Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bombs in the Khan al-Khalil

I heard this morning about the bombing at the Khan al-Khalil bazaar in Cairo.

My One True Love and I visited the Khan back in January 2004 - we were on a short trip to Egypt, a break from work in Dubai (me) and a chance for some exotica outside Melbourne (him). The Khan was simultaneously one of our favourite places and one of our least favourite. For me, it was the place I found Islamic Cairo at last, and one of the places I felt the most relaxed, and comfortable.

The taxi we caught downtown was driven by a man with no English at all. When we got into it outside the Citadel, the man who got out of it had to interpret the directions for us both.

Not a word passed between us on the short and extremely frightening drive between the Citadel and the Midan Hussein (Egyptians have a way of driving six lanes deep across a three-lane road). But when we handed the driver a twenty pound note - for a seven pound journey, the equivalent of about three dollars - he broke into a huge and toothless smile, and waved it at us happily before screaming off into the traffic again.

The Midan Hussein is a famous square in the section of the city they call Islamic Cairo. It's a square surrounded by mosques. I counted four, all with different stonework and decoration and beggars out the front. This was the place we were trying to get to when we were dropped off in the wrong place and swallowed up by the crowds a few nights earlier.

We didn’t immediately turn left towards the Khan al-Khalili. We turned right instead, and not two minutes later we found ourselves in an entirely different world.

The winding alley in front of us was packed earth, not bitumen. The buildings around us were built in the 15th century, in the traditionally ornate Islamic style. The old women tending their stalls were craggy and weather-beaten; brown as berries with sunken mouths and gummy smiles. They watched over wicker baskets filled with oranges, or flat bread, or limes.

Dogs were yapping at the heels of stonemasons cutting enormous pieces of stone with crude axes – making the same marks I’d seen on the pyramids a few days before – to mend the crumbling buildings.

There were vegetable shops, including one that sold just cauliflowers stacked up to the ceiling, and as we wandered past one open store I noticed the bleeding pigs trotters, brain and intestines laid out enticingly on a plate on the front step. Mmm… brains….

There were piles of flat unleavened bread as high as my waist, and old men sitting on steps sucking shisha pipes and coughing through the gaps where their teeth should have been. Sacks of spices crowded up alongside the live chickens and roosters, and over on a table in the corner of one shop a huge turkey fanned out its tail and turned haughtily round in a circle, bobbing its head regently and fluffing its feathers.

I took a few pictures, anxious to document this part of the city, the part I’d been looking for and finally found. I took some pictures of the chickens in their cages, and the man who ran the store was completely taken aback when I tried to give him some money (just fifty piastres) in thanks. As we wandered along the alleys I found a few people craning their necks towards me to try and get into my photos, and a few people pulling their hijabs, keffiyahs and abayas over their heads to make sure they didn’t.

Eventually we were joined by a girl who wandered along beside us without saying anything, but who was clearly filled with intent. She had dark eyes, and dark hair, and beautiful olive skin.

Eventually she asked me my name, and when I asked hers in return she smiled and said “Dhasmila”. She held a child in her arms, a fat baby boy about six months old with the oddest looking eyes I’ve ever seen on a baby, eyes that were pale and round and fixated on the cucumber he kept trying to grab from Dhasmila with his fat little fingers.

Dhasmila and the baby posed for me while I took their picture. This girl couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven at most, yet she seemed clear and calculating in a way that was unusual. She unbalanced me slightly, and I wondered if she would remember us the way I knew I would remember her.

I don't expect she did. I suspect for her, I was just another tourist in the alley of her home, just someone else who wanted a photo.

Slightly unsettled, we wandered back over at the Khan al-Khalili, fending off hawkers and beggars and hustlers, and just ambling up and down the streets looking at all the tourist tat. We didn’t buy a tote bag decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphs. I didn’t buy a belly-dancing costume. My One True Love did buy a fez for our friend, one of The Renovators, back in Melbourne – we looked through a huge pile and chose the best one we could find, with decoration on the inside; and I bought a mug covered in hieroglyphics for my father The Scientist.

We ended up in a great café right on the edge of the Midan Hussein square, drinking hot milky chocolate and smoking shisha – helped along by the over-attentive men who ran the place, who enthusiastically kept the charcoal burning and often pulled the pipe away from us and sucked on it powerfully “to make sure it was working properly”. Very kind of them. But it was great fun anyway.

As the evening drew on we waved away the cigarette sellers who kept approaching us among our warren of chairs, and soon the café owners got the idea and started shooing them away on our behalf.

They did, however, urge me to engage with the tattered man who was selling beautiful wool wraps – and in the end I bought a gorgeous red one for 50 pounds (outrageous! Worth no more than 30, but never mind) which I’m very taken with. Though there was little call to wear it in Dubai of course – I hardly needed anything woollen the entire time.

Sitting outside the cafe though, the one quite near to yesterday's bomb, I was also chatted up – I think – by a Saudi in Western dress, who kept me in occasional conversation while his wife looked out from under her veil and said nothing.

She kept a gentle hand on their little boy’s arm, and the only emotion she showed took the form of an invisible corona of ice that flamed from her, fiery and cold, like a comet burning up at the edges, when the Saudi pressed his phone number on me.

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