won't let him go up on the roof of the structure that serves as her tomb. They recruit the assistance of one of the vacuum operators, who climbs barefoot up the side until he's standing on the roof. Then they pass him the bags and when they are opened, the space is suddenly infused with an intoxicating scent.
Outside, at one bend in the alley, we stopped by a stand where chickens were sold. The living and the dead in complete proximity. One live rooster and several hens, plus a few ducks. And next to them, on a board, their companions who had already been slaughtered and turned into pieces of chicken breast, thighs and neck. And how delighted they were, both the rooster and his owner, to have their picture taken! The women buyers, of course, acted like they were unaware of the lens pointed at them, while being privately pleased. If their husbands were here, they would make a big fuss.
On another occasion, I was shoved by a bearded fellow who was furious that we had captured on camera his daughter, who was selling rags on the sidewalk. This was in the Suq al-Hamis, i.e., the Thursday market, in the Matariya quarter - a market for clothing, pajamas, linens, curtains and even shrouds, for anyone wishing to be that much more prepared for death. I spotted the shrouds at one stand selling bed linens. A roll of white fabric printed with Koranic verses. We asked the vendor what they were. He called to his friend who supposedly knew English. I barely knew the word for it in English myself. The friend mimicked a sleeping pose and pointed to the ground. Then he flapped his arms to indicate a soul winging its way to heaven. Then they asked how many meters I wanted. (None just yet, thank you).
Not far from this souk of sleep and death in Matariya, there is a park; in it there is a tree beneath which the Virgin Mary is believed to have nursed the baby Jesus when they went down to Egypt. Matariya is a holy place, and like every holy place here, it automatically comes with a souk attached.
And we haven't yet mentioned the Ataba market, which begins downtown, just steps from the big shops and the grand old department stores. It's really a series of markets hooked together like links in a chain. It starts with a souk of cheap clothing opposite the area's filthy bus station, and gradually becomes a souk focused on stationery and such - packages of pencils and notebooks, invitations, wrapping paper, gift bags emblazoned with a heart and the words "Just for You."
At one bend in the alley, there is a small market where you find porcelain eggs and boxes decorated with angels. The eggs and boxes are filled with pink, white or blue almond candies, and are handed out to guests at celebrations like engagement parties and weddings. And if you keep going with the flow to Al-Jaysh Street and cross it, then you'll find yourself in the Al-Muski souk, the former street of the Jews, which remains a center of the rag trade, as in the past. It's a long narrow street intersected in the middle by big and busy Bur Sa'id Street: But this doesn't faze anyone; it continues to function as a market even amid the passing cars. In the midst of this controlled bedlam, I was struck by man's insignificance. All it would take is for someone to yell "bomb" or "fire" and in the ensuing panic and flight masses of people would be trampled by others and suffocate for lack of air. Nothing would happen to me, of course, thanks to Sayida Zainab and the Virgin Mary and the God of the Jews who is surely watching over Al-Muski Street.
It's a toss-up as to which souk takes the title of most horrible and heart-wrenching. One is in the Zabalin quarter, named for the "garbage collectors," where the people reside amid huge mounds of garbage at the foot of the Muqatam hill, where the city borders on the desert. Wagons piled with garbage unload their goods outside the houses and then the sorting of the rot begins: plastic bags here, fruit peels and other bits of leftover food there. Goods come in and goods go out, and it's all kept secret. For we went back and forth along the streets of this putrid neighborhood, pleading with them to let us photograph them at work, in vain.
"Go away, go away!" we were brusquely expelled from this proud leper colony. It bears noting that this was on a Sunday, and most of the zabalin are Coptic Christians. We went up to the holy site at the top of their mountain of garbage. There, etched in rock, are images of Jesus and Mary and verses of comfort from the New Testament. In the plaza below, beneath flimsy shelters or in the shade of trees, families sit chanting holy verses along with a woman singer, who led the ceremony. This, too, is a souk, God's souk, where in return for all the suffering in this world you can hear an angelic singer in the heavens above the mountain of garbage.
The other contender for the crown is the camel souk, which is the most primitive of all the markets. How we got there, I have no idea. We scaled sand mounds and descended into mud puddles, we passed through filthy villages until, suddenly, in the middle of nowhwere, we saw them - nomads who came from Sudan, a journey of a thousand kilometers, and their camels walking alongside. The camels are their life, sometimes even more precious than life, and yet here in the camel market on the outskirts of Cairo they part from them with complete and utter indifference, because the concept of coddling is not something these lifelong desert travelers are familiar with. They speak in the camels' language, with grunts and inhuman sounds and mighty whacks with a stick. You see how each blow injures the camel's skin, splits it, while they take no notice. And to keep the camels from fleeing their masters, they bend one leg and tie it. It must be very painful for the animal.
Hundreds of camels cover the sandy expanse for as far as the eye can see. The weaker ones among them will end up as ground meat, and the stronger ones, who withstood the hardships of the journey, will be sold to farmers, to turn the pump wheels back and forth until they, too, weaken, and end up being ground into kebab. All these piteous camels, like so many domesticated dinosaurs.
We observed negotiations over the sale of one such dinosaur between a family of Sudanese and a fat Egyptian merchant with a thick gold pinkie ring. Each side came with an entourage in tow. The Egyptian offers a price; the Sudanese, the family patriarch, doesn't answer yes or no but instead starts up a great mourning dance - shrieking, tearing his tarbush from his head, beating his stick on the ground, while other family members hold onto him and start beating the limping flock of camels, and the frightened camels snort and grunt and skitter about and fart like mad. The argument is over 250 pounds one way or the other. The discussion goes on for over two hours. At last, the elder of the Sudanese nomads sits down exhausted on a wood pallet. A cloud of flies forms a halo around him. They've come to an agreement.
Then the camel is prodded to get into the fat man's truck. The camel doesn't want to cooperate, or simply can't, so they pull it with ropes, tie its neck, and it groaningly surrenders. Then comes the final parting ceremony. Not kisses and hugs. Instead they call over the "writer" - who brings his inkwell and brush and writes in blue, curly letters on the animal's body a blessing and the name of its new masters.
There's nothing in this wide domain apart from a great yellow expanse and a few huts, including the one where the slaughterer waits with his butcher's knife for the next animal in line. And a "teahouse," where the flies greatly outnumber anything else. But the proprietor will stand there proudly before his little cooking corner, waiting for the click of the camera, since he knows that somewhere out there, beyond all the camels and camel dung, there are marvelous lands where the people do nothing but look at pictures all day long.