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March 03, 2009

Cairo: A Bomb, a Medieval Mall, and the War Inside the Perfume-Seller's Head

Chandelier
Street scene: Khan al Khalili.

Condé Nast Traveler's Cairo-based editor visits the scene of the February 22 bombing that killed one tourist

by Susan Hack

Ever since the fourteenth century, Cairo's Khan al Khalili has attracted a daily melting pot of foreign travelers seeking exotic mementos (which these days include King Tut tea sets made in China), as well as ordinary Egyptians who come to shop for clothes, housewares, and other essentials.

I live in Cairo and love to visit this medieval shopping mall. I search for bits of old silver, wander in and out of mosques, madrassas, and other Islamic monuments, and check out the latest fashion in the abaya souk; this year's look, imported from Dubai, is all about trims of silver sequins. Last Friday I had a different mission: to see how local businesses are faring in the aftermath of the February 22 bomb, which killed a French teenager and injured at least 20 other people.

Chandelier
Cops in the Khan.

I planned to get there as Friday prayers were ending, figuring anyone planning a follow-up attack wouldn't dare do it at that time of day. There had been no claim of responsibility for the explosion, no word from the police except to announce the arrest of several suspects. The Cairo rumor mill variously pinned the blame on Islamic fundamentalists intent on ruining tourism and bringing down the 29-year-old regime of President Hosni Mubarak; the Israeli Mossad; even Mubarak's own security forces--the rationale being Egypt could thereby show the newly elected U.S. president that the regime is both threatened and good at handling its difficult security situation. My taxi driver had his own theory: Khan al Khalili pickpockets were angry at the security forces for continually arresting them and denying them a daily living.

The faithful were clearly unfazed. At the edge of the khan, hundreds of people spilled out of the famous El Hussein Mosque, which contains a human head believed to belong to the martyred grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, and into a large square where a row of outdoor restaurants marks the easternmost entrance to the bazaar. The crude bomb--a two-pound plastic jar containing gunpowder, nails, iron and brick fragments and a washing machine timer--had gone off in this very square under a granite bench at an intersection where tour buses drop off and pick up their passengers; a French school group waiting for their transportation to arrive had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nearly a week later, the hole left by the bomb had been paved over, shards of metal and broken glass swept up, bloodstains washed away.   

After two small bombs went off in the khan and killed three tourists in 2005, the security presence was beefed up, with barriers manned by uniformed police placed at major intersections. Last year the core of the khan was declared a daytime pedestrian-only zone, which in theory means no one can drive in a car bomb or toss explosives off a motorbike. Still, it is a place virtually impossible to secure. The medieval street plan means there are dozens of side alleys down which people on foot carrying God knows what can enter or leave unnoticed. The crowds, trash, and open-air street stalls, covered with an eye-dazzling array of souvenirs, make it hard to spot an unattended parcel.

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At the head of the main alley leading into the bazaar a policeman stood with a metal-detecting wand checking Egyptians, but not any tourists or foreigners. The place was unusually quiet, except for the crackle of police walkie-talkies on the belts of the cops. The drinks sellers who carry trays of tea glasses on their heads or vats of licorice juice on their backs were conspicuously absent, and the sweet-talking touts who try to entice tourists with compliments--"Your eyes are so beautiful, like a gazelle? Please come look at my shop"--stood silently and morosely, hands in pockets, backs to storefront windows full of shisha pipes, worry beads, silver ankhs, and pharoanic knickknacks. Perhaps dropping the aggressive hard sell was out of respect for tourists nervous about visiting a place where a bomb attack had occurred so recently, but it seemed to me their silence was mainly an act of self-preservation.

A plainclothes Egyptian security officer took up the rear of a small group of Japanese tourists, the handle of a large automatic pistol clearly visible under his gray suit jacket.   

I passed through the metal detector at the Naguib Mahfouz restaurant, named after Egypt's Nobel laureate, a writer who was born in a house in the khan and made the neighborhood a favorite subject. The metal detector has been in place for years, but this time I also noticed two more plainclothes policemen with guns under their suit jackets sipping glasses of red hibiscus juice at a table with a direct line of sight to the restaurant entrance. Tourists drifted in in small groups of two or three, but the restaurant was empty of the big tour groups that usually fill up the place at midday.

Khanbus_dt

I gulped down a fresh lemonade and zigzagged back through the alleys to my favorite perfume shop to check in with the manager, an Egyptian man with high cheekbones and tightly drawn skin, a face that reminds me of the mummy of the Pharoah Ramses II in the Egyptian Museum.   

He spends much of his day sitting at a desk in a dark corner of the shop writing Arabic poetry in lined school notebooks covered with flowers while his two young assistants troll the street outside for customers. The shop looks unremarkable from the street, but I like to go in there to smell their collection of antique scents--gazelle musk form the western desert, brown lumps of ambergris, and nearly empty bottles of forgotten perfumes--the last stocks of the previous owner, an old man who began making perfumes in the 1930s.   

"Last Sunday I was in the shop watching the soccer match on television," the manager told me, asking one of the assistants to fetch us glasses of sweet mint tea. "There are more than 1,500 policemen working in the khan, and whenever there is a big soccer match they leave their posts and go into shops and people's houses to watch the game on television. This is when the bomb went off. I went to use the public toilet in the square ten minutes before the game ended--my team, Ahli, was winning--to beat the crowd at the end of the game. While I was in the WC, I heard a big sound, the room shook, and pieces of plaster fell out of the ceiling. I knew it was a bomb right away. I came out and didn't even look to see what happened but went straight to the shop and quickly closed it. After a bomb goes off the police round up thousands of people, and I didn't want to be one of them."

"I feel very sad for that girl who died, and also for us," he continued. "You know, for the people who work here, the Khan al Khalili feels like the Gaza Strip. Everyday the police stop us and ask to see our ID cards. They speak to us badly, and they are stupid, stupid, stupid. Every day I come to work, the same guy asks for my ID. Today I said to him, 'You've seen me before, and anyway I've worked here for 17 years and I know every side alley in the place. You think if I had a bomb on me I'd walk right past you?' For that I got hauled off to the police station. The big chief made a phone call to someone who checked a computer, and then he let me go."

When I walked in I hadn't even asked about the bomb, just to sample perfumes. The man's hands picked up crystal flasks one by one and poured out drops of scented oil; he rubbed the oils into my wrists with the sleeve of his turquoise sweater, never directly touching me, in order to be a gentleman. More words fell from his lips in a flood.

"So the police catch five people and say these are the ones who did it. Even if they really did commit the crime, the problem is not with individuals, it is with this government, which put us under emergency rule in 1986 when Sadat was assassinated and now use the rule as an excuse to lock any of us up without charges. The danger is not fundamentalism, it is the fact that Egyptians feel they cannot breathe. I have written three books that tell the truth about this country, but I am afraid to publish them under my own name, or even keep the manuscripts at home, because I might get sent to jail. I used to look down at Vietnam, crushed during their war. Now they have a booming economy. I used to look down on Indian people, and now they are building computers and sending rockets to the moon. We boast about the great Egyptian civilization, but tell me, where are the Egyptian cars and computers in the world market?"

"I'm sorry to talk to you on and on like this," he continued, "but I am feeling very bad. The people who run the government live on a different planet. They say they have kept us out of war, but everyday I feel I am at war with them inside my head."   

I chose my perfume and walked back to Hussein Square, where a small demonstration was now taking place on the very spot where the bomb had gone off. "Egypt! Egypt! Egypt!" six young men wearing black leather jackets and blue jeans shouted in English, holding an oversized red, white, and black Egyptian flag by the edges, waving it up and down. One of them grabbed a baby from a bystander and placed it in the flag and tossed it into the air, a tiny cheerleader; the mother quickly asked for the baby back. Professional musicians in traditional djellabas and white turbans followed behind the men beating drums and playing reed flutes. The music--it sounded like traditional Egyptian wedding music--drew a small crowd, but no one took up the "Egypt" chant. 

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If it wasn't obvious before that this was a government-arranged event, a crew emerged from a blue Egyptian State TV truck parked by the Hussein Mosque to film the scene. As I watched, three large tour buses pulled into the square and discharged passengers. Egyptian families fresh from prayers sat down at the square's open-air café tables to lunch on kebabs, French fries, and cold sodas. 

The TV cameraman filmed the tourists and the diners, and as I left, the correspondent, a young woman wearing black pants, gray sweater, and color-coordinated headscarf, began her standup. She reported in Arabic that life in the khan was "returning to normal."

Comments

A great description of Khan al Khalili that takes the reader well beyond travelogue into unusual depth about the people and politics.

A very good article inspiring the prospective visitor to come to Cairo despite the bombing

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