Shopping in Cairo

The Khan el-Khalili

The Khan el-Khalili was, upon arrival, not what I'd expected.  Nibal led us through the Tent Makers lane.  There were only a few vendors, no hard sells, just craftsmen quietly working in their shops.  Weaving through several alleyways, past a couple of mosques, we found ourselves in what was clearly the non-touristy section.  Minnie Mouse nightgowns hung next to Sponge Bob towels and boxes of electronics were piled near bags of cotton.  Lis spotted what she thought might be cheap belly dance costumes - Nibal explained this was Egyptian lingerie!

As we kept walking, the merchandise quickly changed.  Scarves, galabyas, lanterns, and walking sticks crowded the narrow passages between buildings.  Shades and wooden slats placed overhead shaded the lanes from the sun, making the market look just like the 19th-century paintings with which I was familiar.

I'd done my research in advance, figuring out what kind of souvenirs I wanted to buy and checking their price in online shops.  Generally, the starting price would be about the same as the online price - the goal would be to get down to about half of that.

My first purchase was an inlaid box, for which I definitely overpaid.  That out of the way, I grew bolder - I bought 40 scarab beetle beads for about 70 LE, and got a few large ones thrown in.  By the end of the day, my haul included the box, the beads, a lamp for a friend, a Stella beer shirt for my brother, and a singing camel for my cousin - all for less than $60 USD.  (The box was half that total.)

Nibal stood back for the most part, but would interject in Arabic when she felt we were getting an unfair deal.  As the day went on, she got more involved in the process, helping me score the shirt for half the original price.  By the time I got around to the singing camel, we had it down, walking away from a ridiculous offer till we found someone willing to give a fair price on the first go - 15 LE! 

Oum el Dounia

Kate wasn't really a fan of the market.  She'd found her go-to place for souvenirs, a small shop off Tahrir Square with fixed prices.  Our last full morning, Lis was off on a belly dance mission, so we met up with Kate's friend Rania and headed downtown.

Oum el Dounia turned out to be a lovely little second-floor boutique, with items ranging from handmade linens, pottery, and jewelry, to books in French, laptop cases printed with old Egyptian film stars, and Revolution-themed stickers.  The prices were really good as well - I bought a cotton table cloth and napkin set, a camel doorstop, a hand-blown Christmas ornament, and an El Fishawy's magnet for 206 LE - around $30 USD.

(I really need to take a picture of the camel doorstop - it's blue felt, adorable, and one of my two favorite souvenirs from the trip.)

The shop also had a great view of Tahrir Square.  It was pretty peaceful and empty, with only a few tents set up, despite calls for a second revolution that day from the '6th of May' party.

The Return of Khan

That evening, Kate, Lis, Sarah (Kate's new roommate) and I headed back to the Khan el-Khalili.  I doubt I would have gone on my own, but that's why I why so happy to be traveling with Lis, hosted by Kate, and escorted by Sarah, who spoke Arabic.  Sarah showed us one of her favorite shops, with beautiful metal work and kitschy retro items.  I bought a quilled metal matchbox cover, in part so I could get some change.

Kate wanted some fresh juice for the apartment, so we stopped by a juice bar and got a large plastic jug.  The others got glasses of fresh juice - I opted out, thanks to my chronic stomach issues.  (I indulged once we got back to the apartment though - it was great.)

We returned to a spice shop we'd discovered with Nibal.  It felt like something out of Harry Potter, right down to the dried bats and hedgehogs hanging in the back.  I went for more traditional fare, paying face value for karkade tea and cumin.  The salesman was appreciative, snapping off the top of a cinnamon stick we'd stopped to admire on the way out, and giving it to me "to remember him by".

We were about the only Westerners and the only unescorted women wandering around - Lis was surprised at the amount of attention we got from the sellers compared to our earlier trip; I wasn't at all.  None of it was too over-the-top, but after finding most of what we came to buy, we called it a night.


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