Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

March 31, 2005 Excursions: Churches and scarves.

Id never visited Coptic Cairo, and I decided this weekend was the time to get down there. The river bus goes there, and I looked forward to a cool watery ride down the Nile. Ive written about the river bus before. This time it was uneventful - I minded my own business and no one paid me any attention. The walk from the corniche to Coptic Cairo was interesting, though. Id ridden taxis up and down the corniche dozens of times to and from the office where I used to work in Maadi, but Id never ventured off of it. Between the corniche and the metro tracks is a modest neighborhood of four and five story buildings.


There are piles of rubble in the streets, presided over by scrawny cats sunning themselves in the morning light. A donkey cart loaded with oranges was parked in front of a building, its owner nowhere in sight. Children ran around the streets, darting in and out of small shops selling candies and milk and yogurt and dusty peppers and tomatoes. Laundry hung out of windows, carpets and bedding were draped in the sun for

airing. Old women in dark street dresses chatted with the neighbors in front of their houses. A man in a turban and galabiya sat on a chair in a quiet bit of the street. Advertisements and political posters were pasted on building walls. Two women sat on a curb, one holding a sleeping child. I dont like standing out, as I surely did with my backpack and camera, but no one was much interested in me.

Approaching the entrance to Coptic Cairo, a few tourist shops lined the street, selling glass bottles and inlaid boxes and hammered metal lanterns. As I walked past one, a man asked if I spoke English, and could I do him a favor. He didnt want to sell me anything, he just needed a bit of help writing a letter. I followed him hesitantly into the shop, not sure if he was serious. He was, he assured me, he just had to find some paper and a pen. He motioned me to a seat, and

offered me tea. Finally he handed me a pad and a pen and began to dictate. Dear Mr. David, he said, and I wrote for him a letter to a friend in the United States, telling him how happy he was to let him know that his first child had just been born, a little girl. I congratulated him, and he beamed happily. The mother was fine, he continued, the baby was fine, and they were all very happy. Finished with his letter, he offered me a gift from his shop and invited me to come back any time.

Coptic Cairo Misr el-qadima, or old Egypt, in Arabic is a quiet walled neighborhood of churches. They are still in use, but at midday on a Thursday many of the people there were tourists. I like visiting

churches, though I dont always know how to react to them. I wandered in and out, sitting on pews to gaze around me and take photos. In one I lit a candle in memory of Paul, which I have done ever since his friend John told me he would have liked that. In another I watched as Egyptian Christians brushed their fingertips across representations of St. George and brought them to their lips. The lower level of one church was devoted to a ghastly exhibition of instruments of torture, perhaps those used against the early Christians. Or against their enemies?

Walking down the major street in the walled area, I passed a man seated on a ledge selling trinkets and was startled when he called after me, happy Pesach! I was baffled, unsure how to react. I turned slowly, walked back, and said, Pesach isnt for a few weeks yet. Yes, he replied, but its coming. I stared at him and asked how he knew I was Jewish. Or did he just try that on lots of foreigners? No, he said, he knew. He just did.

Strange. We chatted for a bit about being Jewish in Egypt. He handed me a glossy flier, a history of the recently renovated synagogue in Coptic Cairo. No charge, he said, I like to share these with a few visitors. I thanked him, and continued on my way towards the synagogue. Inside, I eavesdropped on a tour guide, telling her clients about how those Jews, you know, they always like to save some money, so the columns here that look like marble are really painted wood. Clever, those Jews. Sigh. I thought of jumping in with a rejoinder, but then thought better of it.

Tired of wandering in the heat and what had turned into a full fledged sandstorm, I took the metro downtown to my favorite store in Cairo, Lehnert & Landrock. [INSERT FIRST NAMES, EH?] Lehnert and Landrock were European photographers from Switzerland or Austria, I forget which in the 1920s and 1930s. They worked in north Africa, taking thousands of photographs of people, street scenes, antiquities, feluccas on the Nile, ships on the Suez Canal, and even aerial photos of the pyramids and the Nile barrages. The modern bookshop has inherited their negatives, from which they make prints that they sell for a modest amount. They are fascinating. The photos are organized in a dozen or so binders, sorted by subject and place. I spent close to an hour browsing

through them, trying to choose, but mostly imagining these people who are now dead, and the lives that they lived in Egypt eighty years ago. Theres something strange to me about seeing a photo of a person, or even an animal, that I know must be dead now. That beautiful boy carrying a jug of water he never imagined that long after he was gone foreigners from places he might never have even heard of would look at his smiling face and wonder what became of his life.

Leaving the bookshop, I wandered past shops selling clothing, shoes, stationery, electronics, housewares everyday parts of modern life. Straying into an alley of shops in a building, I realized it was a whole market devoted to headscarves. Most Egyptian women cover their heads now, and scarves have become very big business. I was fascinated. These were cheap scarves of synthetic fibers, the most expensive perhaps LE 25 or 30 five dollars. Many were a bit drab for my tastes modest women wear black or tan or navy blue, or mixes of somber hue. Some were flamboyant though, and as I picked through the offerings in front of the shops I quickly saw patterns and found my favorites. The peach and rose colored scarf covered with drawings that reminded me in of the illustrations in a book Id had as a child. The chiffon-like scarves in brilliant colors, two layers woven together at the ends with gold or silver threads drifting between the layers. Solid colored scarves in turquoise and blue and pink and cream, with patterns woven into the threads. Dozens of women browsed through the scarves as well, picking out the right color for a new dress, the sparkling scarf for an evening out, or the ordinary one to wear to work. Headscarves may be a religious statement, but they are a fashion statement as well and much more affordable than a new outfit. I left without any, though. In their profusion they were enchanting, but on their own none was really worth adding to my life.


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