Egypt, Writing

By the meter

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.

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