Journal: Saturday 16 December 1995
The traffic in Cairo was truly terrifying. The roads are clogged with all kinds of transport. Coaches and microbuses, taxis and private cars vie for every centimetre of tarmac with donkey-carts and bicycles. Every vehicle was so covered in dents and scratches that I was amazed the roads were not littered with accident victims as the locals dodged and danced around the moving cars. Traffic police waved their arms and blew their whistles but seemed to be ignored by the throbbing motorised monster that breathed noxious fumes over city. Sometimes one of the city’s battered windowless buses would speed past our coach within a hair’s breadth, crammed with passengers, many of whom were clinging on to the back bumper and each other for a free ride. The buses never seemed to stop for passengers who just hopped on and off like trapeze artists whenever the traffic was slow enough. And the worst of all this was the din of accelerating engines, squealing brakes and the incessant use of the horn, that was apparently obligatory.
By some lucky chance we arrived unscathed at the Khan el-Khalili, said to be the biggest bazaar in the Arab world. The original building of this famous suq was constructed in 1382 by Amir Garkas el-Khalili and later became a caravanserai, a hostelry for travelling merchants from all over the world, in downtown Cairo’s area of affluence and commerce. I saw the Khan el-Khalili as a labyrinth of narrow streets and passageways, sometimes covered over, where many craftsmen work in gold, silver, brass, leather, glassware and stones. There were shops which could make a shirt or galabeya while you wait, shops selling wonderful perfumes and incense and many coffee shops where the local men congregate to drink tea and smoke shisha. It is almost impossible to describe the chaos of texture, colour and smell in the Khan. A riot of brilliantly coloured carpets and fabrics covered the walls and in some of the narrower streets were draped overhead, giving the impression of being in a long tent. Peacock-blue Egyptian glass crafted into all kinds of shapes, sparkled in an occasional shaft of sunlight and competed with brightly polished brass and silverware for brilliance. Every kind of smell assaulted the nose in turn; piquant herbs and spices, fragrant perfumes and incense and the inviting aroma of strong Turkish coffee mingled together with the less appealing odour of animals and humanity. We were dropped off at el-Hussein Square and given an hour to browse the thousands of shops and stalls offering every type of souvenir. Those of us who were looking to spend money found plenty of variety and the fierce competition made it worth practising our bargaining skills. From each kiosk came cries of ‘Just take a look’ and ‘How can I take your money today?’ or ‘I have exactly what you’re looking for’, as hundreds of hopeful dark eyes followed our slow progress along the street. We were afraid of losing our bearings among the narrow alleyways and as we didn’t really have time to go very far into the bazaar, my friends and I decided we would come back later in the evening.
When we did go back to the Khan we felt very daring as we took our first thrilling ride in a taxi across the city from our hotel. We leisurely browsed the suq’s tiny streets and dark alleys, now lit up by thousands of star-shaped brass lanterns and bare electric light bulbs, giving a warm yellow glow to the dark evening. The atmosphere felt very different at night, somehow more mellow and intimate. There were a lot of Cairene families in the streets, out for an evening stroll with their small children, all dressed in their best clothes. We joined some of them in a famous coffee shop called Fishawi’s where we sat outside at a brass-topped table in the alleyway and watched the whole world go by. I even risked having a Turkish coffee, a strong aromatic beverage served in a tiny cup with thick sludgy coffee grounds in the bottom. There is an art to drinking this coffee which I have perfected since becoming addicted to it. One of my friends asked for shisha, the water-pipe that is a trademark of Arabic countries, with it’s wonderfully fragrant tobacco in flavours such as apple, honey or cherry, and this event became an amusing interlude for the locals. On the journey back to the hotel around midnight, through streets still thronged with the bustle of people and traffic, I thought about my day. There had been so many new and stimulating sights and sounds that I decided Cairo may not be such a bad place after all.