I kissed Mohamed on both cheeks after we negotiated a fair price for some 7-inch records I found scattered on the shelves of his family’s shop in Souq al-Goma. He was only 11 or 12, but he ran a hard bargain and acquiesced with a self-congratulatory smile.
So, yeah, I bought four records. But I need to amend the “record shopping” claims I made in a couple of previous posts. We didn’t go record shopping today. By any stretch of the imagination. Even before we climbed out of Yassir’s cab in Souq, our premonitions for the day – and the open-air market – had transformed. This was hardly about browsing for tangible things to take home. This wasn’t the Khan.
It was a neighborhood. A series of homes and makeshift second-hand stores: sidewalks lined with vendors who mostly offered medleys of old or used things, from shoes to boom boxes and bags, clothes, random trinkets, pieces of wiring and radio parts, antique statues, framed black-and-white photographs of strangers, semi-functional or dysfunctional televisions, gramophones and cassette tapes. Some people sold fresh spices that smelled delicious, or fish from the Nile whose bloody stomachs were yawning pretty wide and smelled disgusting. There were snakes and cats for sale at one end of the market and, near the other end, gorgeous, handmade dresses, fabrics and blankets.
Despite that attempt, our visit to the market was inexplicable. Mostly because, whatever wonder we derived from a 30-minute walk up and down its network of dirt streets had no association with the mind-boggling number of things for sale.
“I don’t think I can even talk about it,” Katie just said, when I told her I’m struggling to make sense of the experience. “It’s a feeling.”
For one thing, the area is unbelievably impoverished. Beyond anything I’ve ever seen. Yet no one – not a single person on roads lined with people – asked us to buy a thing. At the Khan, or even Giza, it’s literally impossible to take two steps without a peddler grabbing you and barraging you with stuff. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Meanwhile, the vendors at Souq were discreet and, perhaps more than anything, surprised.
I don’t think many Americans, let alone unaccompanied Americans, get to Souq for the Friday market. And by many I mean any, pretty much. Ever. Which isn’t just a hunch. Our cabbie implied the same thing and tried to convince us to opt for a more updated market in downtown Cairo. And Karim reminded us over and over, considerately, to be careful. No one would speak English, he said. Not English numbers to arrange prices, and not English directions to help us find our way.
So we weren’t inconspicuous or anything. Which itself was a bizarre, brand new sensation: being an emphatic outsider. Walking down the street, everything felt quiet, or maybe peaceful, or maybe reality was suspended. Children got giddy and yelled “hello” and waved, and we yelled “salaam,” and everyone was wholehearted and smiled, and gawked too, probably, and we were deep inside a place we didn’t belong, watching how they lived their lives. And I realized, though I reject the condescending, cushy notion that poverty magically breeds wisdom worth more than money, that everyone was warm and generous despite the hand they were dealt, and that’s powerful.
There were a lot more kids like Mohamed, the miniature salesman, and many even younger. There were fathers leading their sons through the streets by the hand. There were tiny councils of women and their daughters on the side of the street, sitting and talking. There were lots of guys zooming past on their motorcycles. It was a variation on a block party; a community gathering.
We just happened to be passing through.