Journal: Monday 9 March 1998
I had been in Egypt for a week but as usual it felt like I had been here forever. The el-Gezira Hotel had become home and our forays each day to the Valley of the Kings and to spend time with old and new friends on the West Bank had become our daily routine.
Today we decided to have a break from The Valley and had arranged to meet up for lunch with some English ex-pat friends at the Amoun restaurant in Luxor. We enjoyed a leisurely lunch sitting outside in the mild March sunshine and the conversation inevitably got around to buying food in Luxor. David is passionate about bacon, which apparently is a rarity here as Egyptian Muslims don’t eat pork. Whenever anyone is coming from England the only thing he asks them to bring is bacon. It is available in Cairo, but here in Luxor there is only one Christian shop where it can be bought and then only occasionally in the winter months. Being vegetarian I had never thought about the difficulties of buying and eating meat here. I had always averted my eyes when passing the butchers shops displaying decapitated heads of unidentified animals and bloody carcasses hanging outside covered with flies which well outnumber customers. David excitedly told us he had found a supermarket where he could buy frozen chicken – most Egyptians would be happier to buy a live one to kill and eat fresh. He suggested we accompany him on his afternoon shopping trip.
We first walked to the top of Market Street to the local bazaar, skirting open drains surrounded by muddy pools of fetid water, past the heaps of produce arranged on the ground. There were many strange fruits and vegetables I didn’t recognise and I had to ask the names of several of these. We walked through the street past coffee shops where men sat placidly drinking glasses of tea and smoking aromatic shisha. Black-clad women strolled about with baskets balanced on their heads, selecting their goods carefully while gossiping with friends and children scampered about everywhere. When they saw us they begged for pens, sweets or baksheesh, shouting and clutching at our clothes. The noise was deafening and the aromas of fruit, spices, coffee and incense pervaded everything.
David introduced us to his favourite supermarkets – a relatively new concept in Luxor at the time – which he called the ‘Pink Shop’ and the ‘Green Shop’ (identified by the colour of their facades). The Pink Shop, on Sharia Mabad el-Karnak was the cheapest but the Green Shop just off Television Street was better stocked, he told us. He bought his frozen chicken and some frozen prawns and filled his basket with all sorts of western-type foods, including Pepsi, potato crisps, and even English Cadbury’s chocolate bars, eventually dragging his basket to the checkout delighted with his purchases. I hate shopping for food at home, but I had to admit that I do take a well-stocked supermarket for granted. Robin and I bought some hard salty cheese and some crisps to snack on later. Luxor has a unique variety of foods, not too spicy but well-flavoured with herbs and a large number of restaurants where authentic Egyptian food can be sampled. There are also many tourist restaurants, some set up by ex-pats and offering entirely Western food, while other well-known chains are beginning to appear. The first of these in Luxor was McDonald’s whose pyramid-shaped glass facade and huge neon sign just behind Luxor Temple, I considered to be an outrage.
Egypt, as a predominately Muslin country, forbids alcohol to the adherants of Islam, but having said that, the rules are fairly relaxed compared to other Muslim countries and the consumption of alcohol for non-Muslims and foreigners is tolerated. It is also quietly consumed by a great many Egyptian men whose favourite tipple seems to be whisky and we had been asked several times if we could buy whisky or beer from the duty-free shop for them. Alcoholic drinks are freely available in tourist hotels and a few restaurants, especially a local Stella beer and some reasonable Egyptian wines such as Cru du Ptolemy or Cleopatra. David told us of a Christian-owned off-licence on Station Street where we could buy bottles of wine (but it is expensive).
Walking down through the bazaar, gradually more and more tourist stalls and shops became apparent, then a few tourists themselves, trying ineffectually to ward off unwanted items thrust at them by persistent salesmen. This is the suq and I love it! However, at this time because there were so few tourists here many of the stalls were closed and a dismissive wave of the hand and a curt ‘La Shukran’ no longer deterred these aggressively proficient (and desperate) shopkeepers. It all felt very sad. Usually the suq is a wonderful collection of cheap, tawdry, rare and valuable all brought together in a shopper’s paradise – especially if you’re interested in Egyptian souvenirs. A number of high quality goods are to be had if you choose carefully, often at bargain prices, including carpets and rugs, cotton clothing, inlaid goods, such as backgammon boards, jewellery and leather goods, music tapes and papyrus. Perfumes and spices are among the most popular things bought by tourists. Herbs and spices can be bought at many colourful stalls in the suq and are generally of a higher quality and much cheaper than those available in Western supermarkets.
Finally we arrived at David’s favourite store, the Government Shop on Cleopatra Street, where prices are fixed and cheap. A large dingy establishment boasting three floors, this is the closest Luxor comes to a department store with a stock of basic household items from teaspoons to washing machines. On the ground floor was mostly carpeting (some beautiful rugs) and children’s clothing, with gas ovens and fridges thrown in, seemingly as an afterthought. Up a crumbling concrete staircase was a mezzanine, where underclothing, shoes, suitcases and bags, pots and pans, crockery and small electrical appliances could be found and where sleepy salesmen dozed behind their dusty counters. The top floor was dominated by furniture, dusty old armchairs and sofas, all unfailingly upholstered in drab colours. There was also a fabric department, mostly cheap cotton prints, glossy bolts of velour and a few furnishing fabrics in either geometric designs or full-blown cabbage roses. The plain, peach coloured fabric David was looking for was not available, and he was told that new stock arrives about every six weeks. His DIY project would have to wait.
We all had a cold drink at a juice stall. Delicious fresh juices are sold widely in street stalls in Egypt – sugar cane (kasab), mango (manga), strawberry (farawla), pomegranate (rummaan), orange (burtukaan), lemon (limun), or whatever is in season, is freshly pressed while you wait. Here we parted company, David to catch an arabeya back to his house in a village just outside Luxor and Robin and I to get the ferry back over the river to our West Bank ‘home’ at Gezira. Shopping today in Luxor had been an interesting new experience!