Muslim Matrimonials and More's Egyptian Tales, by Youssuf El-Kalay

Friday, September 8, 2000

The Streets of Old Cairo

by Youssuf El-Kalay

Asalamu Aliakom wa Rahmatu Allahu Wa Barakatu

Welcome back to another installment of (drum roll please) EGYPTIAN TAAAAAAAAALES. I hope you all liked last week's story. Insha'Allah in the upcoming weeks I'll be writing some more stories about my adventures in Alexandria. So stay tuned. For now read on to get a taste of Old Cairo.

A crowded marketplace

One of the qualities of Egypt that has always fascinated me is its cosmopolitan combination of old and new. To this day you will still find people riding horse drawn carts in the middle of bumper to bumper traffic. You can even find people buying food at a fruit stand, whilst talking on their cell phones.

This clash of old versus new was almost too much for me to handle. Yet it wasn't until I visited Old Cairo that I began to appreciate this combination. The Old Cairo district contains the famous Masjid Al Hussein and was also the former location of Al-Azhar University. During the day this area is normally semi crowded, but at night it transforms into something wondrous. The sheer excitement of being among so many Muslims is truly something to experience.

It was a hot Saturday night and I decided to tour the streets of Old Cairo with my good friend Husaam. As we were both visiting from the United States, we both had no clue where to start. On the advice of his mother we hired Uncle Nazeeh, an old taxi driver with a great sense of humor, to take us there.

A taxi zooms through Cairo

Although not officially a tour guide, Uncle Nazeeh decided to give us a mini tour of Old Cairo. Our first stop was Masjid Al Hussein. This masjid is named after the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. As we entered the masjid I noticed the ornate Islamic calligraphy bordering its walls. A flood of light came from the magnificent chandeliers hanging from the ceiling shining on the lush red carpeting. The interior of Masjid Al Hussein was breathtaking. We prayed Salat al Maghrib there, and continued on our journey through Old Cairo.

Next up was Khan Al Khaleeli, also known as the Egyptian bazaar. Khan Al Khaleeli is a long windy road that consists of many narrow streets and twisty alleys. Inside this bazaar you will find many shopkeepers selling all sorts of things. From elegant papyrus to expensive gold diamond rings, it's all there. In fact including the Pyramids it is one of sights that attract many tourists visiting from outside Egypt.


An alley in the Khan Al Khaleeli

As I walked through Khan Al Khaleeli I couldn't help but feel in total awe. It was like being transported back in time, to an era long forgotten. I could see people everywhere, talking and bustling about in a rush. We even passed by a street café, full of people sitting back and enjoying one another's company. Uncle Nazeeh mentioned that summertime was an important season for the merchants of Khan Al Khaleeli. For it was during this time that they would make the bulk of the money that would feed their families for the rest of the year.

A brass shop in the Khan Al Khaleeli

Soon enough Husaam and I were drawn to a small corner shop selling an assortment of papyrus and ancient Egyptian style stoneware. The owner of the store greeted us, "As-salamu Alaykum" he said. We replied "Wa Alaykum As-salam" and asked about his merchandise. He claimed to have the finest papyrus in the whole of Khan Al Khaleeli. On one shelf he had several papyrus with Islamic calligraphy on them. While the beauty of the papyrus papers enthralled me, Husaam carefully reminded me that everything came with a price. Shuffling through the stack of papyrus, I found one with Ayat Al Qursi on it. How could I not purchase this parchment with the beautiful words of Allah? I was sold right there and then. The shopkeeper saw what I had chosen and immediately said "forty five pounds". Uncle Nazeeh looked at the shopkeeper sternly and said, "I am sure you can do better than that," referring to the elevated price of the papyrus. After five minutes of haggling we managed to bring the price down to twenty pounds. As we walked out of the store, Uncle Nazeeh mentioned that haggling was a skill and that one should never be pressured into buying merchandise at an excessively high price.

A pottery seller in the Khan Al Khaleeli

It was getting late when Husaam mentioned that we should retire for the night. As we walked towards Uncle Nazeeh's taxi, I saw an old man in a dark corner selling what looked to be miniature books. Looking closely at the books, I realized that the books were copies of Al Quran Al Kareem. By coincidence I had been looking for a pocket Quran to purchase, so I knew that Allah had opened the doors for me and allowed me to stumble upon this seller. On the table were a variety of masahif (texts) with different case styles. Some had zippered cases, others had buttoned ones. There were so many to choose from. After deliberating which case I liked the most, I chose one with a green leather buttoned casing. Thoughts of haggling for the Quran crossed my mind. I turned around and said to Uncle Nazeeh, "It would not be appropriate to haggle for the words of Allah, would it?" He nodded in agreement and I paid the seller what he wanted. It was later that I realized, the words of Allah had no finite price, for they are truly priceless in their virtue.

I came away from my journey through Old Cairo with greater appreciation for the age and tradition of Egypt, a treasure that must not become lost in the blandness and homogeneity of the modern world. While the clash between old and new had dumbfounded me earlier, I have slowly come to understand that old and new in Egypt aren't really fighting for domination, they are truly side by side, both physically and in the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people. This is both the mystery and wonder of this most ancient of civilizations.

Till next time insha Allah.

Youssuf El-Kalay has lived in Scotland, Egypt, Bahrain, and the United States, and currently resides in Southern California. It is his hope that through his stories, you the reader will be able to experience some of his adventures and the lessons he has learned from them.

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