Sunday, March 13, 2011

Khan al-Khalili - The Tourist Market, The Tourists' Local's Market, and the Actual Local's Market

A lamp store in Khan al-Khalili.
Khan al-Khalili is one of the oldest markets in the world.  Traders, merchants, & craftsmen have sold their goods here for centuries.  The current bazaar has three sections: the tourist section, the so-called locals market (but actually just another tourist market), and across the street, the true locals market.  We were on high alert because Khan al-Khalili is well-known for its scams, pick-pockets, and according to the Lonely Planet guidebook some of “the smoothest salesmen in the entire world.”

The tourist market is cordoned off behind a typical Egyptian police check-point.  What is a typical Egyptian police check-point?  Good question.  In our experience, it means up to a dozen Egyptian policemen sitting idly around a metal detector and x-ray bag scanner.  Most sit on their haunches on the floor.  Usually a larger man, both in physical stature (including his belly) and rank, sits on a chair.  To enter the market one must pass through the metal detector.  This is easy.  I regularly would pass through with both of my metal cameras, many Egyptian coins, a belt, and countless other metal items.  Generally, no alarm would sound and I would be waved through.  On the rare occasion when the machine did sound its alarm I was also waved through.  Nothing should interrupt Cairo’s finest during their perpetual smoke break.  And there was never occasion to scan our bags.  The entire bag, in my case filled with wires, electronics, and other scary looking equipment, would be placed on the side table as if it were a coin or cell phone, and then passed back to after you walked through the silent - or alarming - metal detector.  It occurs to me that perhaps the actual point of the check-point is to make all the tourists from the tens of tour buses queue in one location where the policemen’s most favored touts and sellers (i.e. those who give the highest kickback) can get first crack at the anxious tourists looking for Egyptian handicrafts mass-produced in India or China.

Everything Egypt, in gold plastic.
After a brief foray in the tourist market, we left the endless stalls of spices, perfumes, plastic pyramids, sphinxes, and camels; rayon scarves, shawls, and head-coverings, and the rest of the same mass produced junk you can buy in markets all over the world, to check out the “locals market”.  Just outside the police cordon, the locals market had a slightly edgier, dirtier, and more desperate feel.  The salesmen were a bit more aggressive, regularly approaching us with helpful offers to look at their or their brother’s or their friend’s superb shop for, what was it again that you were looking for?  But try as we might, it was hard to imagine that the locals would come to a market selling the same junk that the tourist market sold.  In a country of crushing poverty, where a huge proportion of the population relies of the government’s (heavily) subsidized bread to feed their family, not even the blue, turquoise and gold sphinx and pyramids at sunset on brown papyrus* seemed like a plausible purchase.  And unlike the Egyptian police departments metal detectors, our highly tuned traveler’s skepticism was ringing at full volume.  This was no local’s market.  This was where you shopped if you didn’t like the idea (or prices) of shopping in a tourist market, and so the ever-entrepreneurial Egyptians created a tougher, grittier looking market, for tourists aching to see a real Cairo market.

A man offered to show us his sheesha factory, but in fact it was a collection of sheesha pipes for sale.

This is where we met Alibaba (at least that is what his card says) who was standing outside his spice shop.  Resting on a giant bag of cardamom or ginger or some other spice he greeted us and began chatting us up.  As a diversionary tactic we often told sellers we were from Mexico, or South Africa, or somewhere other than America or England and in that moment when they were thinking of some clever way to relate to us we would be gone, steeling outselves for the next encounter that was surely just a few feet away.  But Alibaba was good.  Immediately he began recounting how much spices cost in South Africa and giving prices in Rand!  He was talking about Spars & Woolworths and other stores we had visited only a week earlier.  How did know so much about South Africa?  As we backtracked away from our South African story and told him we were American he began peppering us with U.S. trivia.  What year was the White House built; What number President is Obama; Why does Washington D.C. have no representation in the Congress?  These were tough questions to answer off the top of our head.  We were able to come close to correctly answering his questions, but felt a bit shamed that an Egyptian bested us in our own history (to be fair, these were fairly specific questions with minimal general applicability).  Having established his rapport with us, I mentioned that I was looking for mint – I love mint tea – and as expected, he was more than happy to oblige.  As we were swept into his shop the next thing I knew we were smelling, sampling, and crushing mints from all over world.  The best, however, allegedly came from the Nile delta, north of Cairo, and it did smell wonderful.  Before I knew it his young assistant had collected two huge handfuls of dried mint (from a totally sanitary large cardboard box sitting on the street outside his shop) and stuffing it, including many large stems, into a dirty looking plastic bag, and the deal was done.  My objection to the amount of mint was quickly overruled with a minimum purchase weight.  Oh well…

Giant, fragrant bags of spices were for sale at every other shop in the bazaar.

I then mentioned I might be interested in some cinnamon (I had just read the 4-Hour Body which hails cinnamon as an excellent spice to add to your coffee and I thought this must be especially so for Nescafe and the powdered creamer so prevalent in Egypt) and we immediately moved on to the various types and blends of cinnamon he had.  Noting how his prices were far lower than those in the US and South Africa, the next thing I knew I had just purchased a large non-ziplock bag of ground cinnamon.  And to top if all off, the only negotiation was my meek suggestion that he may make me a better price.  Ali’s brushed aside my question and with the deepest sincerity told me that the special prices he was giving me were the best in the market, and maybe the best in all of Egypt.  Like a sheep to the slaughter I handed over 55 Egyptian Pounds ($9.48) and next thing we knew he was whisking us to his perfume shop.

Endless perfume bottles.  Surely one had a genie in it.
We bobbed and weaved through the “local’s market” into the tourist market, where Ali took us to his perfume shop.  During the walk, we cleared our heads and resolved not to buy any perfumes.  But he was still a superb salesmen.  Offering us hibiscus tea and chatting about his family he overloaded our senses with samples of frankincense, myrr, jasmine, and his handmade replicas of every commercial perfume and cologne.  Cool Water?  Check.  Polo Sport?  Check.  Hugo Boss?  For sure.  And the best thing was that his perfume prices were even better than his spice prices, because there were a lot of competitors selling inferior and, gasp, fake oils and perfumes in the market, forcing the sellers of authentic perfumes to sell basically at cost!  Can you believe it?  But then, as we politely, but firmly refused his offers the prices started dropping.  And the minimum purchase which had been so firm in the spice shop, evaporated away like oils all over our wrists, fingers, and forearms.  The prices were dropping so fast we could hardly believe: 10% off, 25% off, 50% discounts and he would throw in the delicate glass bottles that would never break.  Having broken free from Ali’s spell we recalled our principles that we never buy anything without one foot past the shop’s threshold.  We stayed firm and, thankfully, did not buy any perfume.  Recalling the experience still makes my head spin.  Here we thought we were such cool and collected travelers, relatively immune to the smooth talk of a third-world salesmen, but in this case, the book’s advice rang true.  Alibaba took us for a great ride.  And a few weeks later when I threw away the mostly unused mint and cinnamon, we agreed that the $10 USD was worth the entertainment value alone.

Ali in action.
It is a tough act to simultaneously compliment his perfumes and remain steadfast in refusing to purchase anything.
Reeling from our time with Ali Baba we retreated from the tourist market, passed through the “local’s market” and made our way to the actual local’s market.  We knew we had arrived when first, everyone looked like me, second, no one looked like Jesse, and third everything for sale was practical, useful, and had nothing to do with Egyptian tourist attractions.

We saw these types of boxes being
made in the actual local's market.
Fruit and vegetable stands, live chickens, and all sorts of beef products were on the offer in the actual local’s market.  And as expected no one hassled or harangued us to buy anything.  As we wander through the winding streets filled with various stalls and sellers we came to realize that the tourist market was actually more fun.  The everyday items people need in Egypt are similar to those things people need everywhere.  Shoes and socks, soaps and detergents, normal food products – hardly anything a traveler would want.  We passed one workshop that was actually producing the inlaid “mother-of-pearl” boxes that were for sale across the street in the tourist market.  When we got slightly lost we passed many typical small, cramped and dark houses and reflected on the hard lives these people lived.

Various beef parts for sale in the actual local's market

As the sun was setting we headed to the nearby Al-Azhar Mosque which housed the second oldest continuously run university in the world and has long been regarded as the foremost institution in the Islamic world for the study of Sunni theology and sharia, or Islamic law.  Thanks Wikipedia.

A picture taken at the caretaker's insistence.
Followed by his insistence for a tip.

Built in 970 AD, the Mosque was a quiet oasis of clean and calm amidst Cairo’s frenzied pace.  The only interruption was the continual unrequested advice and guidance by the caretakers, who would suggest, and at times insist, that we take photos of one thing or another in their Mosque.  And as fast as the shutter could open and close, that same caretaker would scold you that photography was not permitted, but that for a small tip, he would keep your transgression a secret.  Like everything in Egypt, permission was simply a matter of how much Baksheesh one was prepared to pay.  A favorite interaction took place when the caretaker offered to take us up the Mosque’s minarets.  These large towers were built so the call to prayer would be carried far and wide.  Now, wired with large sound systems, their primary purpose seems to be enriching the caretakers who, for the right amount of baksheesh will take you to the top.  So when our caretaker, frustrated with my reluctance to take photos of the various doors, windows, and tiles in the Mosque offered us a minaret tour I had to ask how much.  For a mere 100 Egyptian Pounds ($18) each he would show us to the top.  When I made a counter-offer the offense he took was palpable.  He coolly replied that the market is for negotiating, and one does not negotiate in a holy place.  And as expected, as we walked out the door, the price began dropping.  So much for his principles.

We did pay and climb up to the top of a different nearby Mosque.  The view was great.

We concluded on trip to Khan al-Khalili with a tea at the famous Fishwah’s Tea House.  Fishwahs is the oldest continually operating tea shop in Cairo and is nearly as old as the United States!  We enjoyed some mint tea (made with better mint than I bought from Aliabab), some sheesha, and made friends with nice Egyptian pharmacist.  I hope all is well with him and his family during these tumultuous times in Egypt.

Jesse, Dave and Abu Hamda sharing a tea and sheesha at the Fishawi Tea House in Cairo.

All of our Cairo photos (including more from our day at the pyramids), can be found here.

Here are some more photos of our time in the market:

Various papyrus paintings for sale
The Egyptian Pancake House.  A hard to find little pizza shop, this guide-book
recommended spot was the jumping off point for our local's market tour. 
The tourist market (or maybe the tourist's local's market) at night
The market with a minaret in the background

Me cruising in the actual local's market.  Not so many stores, and even fewer hawkers and touts.
The Al-Alhar Mosque at dusk.  Those minarets can be climbed, for a price.

Shoe shine man at Fishawi's Tea House.
For $2 he took Jesse and my shoes to be cleaned and gave us filthy peices of cardboard on which
to rest our feet.  I am quite sure the floor was cleaner.  When he came back with our shoes (phew!) they were wet,
but not any cleaner.  Oh well, at least he was agreeable to pose for a photo.


  1. Your experiences in the Cairo market remind me of our experiences in the markets in Istanbul. I think all the vendors (regardless of their country of origin) go to the same smooth fast talking vendor school! They are very good at convincing you to buy whatever.

  2. Sounds like your very own Prince Alibaba took you for a magic carpet ride! I was sure you would make that reference... oh well.


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