Tears in the Khan
I’ve had a heart-wrenching morning. Over time in Egypt I have had to learn not to be swayed by sad events and sad stories – there are too many. However, my guard was down this morning as I went for a stroll in Khal El Khalili. The Khan is the Aladdin’s Cave of Cairo – a tourists’ mecca and my advice to friends and tourists has always been – “You gotta see it, but bargain hard!”I haven’t been to the Khan since last November when I took my 10 year old grand-daughter to do her souvenir shopping and hone her bargaining skills there. Hayley absolutely adored it. I think she would cheerfully have stayed there if she could! I am not so sure she would have enjoyed it today. She has a good heart and I think it would have made her so sad to see the empty streets and shops. Today she would not have had to bargain much and, being as she is, I don’t think she would have wanted to.
The first shop I went into had a breathtaking array of mother-of-pearl mirrors, arabian lamps, ebony walking sticks and much more. I had no intention of buying anything – I was just on a fishing expedition to find nice pieces, to come back for, next time we decide to add/change the decor in Mara House. I pointed to a chess set and asked the young man the price. I am not even going to tell you what the price was…..I stared at him – his name turned out to be Mohammad Sayed, he repeated the price trying to reassure me it was a good price. I found my tongue and stammered the price back to him – he nodded. I asked him why he had not asked me for a thousand or even six hundred Egyptian Pounds (as would previously been normal and then we would have bargained). He shrugged, looked into my eyes and said “I need to sell something – I don’t need to fight over price. I want you to buy so I am giving you the last price.” I felt so bad. It was a really, really good price.
I continued around the shop and asked for more prices. They were ridiculously low. At my best bargaining skills I would never, ever have bought any of it in the past for those prices. I apologised to Mohammad. I explained I had not brought much money with me, I had not intended to buy today – how I wish I had! I assured him I would be back in a few weeks and because he had been so good with me I would surely buy 2 of his items – an eye-catching old, bedouin, wooden-surround mirror inset with material, the mirror having two small doors that closed over it, and an ebony walking stick – for my old age!I continued down the street. I was greeted with quiet smiles – nothing more. None of the old hassle of “come see my shop” and “cheap price here” shouted at me.
It was wonderful to be able to relax and gaze in peace at the dazzling array of costumes, jewellery, furniture, odds and ends, souvenirs, rugs, crystals, lamps etc.The second shop I stepped into was very small, walls and ceilings were completely covered with all kinds of Arabian-style lamps – I understand enough Arabic to know that the shop-keeper was telling his wife he would try to be home soon, but he needed to stay in case a customer called.- his eyes light up as he saw me – he thought his customer had come! Alas he was also quickly disappointed.
Again he gave me rock bottom prices the instant I asked. I knew he was having some kind of problem and could not leave without buying something – I bought a lovely filigree enclosed candle holder, all hand worked – this was his family’s shop where he sold lamps made by his father and uncle. They were not working these days he said – his shop could not hold any more and there were no tourists to buy them. I paid him 95LE for the lamp – about 8 euro and felt it was worth much more for it’s intricate work.My final shop was owned by Mostafa – again a tiny shop with an upstairs store-room. There was so much stock in the shop there was only room for himself and his wife – two chairs for them to sit on. We talked and he explained he has not been well for about 11 years – something about water inside his head.
He is thankful that he finally found a doctor who said he could help him and he showed me his medication. I don’t know much about medicine but from what I could read – it did seem to have something on the leaflet about the cerebrum so I do believe the poor man is not well. He is to go to Jeddah for some treatment next month and hopes all will be well with him then…… He said his wife should be at home but she refuses to let him go to work alone in case something happens him – so there they both sit all day – waiting for customers that do not come, tourists that have been few and far between since last February.
Again, as in the previous two shops the prices he quoted me for everything was ridiculously low. When asked about the prices he said the same as the other two – he needs to sell something – he has too much stock, four daughters and little cash.
Mostafa was my last stop. I could not face another beaten shopkeeper. I made my way out of the Khan, down two more streets, past young men who quietly said “hello Madam” – there was absolutely no hassle anywhere. As I walked I started to say to them “I wish you good business today” and “I pray Allah sends you nice tourists soon!” They were so sincerely and quietly appreciative of my good wishes that it only made me feel even sadder for them!
I know there have been times I got furiously angry and frustrated at shopkeepers etc. here but oh, how I wish for those days again! Anything would be better than the feeling of resignation in the Khan today. I would rather be angry at the traders trying to charge me a high price than the feeling of sadness I have for them and their inability to take money home at the end of the day now – every day.
I go back to Luxor tomorrow and if the shopkeepers in Cairo’s Khan El Khalili made me sad today – I am dreading meeting those shopkeepers I know personally in Luxor.
The pity of all this is – there is no need for it. There is no need for tourists to stay away. There is no need for them to go to Turkey and Spain, or wherever those who can still afford to go on holiday, go – if they wanted to go to Egypt. For anyone going to Cairo – go to the Khan in Cairo – you will get rock bottom bargains there now – the tourism industry here will recover and so will the prices. So I say again, if you live in Cairo or are visiting – GO GET THE BARGAINS IN KHAN EL KHALILI, spread your cash around and enjoy the space you have to yourself there these days.