Thursday, September 27, 2007

20. September Cairo - Khan al Kahlili Market

Figuring we’ve caught up on our sleep, we don’t set an alarm and yet AGAIN manage to wake up only just before the crack of noon - racing down to meet Ramy for the days’ excursions.

The first part of our route is dedicated to crafters visits. We stop at a “Carpet School” - one of several in a textile district that produces traditionally hand-knotted rugs. We are given a crash course in the intricacies of rug-making: There are anywhere from 60 to 150 knots per square centimeter in a rug, depending on material and pattern, with varying combinations of silk, wool and cotton, the rugs take anywhere from one to six months to complete. (There was some language barrier here: the “instructor” did give completion time per square centimeter, but flying hands indicated otherwise. The monthly timeframe either was per rug or per square meter of rug.) Glues and adhesives on the backing are the giveaway to factory-produced carpets.

The second area was the pottery district with enormous clay pots stacked several high along the roadside for several kilometers. We visted with a multi-generational team of roof tile makers, producing the long, Mediterranean style curved tiles with perfectly honed traditional tools & technique at the impressive rate of about 8 - 10 tiles per minute - from lump clay to finish. There were numerous other projects on site, making it feel like strolling through Roman ruins. Our friend Mais negotiated with the vendors at the front of the market, and gifted me with a teapot of beautifully glazed Egyptian red clay tipped with a green-azure. Finn was mesmerized by a pile of stones that looked like Indiana Jones’ treasures - quartizite - oversized and gem-like and the color of tropical seas captured in cut glass chunks. He chose a smaller stone for its better portability, despite recommendations toward a larger one for quality.

The highlight of the day was saved for last - the ancient Khan al Kahlili market. A veritable maze of narrow alleys packed with stalls and goods stacked to ceilings and overflowing doorways, each shop generally dedicated to a specialty item- one with enormous pots & cookware, another all shoes, many “sheesha” (hookah/waterpipe) shops, jewelry, then, toward the central square, more tourist-y tchockes and high-end jewelry. For anyone who knows me, you’ll know that it was a relief to our pocketbook that I prefer large, dusty (expensive) things to small, shiny expensive ones - as the large dusty items don’t fit conveniently in carry-ons!

We ate another late lunch in the square where restauranteurs had a shouting match over our business. Ramy had told us that the heat (and fasting!) makes Egyptians crazy and they yell alot without meaning anything by it, so things are only serious if it comes to blows. In this case, it did indeed come to blows. The kids can now brag they’ve seen a fistfight over lunch in a square in Cairo....

On the car ride back to the hotel, Ramy taught us an Arabic version of “I’m a Little Teapot” and, at Finn’s request, the Arabic equivalent of the Birthday Song. By the way, Driving Rules of the Road in Egypt are much like the Pirate Code - it’s really more like guidelines. Adherence to lane use is vague at best, and, although there is plenty of beeping, it has much more of a conversational element to it, with all the drivers constantly interacting with one another in the jostle. On streets & highways packed with cars, donkeys, horses, carts and pedestrians, we saw zero accidents.

Back at the hotel in time for late tea, there was an assortment of lovely little cookies and fruit left out for us in our room. Honey, pistachios and cashews were primary ingredients in various delicious combinations. The highlight, to me, were some fresh dates - a completely different animal from the dried ones we usually see - and quite possibly my favorite new fruit that I’ll never have again. There are most likely many varietals, but these particular ones were a beautiful rich red in color. The flesh was crisp, light and honeysweet - like an extra sweet apple, but less dense in texture. Yum! A delicious day.

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