I am an incorrigible nester, give me a hole in the wall and I will bring scraps of magazines, ticket stubs, and what ever else I can find to make it feel like home. The quandary I am faced with now is: what do I do with my new huge blank slate of a flat, given that I have very few possessions with me in Cairo, I am living off my savings, and I may only stay here for two months.
The answer goes something like this…
I have narrowed my list down to the items out of which I can get the most bang for my buck. Number one: mats for the floor, to break up the hypnotizing black and white checked tiles. Number two: some kind of cloth (cotton please!!! not as easy as one would think in the cotton capital of the world) to as wall hangings, tablecloths, bedspreads whatever. Number three: lights, strings of small bulbs, large bulbs, white, colored or led, anything to mediate the garish glow of the long fluorescent bulbs installed in my flat. Number four: some king of coffee maker, so I can stop brewing it Turkish style in my cup. Number five: clothing hangers.
I meet my friend Rahma in downtown Cairo after my Arabic class is over. I met Rahma on the train back from Aswan Saturday, she was with her family and friends, ten all together. They saved me from a 14 hour train ride with no seat… a long story I have not had time to put down yet. We look at my list and head for Al Moski street near Old Cairo. This area borders the famous, touristy and overpriced Khan el-Khalili but caters to Egyptians with shops dedicated to singular items, indeed streets full of shops dedicated to singular items such as shoes, speakers, rugs, bedding, curtains, upholstery fabric, small appliances, so on and so forth. We weave and wind our way through the maze of goods and cars and people. We are looking for item number one, the most difficult. Everyone thinks we want rugs. Finally I see the rattan type matting I am looking for on the wall of a stall selling Bedouin style wool carpets, I wish I could buy those, but they are more expensive, we get directions to the place he bought his matting. Two rights and a left, through narrow alleys towering with rolled up rugs, it seems a wild goose chase, we ask again, the man says he is looking also and there is none, ma feesh, but we won’t give up.
As we continue walking we pass a mosque with piles of handmade baskets outside, asking again we encounter an old man in a simple gray galabea, white cotton scarf wrapped around his head, checked red and white Bedouin scarf around his neck. With a broad smile a few teeth short he speaks so softly that Rahma must lean very close to understand him. He has no mats but can bring them tomorrow, wait sit here he says he will bring us one maybe and will we take a drink. He disappears like a sprite of the city into the alleys of the souk. We wait perched on stools at the entrance to the mosque, men passing with shoes in various stages of being taken off or put on as the answer the day’s last call to prayer. When we see him again he is a small dot growing larger at the center of the kaleidoscope, as his form resolves it reveals the load he is carrying: handwoven straw mats. We barter, we sit, the men roll and tie two mats in a bundle with strings for carrying, we drink glass bottled orange sodas and leave with a 2 x 3 meter and a 1 x 3 meter mat and a small basket.
The rest of my haul… one Egyptian coffee pot, 7 meters of colorfully designed Egyptian cotton cloth (which cost just over $1 per meter!), 6 meters of a quite Provencal pattern of cloth, 1.5 meters of sheer white cloth to screen my first floor balcony from the street, sandalwood incense, and a package of 12 clothes hangers.
Between excursions on the streets of Cairo building my life of the next few months, I am in my restful moments visiting the Middle East of another era, gobbling up Desert Queen, the biography of Gertrude Bell written by Janet Wallach. In it she describes a Baghdad I long to breath, feel touch, a Baghdad I mourn, a Baghdad who is nothing like the image Americans have of her, nor her reality today which seems sacrilege in light of this Baghdad we will never know. Bell wrote,
“The citadel on the Tigris, built by the Abbassid Caliph Mansur eight centuries after the birth of Christ, one century after the death of the Prophet Muhammed, flourished for five hundred years. The heart of the Abbassid empire, it was the largest, most prosperous city in the world. More than a million people, of every imaginable race, color, and creed, filled its narrow streets, worked in its shops, bathed in its bathhouses, gossipped in its coffeehouses. Sophisticated and cosmopolitan, the Baghdad of a thousand years ago boasted of bookstores and literary salons, banks and commercial houses, gardens and zoos. Its writers and poets produced some of the Arab world’s greatest literature and translated into Arabic the works of Euclid, Plato and Aristotle. Its mathematicians, calculating in Arabic numbers, introduced the concept of zero; its scientists built an astronomical observatory and studied the round surface of the earth; its physicians earned their degrees in medical schools and served in public hospitals; its businessmen cashed checks at bank branches as far away as China. The cargo ships that sailed its river carried in gold from Africa, silver and spices from India, porcelains from China, pearls from the Gulf. Traders from East Africa arrived with ivory; desert caravans from Turkestan brought in slaves. In return Baghdadi merchants exported to the world the finest cotton shirts, thick cotton towels, fanciful turbans of colored silk, healing oils and potions, excellent swords, fine leather good and paper.”
Though most of this was gone well before Europeans arrived something was left in Gertrude’s time, during World War I.
“… here and there grand Ottoman buildings of yellow brick, two or three stories high, stretched across acres of green grass; slender minarets and domed mosques glittered in the sunlight; statuesque palm groves fringed the city. Verdant gardens brought relief from the hot dry sun, and the perfume of jasmine, roses, oranges, lemons, peaches and pomegranates wafted through the early morning air.”
I wonder what Baghdad smells like this morning.
I ventured out today to get my bearings of the city and be able to at least find my own way back to the hostel. I ended up putting a deposit on a flat in downtown for two weeks from now, having not even begun the search.
I stepped off of the sidewalk into the street, stepping haltingly carefully calculating so as to avoid bodily contact with the cars moving around me at barely diminished speed. Hijacking the path of a young Egyptian man in front of me I made it across, he adopting my cause. Unobtrusively (which is rare) he began to speak to me and offered to show me an Arabic language school he knows of, my actual mission for the day. In typical fashion we first stopped at his shop, which happens to sell oils, papyrus wall hangings, and other typical Egyptian souvenirs. Over coffee and my clear expression of no intent to buy I learn that Abdullah and his family are from Fayoum in the south of Egypt, it was his grandfather’s shop and Muhammed Ali shopped here (photos on the wall to prove it). The ceiling is elaborately painted with designs in the style of these old buildings, little lasting has changed about them over the last hundred years it seems. Reluctantly I succumb and buy a small bottle of sandalwood (good for the sun in Aswan where I will go next week) for 30 Egyptian pounds which equals about $6. I also receive a half bottle gift of eucalyptus oil (good for clearing the sinuses, headache, and especially if you smoke, which I do here because shisha is impossible for me to resist).
This episode, which I seem unable to avoid though it is like clockwork, could have been occurring one hundred times over, all across Cairo, and is indeed a repetition of my own previous experiences here. What followed was new to me. Upon hearing that I would stay in Cairo and would be looking for a flat to rent, his friend Mohammed is called on the scene. An apartment broker (the way everything is done here), he proceeded to show me one apartment that was too big, too expensive, and too dark, after haggling with the doorman and waking the current tenant. We spoke a bit about what I was looking for: small, cheap, no a/c, windows that open; with a glint in his eye he turned and lead the way around parked cars and street vendors, down streets at pace I could barely keep up with never mind being able to retrace my steps. Finally we take a left down a small side street, calm and residential, the five story buildings leave a generous strip of darkened evening sky overhead. We walk past workshops still open, men young and old sanding old wooden furniture by hand in the doorways. We arrive to an old building, light 1950’s bathroom green with an ornately carved grass green door, the owner isn’t there. The guys next door working don’t know his phone number. The woman in the window on the fourth floor speaks to Mohammed and sends a piece of paper fluttering down with the number, she doesn’t open the door. The number is wrong. Her husband comes to the window, he has called the owner and he is coming to meet us. We wait.
He arrives, a polished middle-aged business man in a western style suit. We see the first apartment, it is simple, two furnished rooms, an eating area, kitchen and bathroom. Television, fans, cooking pans, hot water on demand, an Egyptian style washing machine that he promises to teach me how to use. They are good people I see that. Tenants pass and great him warmly, the neighbors were respectful while we were waiting, they didn’t open the building to us: strangers. We haggle with Mohammed translating, it is a good price but stretches my budget, he asks 2500 Egyptian pounds originally and comes down to 2000 right away, that is what the Sudanese couple upstairs are paying. My mind is racing it is till too much, this is all happening so quickly, I wasn’t even looking for a flat today, I don’t know if my Greek friend will join me or when to share the expense, should I stay at the hostel where it is cheaper but full of English speakers, will I even stay in Cairo or will I want to go to Aswan…
He agrees to 1800 LE. I don’t want it now but in two weeks. Two people call to take it while we are talking, it’s not going to work. Does he have anything free in two weeks? The Sudanese couple are leaving, they are on their honeymoon, it is the same apartment, the fridge is older but the tv newer. I have to leave a deposit to hold it. He will give it back if I change my mind.
Twenty minutes later I have a receipt written in Arabic and English, signed Mohay, for 1000 LE.