Yesterday, Julia (a friend) and I went to the Khan el Khalili. It was my second trip there, but I never got around to writing a post about the first one. Other things kept popping up, and then my memories weren't as vivid, and I wasn't sure what to write. But now I've gone again, so I'll write about this trip instead of the first one.
The Khan is basically a bazaar. It's a rats' nest of narrow streets and alleys, with shops everywhere. I haven't seen anywhere near all of it, not even most of it, just one little corner. And I can't find my way around even that corner, so it's a good thing Julia was with me. The first time I was there, I bought a loose, lightweight cotton shirt in an Egyptian style from one of the shops where embassy people go regularly--after we've been escorted to the shop once by someone the shopkeeper knows, he recognizes us, and he offers us his best price without bargaining. It isn't exactly the "Egyptian price," the lowest price which is offered to Egyptians only, but it's about half of what most Westerners end up paying. I love the shirt in this heat, so I wanted more. Julia also wanted some, so the purpose of our trip to the Khan was to visit that shop and buy some shirts.
We took the embassy's family shuttle from Maadi to the embassy, then walked around until we were able to flag down a cab. The cab was typical of Cairo cabs: no air conditioner, no leg room, and insane driving. I counted at least 3 pedestrians that we almost creamed. Then there was the bus that almost creamed us. And then there was the other cabdriver, who apparently needed change, because after a discussion in Arabic through open windows, our driver rummaged in his dashboard compartment, pulled out a wad of bills, and handed it out through the window to the other driver, who handed a single bill back. All of this happened while we were still moving. But we finally arrived at the Khan.
We had the driver let us out on the side of the street opposite to the area of the Khan where we were going. We knew that there was a pedestrian tunnel there, which is a rarity in Cairo. We paid the driver LE20 (which made his day; he would have been happy with LE10, but we didn't have change, and we knew that cabbies always claim not to have change, and the difference is roughly $2, so we weren't worried about it).
We walked past a booth on the way to the tunnel entrance, or at least we would have walked past it, except that Julia noticed some rugs that she wanted to see. It turned out that the rugs weren't for sale; they were covering the real wares until someone showed interest in order to protect them from the dust. But the shopkeeper told us how to get to a different area where there were rugs for sale, lots of them, so we started heading that way. Then the shopkeeper decided to lead the way so we wouldn't get lost. We tried to dissuade him, but he wouldn't be dissuaded, and he said that he didn't need baksheesh (tip money). He claimed to want to practice his English. So he led us down the street and into the maze that is the Khan.
After one turn, we entered the spice area. It smelled wonderful! I wish I had taken my camera, so I could at least show you pictures. The shops had buckets sitting out piled high with various spices, all of them perfuming the air. I don't cook enough to know what any of them were, but they smelled delicious. After another turn, Julia lost confidence in her ability to find her way back out, and we didn't want to be at the mercy of our "guide," so she told him that we could see where the rug area began (we could), and that we thanked him for his services, but we were going to look at the spice shops before we went into the rug area. He eventually was persuaded that we were serious, and he left. Julia bought some cumin and some coriander, and we started heading back out to cross the main street and go back into the area of the Khan we know a little. We had taken about two steps when another man came up and started pressuring us to go to the rug section. We politely declined. My guess is that the first guy was taking us to a friend's shop, and when he couldn't get us all the way there, he sent the friend looking for us. I wouldn't have minded looking at the rugs, but like Julia, I didn't want to get lost back there and not know how to get back without help. And since we had a specific goal and limited time until the family shuttle we wanted to take back to Maadi, we went on our way.
We made our way back to the main street and found a pedestrian bridge. (Pedestrian tunnels and bridges are unheard of throughout most of Cairo, but with the Khan on both sides of a major 4- or 6-lane thoroughfare, there are more of them in that area.) Then we walked back up to the al-Husayn Mosque, which marks the entry that we have to use to the Khan if we want to be on the more familiar path to the gallabiya shop. (Gallabiyas are long, loose garments; the shop where we buy the shirts is actually a gallabiya shop.)
The Khan borders al-Husayn. When we reached the mosque, we turned left to walk along the border of the Khan. We found the narrow street where we wanted to enter--actually Julia found it; I was too busy watching my footing on the uneven cobblestones. We turned down the street and immediately were accosted with calls of "I have what you're looking for!", "I have good prices here," and variations on those themes. I believe it was the second alley on the right that we had to turn down to get to the gallabiya shop. I recognized it because of the jewelry shop at the corner; last time I there, they were offering very pretty strand necklaces for LE2.
The gallabiya shop isn't very far in that alley. It's right beside a glass shop that's owned by the same man--he owns factories that make glassware and clothing. We didn't look at the glass shop this time, but we did last time. There are beautiful figurines, wine glasses, vases . . . the whole second floor is devoted to Christmas ornaments. The workmanship is stunning, but I've never been a big fan of crystal or glassware, so it's a waste of the shopkeeper's time for me to even go in there. I think it'll be a different story when my mother or my mother-in-law come to visit me, though; they like those things a bit more.
We went into the gallabiya shop and were recognized immediately. Julia had been there at least two times previously, and I had been there once. Julia had special ordered some sand-colored gallabiyas for her nephews or some other children in her life; they wanted Jedi costumes for Halloween. This trip, she wanted shirts and to order a long brown vest-type garment that the kids could wear over the gallabiyas to enhance the costumes. After she had ordered the vests and arranged for delivery, the real shopping began. I ended up with five shirts. I think Julia got three. It didn't take us long. The shopkeeper showed us which section had the shirts in our size, neatly folded in plastic in a stack. We could see the colors of the shirts but not the designs. We pointed at the colors we liked, he pulled them out and let us see the designs, and we bought the ones we liked.
After we finished there, Julia asked if I minded if we went to the Crazy Brothers' shop. We left the gallabiya shop and headed back out to the original alley. We continued down it until we got to an intersection that we recognized because that's where Gouzlan's is. Gouzlan's is a very nice jewelry store that also offers lower pricing to our embassy community, with no haggling. We didn't go in this time, but we did last time. They have some beautiful gold necklaces, pendants, rings, and bracelets. Some are all gold, whereas others have malachite, lapis, onyx, and many other beautiful gemstones. They also do custom work, including silver and gold cartouches. Their prices are reasonable when you consider the price of gold and the stones; most of the jewelry is more than I'm willing to pay, but considerably cheaper than similar work would be in the States.
We continued past Gouzlan's, looking for the first left. We went a distance that we knew was too far, so we turned and headed back to Gouzlan's to try again. On the way, we recognized the stairway we needed to go up to get to the Crazy Brothers, so up we went.
The official name of their shop is The Three Brothers, but someone at the embassy started calling them The Crazy Brothers, and the name stuck among embassy personnel. I noticed this time that there's a sign out front of their shop, labelling it The Three Crazy Brothers. I don't remember if that sign was there last time. The Crazy Brothers are metalworkers. They make decorative copper, bronze, and iron plates, lanterns, tables, pots . . . you name it. They have a lot of merchandise available in their shop, or they can custom make whatever you want. They also get a lot of business from the embassy. Some of their specialties are nameplates in English and Arabic for the diplomats' desks. They also give us special pricing, although they'll bargain a little if you hesitate over buying something.
Julia was looking for a pot to use as a "trash can with personality." She looked at bronze ones, copper ones, and iron ones. She finally found one that she liked with a price that she liked. I don't remember was metal it was, but it was a good size for a trash can, and it had a slightly distressed, hammered look. It should look nice sitting in the living room waiting for her to throw her junk mail in it. One of the brothers also noticed me looking at some of the decorative plates, because I'd like to get one to display in our china cabinet. He tried really hard to sell me one, but I remembered that last time we were there, Jeff was very interested in those. I decided to wait until he can go back with me; since that's one of the few home decor things where I think he'd have a preference, I want his input when purchasing one.
After we finished at the Crazy Brothers, we walked around the little courtyard where their shop is located. Some of my favorite pieces that I saw there were chess sets. There were some made from marble that were really nice. My favorite had the "black" pieces made out of malachite, so they were actually green, and the white pieces out of marble. I considered buying a set as a gift, but I didn't know if the intended recipient even plays chess. I also saw some beautiful wood-inlay boxes. I'm not sure how to describe them, so instead I'll take a picture of a pencil holder that I bought the other day so you can get the idea. The boxes are similar in style, with various patterns of inlay. They also have them with mother-of-pearl inlay, but I prefer the wood, or maybe wood with just a little mother-of-pearl.
So we made the lap around the courtyard, then headed back out to the main road to catch a cab. We got really lucky--there was a yellow cab dropping off a couple of Western tourists, so we were able to catch that cab back to the embassy. The yellow cabs are great because they have fixed prices with a clearly visible meter (most cabs have broken or no meters, so pricing is a matter of bargaining) and air conditioning. This ride was less scary than the ride to the Khan. The traffic was lighter, and this driver seemed to be making an effort to drive in a way that is more calming to Western passengers. When we arrived, the fare was around LE9. We gave him LE20 as well. Again, no change, but there was also the consideration that this ride was comfortable, unlike the first ride for which we had paid LE20, so why not make this cabbie's day too?
We were about 20 minutes early for the shuttle, so we stood in the shade and waited, then came on home. It was a productive day. We found our shirts, Julia found her trash can, and I'm pretty sure I could find my way back to the gallabiya shop, Guzman's, and the Crazy Brothers. Maybe next time I'll find a rug shop.