Saturday 24 January 2009 – Cairo, Egypt
The Grand produced small felafels today on its breakfast board – these made tasty snacks for later in the day, as we skipped lunch in favour of an early dinner. To start this day exploring Islamic Cairo, we visited one mosque and the Souk el-Fustat selling wares by Upper Egyptian artisans. Unfortunately, despite Mike and Patricia’s efforts to forewarn and rustle up the shopkeepers, most of the shops were closed. Gradually a few opened and I bought a cotton bedspread and some Islamic design greeting cards.
The ‘Moroccan’ lanterns, now so popular in Australian backyards, are a striking feature of the Mosques.
Next stop was the Citadel, located on a hill and seemingly high above the city (infact not very high at all), the view across Cairo to the Pyramids at Giza was obliterated by a smog so thick that it was nearly impossible to see across the road. The muck also coated the inside of one’s mouth and presumably one’s lungs. Goodness knows how people live here.
Most of the group went into a third mosque, the oldest in Cairo. Jeff, Carol and I ducked into the adjacent Gayer Armstrong Museum, which Carol had read about in a guide book. It had been the home of a British officer who lived in Cairo before WWII, who had painstakingly restored an old house and filled it with an eclectic collection of antiquities and artworks – quite a find.
Then we hit the ‘Khan’ – the Khan al-Khalili Bazaar. It offered all the tourist tatt we’d come to know and love up and down the country, and plenty more besides. This huge souk is still used by locals. There is a concentrated tourist section in the centre, but move a few metres either side and one is in distinctly local territory – but the hawkers will still be happy to sell you whatever you’re looking for. For all its legendary pushiness, I found it no worse than the souk in Aswan, which according to reports from Patricia and Chris, sounds like has lost some of its provincial friendliness and charm. It was certainly no worse than the souk in Luxor in this regard.
Chris and I started with a cup of coffee to recharge, then set off. I bought some more Aswani woollen scarves, then we found some tee shirts (Stella – what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger!) and some sweet wee hats (I had been considering a fez but the quality is very poor, so these embroidered numbers were a good substitute). We bought a couple of the embroidered shirts that the women of the group have been wearing. Of course on getting back to the hotel we discover they don’ fit us, but will do for gifts.
We had an early dinner at the Khan al-Khalili restaurant, having paused earlier for coffee in the Naguib Mahfouz coffee house in the same place, slap in the centre of the Khan. This, while not spectacular, was one of the best meals I’ve had in Egypt – slow cooked lamb shanks and baked potatoes – a bit greasy but with plenty of onion and pepper in them. No alcohol, so lemonade watered down to reduce the sweetness was the go.
Then we headed across the road from the Khan to the Wikala of Al-Khouri to see the Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe, a band of Sufic dancers, Egypt’s version of the whirling dervishes of Turkey. This was the one and only thing in Egypt that came truly free – no baksheesh, no hidden charges. Apparently the government funds this troupe as part of its religious and cultural activities. There is a nightly performance at 8.30, but we arrived more than an hour early to ensure good seats (Mike had brought a gift for the director whom he had previously met). Given the shonky standards of practically everything we’d experienced in Egypt, especially anything to do with dealing with the public or presentation of culture, my expectations as we waited were not high.
I was most thoroughly and pleasantly surprised. The performance was slick and professional and the performers had enormous charm. They drummed, played and whirled through an hour and a half long show that owed at least as much to Broadway showmanship and stage craft as it did to ancient religious observances and had me completely entertained – a surprising, utterly unexpected and charming experience.
A taxi ride back to the Grand was another exciting but less charming experience; then to bed after a very long day.