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The Streets of Cairo

More then 12 million people live in Cairo, one of the world's most populous cities. Along its bustling streets, taxi cabs and donkey carts compete for traffic lanes. High-heeled ladies click past street vendors straight out of the pages of Arabian Nights. It's the riotous and timeless street life of the city that we explore in this segment of our series on Cairo through the eyes of historic visitors. The Savvy Traveler's Tom Verde is our guide.

The Streets of Cairo
by by Tom Verde

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When I checked into my hotel room in Cairo, I felt compelled to record the sound outside my window, not out of any sense of journalistic duty, but out of sheer amazement.


That's Cairo, a throbbing, honking, kinetic, ancient, modern, exotic, filthy, elegant, sacred, clanging mess of a place that seduces with coal-black, Cleopatric eyes while at the same time grabbing you by the lapels.

The Streets of Cairo

Take the 700 year-old Khan al Khalili, for instance, one of the city's oldest bazaars. Packed into a one and half-square mile section of medieval Cairo, this labyrinthine, chaotic, and colorful marketplace is best known for its goldsmiths.

Here, dozens of craftsman, huddled in cave-like shops, hammer out hundreds of rings and other trinkets each day, a scene practically identical to one described in A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, the definitive Victorian-era guidebook to Egypt by British travel writer Amelia Edwards.

Edwards: "In the Khan al-Khalili, the place of the goldsmith's bazaar, the alleys are narrow and the shops, mere cupboards. Inside, the merchants squat, cross-legged. Their civility and patience is inexhaustible. One may try on all their bracelets, go away again and again without buying, and yet be always welcomed and dismissed with smiles."

The Streets of Cairo

Low key but persistent salesmanship is still the way they do business in the Khan al Khalili. Then there's the time-honored rule endemic to all Arab bazaars, haggling,

Iman: "You know the tourists that come in Egypt, if we say it's one price he cannot buy."

Jewelry shop owner Iman Achmut says that asking 15 or so Egyptian pounds for a 10 pound item is not out of the question, and if the buyer ends up paying 12, he's still happy.

Tom: "So you always say a little higher?"

Iman: "Of course, we cannot lose."

The Streets of Cairo

Taking advantage of hapless tourists has always been something of a cottage industry in Cairo. During the French occupation of the city in 1798, artist Dominique Vivant Denon commented on one of the most popular scams, snake charming.

Denon: "They let loose their serpents from a large leather sack and made them erect their bodies and hiss by irritating them. I remarked that while they were threatening the animal with one hand, they seized it on the back of the head with the other. I did the same with one of the serpents with equal success, much to the indignation of the performers."

Denon remained immune as well to the allure of the harem and its belly dancers, whose gyrations he scorned as a "gross and indecent expression of sensual intoxication." Presumably, the average foot soldier was more appreciative of the effort. Today, belly dancers perform in five-star hotels instead of on the street. But not far from the Khan al Khalili, in what was once a sultan's mausoleum, traditional dance of another kind still mesmerizes the crowds.

Edwards: "The band struck up a plaintive, discordant air, softly at first, and one by one the dervishes began madly rocking to and fro, possessed by a growing frenzy."

The Streets of Cairo

A hundred years ago, Victorian-era travel writer Amelia Edwards was on hand here for a performance of the whirling dervishes, members of a Sufi Muslim sect whose dance, they say, brings them closer to God.

Edwards: "Still the frenzy mounted, still the pace quickened, until our own heads seemed to be going round. Just as the fury was at its height, one poor wretch staggered out of the circle and fell writhing at our feet. We asked if nothing could be done for him. 'He is struck by Mohammed,' said gravely an Egyptian official who was standing by."

So, when in Cairo, keep one eye out for whirling dervishes, another on your wallet, but don't let either distract you from the overall enjoyment of what surely remains one of the most stimulating cities in the world.

In Cairo, I'm Tom Verde for The Savvy Traveler

Thanks go to Marketplace Productions, Helen Palmer, Robert Da Pont and David Jaffee, Director of the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut for their help in this production.

Join us next week on The Savvy Traveler as we explore the domes and minarets of some of Cairo's most famous mosques.


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