Friday, July 30, 2010

Beads And Baubles

Post courtesy of Pat Canfield

As readers of this blog will know, Maryanne often has friends and guests from abroad visiting her. Recently a friend from New Zealand came for an extended visit --- her fourth so far. Since Maryanne is recuperating from her knee surgery, she asked me to take her friend to the Khan El Khalili to do some shopping. For those of you who have been here, you understand what that can entail.

On a good day, the vendors can allow people to wander and peruse the shops at leisure. On a day where the planets are in the wrong alignment, they have the mentality and finesse of street hustlers the world over who make one want to bring in the Terminator to deal with them. Sadly, since we went early in the morning, their energy levels were high and we had the warm cuddly feeling of turkeys running the gauntlet on the day before Thanksgiving.

However, Kelly wanted to buy some belly dancing costumes and so off we went (not even fortified by cappuccino I might add). As she is a veteran of Khan shopping, we were able to negotiate without hysteria or total breakdown as I have occasionally witnessed with un-warned tourists. We did stop at one of the shops where they have a wonderful selection of crystal goblets, ornaments, t-shirts and folkloric dresses. The owner, Maged, is always pleasant, helpful and charges correct prices. This sadly lulls you before going back out into the battlefield.

We then dodged and ducked through the medieval passages that make up the centuries old market and ignored some terrifying displays of belly dancing outfits that were hanging from doors and archways. The current selection of tourist souvenirs that come in from China would be lucky to only have high lead content as opposed to scary design elements. Fortunately on one of the main streets, we found a man who makes the costumes and sells from his workshop and showroom. He is on the fifth floor of a multi-bazaar shop and does not sell to other vendors.

We were surrounded by displays of costumes swathed in plastic covers lining the walls and displayed on headless plastic torsos that looked like a rather unfortunate chorus line but everything was clean. Shelves were neatly stacked with scarves and belts edged with coins. One room had the flowing skirts for beginners and another room had tables of the beaded costumes wrapped in clear plastic bags looking all of the world like brightly beaded cocktail purses.

The owner and haberdasher, Ahmed, has been in the business since he was 12 years old and prides himself on matching the customer to the costume. Kelly had great fun trying on scarves and a flowing skirt over her jeans and t-shirt. Then she moved on to requests from some of her friends back in New Zealand.

Sitting on the tapestry sofas and happily drinking cold soda, we got a bit of a lesson on why there are different price levels on the street. The beads, which are hand sewn onto the costumes, are imported from the Czech Republic at 100 – 150 LE / kilo. Others come from China at 10 LE and Taiwan at 24 / kilo. A good costume takes over a half kilo of the beads. A belt takes 1,000 coins – copper are 35 LE / thousand and metal are 13 LE. This makes for a lot of clinking noise.

After discussion of her friends’ hair color, size and performance level, a group of costumes were selected and some headless torsos hit the dust. Fortunately dancers’ costumes and t-shirts make for light luggage on the trip back home. And they certainly don’t break.

By the time we finished the shopping, the street hustlers had re-fortified so our departure was truly fast and a bit like broken field running on the football field. The good part of the day was that we had one happy traveler and her escort who had learned something new and had managed to not inflict bodily harm on anyone on the street. Basically, a productive day.

Note from Maryanne: Maged Mustafa is an old friend and the printer of our farm tshirts. He is a pleasure to work with and has some of the best handblown glass in Cairo. His phone number is 010 5193691

Ahmed Omar, for belly dancing enthusiasts, can be reached at (02) 2592 7452.

copyright 2010 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani