Updated: Sep 15, 2020
I am suffering badly from wanderlust. I know I am not alone. My cave in Cappadocia, Turkey complete with Persian carpet was cancelled earlier this year and though I know I am experiencing a very privileged sadness, I am feeling it all the same.
I’m therefore going back in time, to one of my favourite adventures in Egypt. Last week’s essay about the Alexandrian library brought it to mind. My adventure was nothing to do with barges on the Nile or pyramids in the sand – though I of course enjoyed and was in awe of both – but the ancient market of Khan El Khalili, Cairo.
Khan El Khalili embodies layer upon layer of history – established as commercial precinct during the Mamluk period (14th-15th centuries). The market (souk) smacks of the fervour of its trading history; the scent of spices, feel of textures, and the heady fragrances of ouds and foods and sweat - while your eye is continually caught by glistening glass bottles with stoppered tops, or the glint of gold and silver, or the rich hues of woven carpets spilling out from ceiling high piles …
My adventure began with the call of nature. Yep, I badly needed to find a bathroom and had no idea where to go. I asked the waiter at one of the outdoor cafes that abound in front of Khan El Khalili. (*To note, Nobel prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz's novel ‘Midaq Alley’ (1947) was set in an alley round the corner to where I was sitting at that very moment and I did eventually visit).
My smiling young waiter Yusef happily obliged. I thought we’d head somewhere close-by but was I very, very wrong. We headed into the very deepest recesses of Khan El Khalili. We moved down alleys and corridors and up rickety staircases at a swift pace, passing by and through rooms full of shisha-smoking men, women sewing beads on garments, women and children gathered round a table eating ... and yet another where a group of women were cooking what looked like a mountain of flatbread over an open flame in the middle of the room. Another room again was stacked with old books piled floor-to-ceiling, and another was a tailor’s studio with an old man hunched over an equally old sewing machine surrounded by colourful garments. There were rooms where beads was being strung, leather was being polished, black and white photos being sorted. It was an absolute hive of industry unfurling with every step.
I was completely disorientated. My charming young waiter kept looking over his should, smiling and laughing at me and I realised that if I lost him in this maze of alleys, rooms, corridors and stairways I’d never find my way out! Khan El Khalili is a huge area and I had no sense of the direction from which we’d come or how far horizontally or vertically we’d travelled.
We finally reached a room and I was told to stop. We’d been moving so quickly I was puffing. He left me and suddenly he was ushering some men and boys out the door past me before he swept me inside. I tentatively made me way to a cubicle and realised there was not lock on the door. Suddenly a sandalled toe appeared under the door and held it shut for me. What a hero and a gentleman was my young guide!
I have never forgotten either journey there or back. I felt I was shown an industrious village within this ancient complex where any Western WHS agent would have had a breakdown; open flames, piles of papers, a patina of grime, cartons of vegetables, giggling children, the smells of delicious food, shisha and more shisha smoking gatherings … but far more memorable were the amused and friendly faces smiling at a wide-eyed blonde women being whisked through their environment by a laughing teenager. Even in memory, the colours and smells and textures and banter between my waiter and the inhabitants of this place come back to me.
On being safely deposited back at the point from whence we started – a good 30 minutes later - Yusef gave me a little bow and I gave him a little gift of gratitude for my adventure.
I loved Cairo. The verdant fertility of those strips on either side of the Nile is extraordinarily, the rich silt assuring anything and everything that touches this soil springs up with extraordinary lushness. My time there coincided with Eid al-Fitr and I was surprised to find large groups of young men roaming the streets. On questioning I discovered that the girls were not just absent due to social mores of modesty but also because they were probably at home preparing feasts to celebrate these traditional days of celebration.
Sadly, Egypt was experiencing remarkedly high youth unemployment at the time – it was two years before the Arab Spring in 2011 – and these aimlessly wandering groups of young men were a tragic economic casualty in this ancient city, though parts were still so full of human industry and enterprise.