April 14, 2008
As we wandered the streets in the old section of town on Monday night, we came upon a section of open-stalled shops serving drinks and food and selling rugs and clothing and most anything else you might need. This section was only two blocks from the heavily secured and touristed area known as Khan El Khali or Khali Kashlili and differed distinctly because it served the local peoples. The first photo to the left is of the bazaar at the former. Take a look. Mainly westerners wandering around here looking for trinkets. This shop on Salah Salem Street was much like the others around it…. about ten feet wide and twenty deep. It was crusted with dust from the traffic and the goings on in the open air back room behind the closed doors in the rear. A cheap plastic-bladed fan blew incessantly, hanging from the wall, from which it hung with some copper wire.
This was a stalwart business here, the sugar cane juice shop. A man with the brightest smile you’ve ever seen stood behind the counter and served us a sweet concoction known as assab. It’s served in a glass with a metal handle. Our friend Sherif bought a round for the crew as we all leaned into the shop from the street. The liquid is soft green in color with a light foam on top. It’s cold and good and the man behind the counter smiles even broader when I suggest how much I like the drink. Dr. Amr, takes me through the back of the shop, opening a flimsy set of double doors, revealing an open air room covered in a foot of sugar cane stalks. There was a young man working on a machine that squeezed the canes, extracting the juice and pouring the richly colored stuff into large containers. “Don’t concern yourself with healthy (sic.) issues,” he says.
The man at the counter, Mohammed, acted as the Assab Barrista, doling out quantities of the juice to his customers and conversing with people as they slugged down his refreshing product. Most people seemed to chug the stuff. Here’s Greg getting his taste.
On another note I’d been interested in seeing some real Egyptian jewelry, but didn’t want the pressure of the bazaar and the wild energy that would erupt around a group of Americans with dollars in their hands. At some point I’d made this known to our hosts and without my knowledge they’d made some arrangements for Greg and I that were quite special. After downing our Assab, we walked a few stores up Salah Salem Street to the Egyptian equivalent of a chicken barbecue shop. The smell was great from the open flame wood-fired grill built into the long wall of the shop. Its grill was stacked with chicken parts. For westerners unfamiliar with the digestive mechanism of this part of town, this is one specialty we passed up. However, we weren’t brought there to eat.
Amr, led Greg and I through the shop to a set of steep stairs in the rear. At the top of the stairs were a set of glass doors that opened into an air conditioned room overlooking the street. Amr asked us to take a seat at one of the large round tables. Then a man came in carrying some suitcases. He was introduced as Mahmud, a friend of the family of Zaineb, one of the ZAD staff. She assured us he was an honest man and that he would show us some hand-made Egyptian jewelry and give us a good deal. So Greg and I sat there as Mahmud unloaded pile after pile of silver jewelry onto the table in front of us. The ZAD staff encircled the table eager to see what we might choose. That’s Dr. Amr Fass behind us with Zaineb to my right and Mahmud’s hands coming into the frame.
Note the plush penguin still along for the ride post-pyramid excursion. We used him to model our selections. Amr asked us to pick what we were interested in and when done to let him know.
http://www.youtube.com/get_playerAs soon as we did that, he and Mahmud began an animated negotiation in Arabic. I understood it to suggest something like,
“Give my friends your best price.”
“Sure, but they’re Americans, I have to make my money somehow!”
“You insult me, these men are my family.”
You get the picture, it’s all part of the package. They expect this kind of banter. In the end, a good price was offered and taken. Whatever the price, the experience as worth every pound. As soon as Greg and I finished our transactions, the gals of ZAD dismissed the men so that they could do some table-top shopping themselves.
One of the ZAD Group staff members assigned to assist us is Ahmed Idrain. He was at the event rooms before I showed up and stayed long after I made my way back to the hotel room. As most of the other ZAD staff, Ahmed is young, and full of passion. Just after our Assab and jewerlry buying experiences we stepped out onto the street in front of the Islamic University and watched flocks of doves (pigeons) move in that flowing way they do around the rooftops of buildings. As one flock burst toward one of the mosques with one bird leading the way Ahmed started to describe the pattern the birds used and why, relating it to the leadership conversation we’d been having all week. I managed to grab a snippet of him on video. Watch his hands, they are rather beautiful as he gestures.
Later we wandered into Khali Kashlili’s defenses to endear ourselves to the shopkeepers. “Hey mistah!” they’d shout as soon as they saw a westerner. “Tell me how I take your American money? I have many ways, but you tell me which you want.” Brash, bold, and kind of funny.
In the square in front of the mosque, (one of the largest in Cairo I was told,) there are a score of coffee shops and cafe’s. All of them overloaded with tourists….hardly an Egyptian among them. In fact it was so much an assumption that my host, Amr, was constantly spoken to in Spanish by the shopkeepers, mistaking him for someone of Hispanic decent. The perimeter of the square was held forth by Egyptian military and Cairo police armed to the teeth. We eagerly sipped espresso and mint tea under the watchful eye of these nameless guys with Kalishnikovs. Take a close look at this last photo. You’ll see one of them standing with another unarmed police officer.