Friday, September 8, 2000
The Streets of Old
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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