Les épices du souk du Caire
Khan al-Khalili is the district of Cairo where guide-books send their followers to experience “Islamic Cairo” and its traditional souqs. Having spent the day walking around somewhere south of this district, the first time I crossed it, I did so by accident. The dusty, dirt streets were replaced by cobbled, paved roads; the bustle of the alleys replaced with hassle in the street; neat pyramids of colourful spices replaced pyramids of garlic. In the streets of Khan al-Khalili that are traced on a Lonely Planet map, the diversity of the real souq is lost to shiny models of camels & the pyramids, and ornate shishas, packaged ready to withstand the flight back to Europe.
Propositions of “yes sir, just looking!” replaced the calls for “kilo et-tamaatem, noos guinea!” (a kilo of tomatoes for half a pound); jewellery was proffered on the fingers of well-heeled men, whereas before young boys carried freshly baked bread on their heads. The khawaaga here is a walking wallet; half an hour previously it was just regarded with a slight intrigue.
As coaches bused in the tourists to see the “souq”, I felt less comfortable here than having been shoved around in the hubbub of the more populaire market nearer to the Atbara bus station. I’ve obviously spent too long in this region. But whilst I feel it’s a shame that all these people would have such a warped view of Cairo, returning home with stories of the “exoticism” of it all, I can’t help but savour the delight of seemingly having the rest of the place to myself.