THE KHAN – Everything you want, even if you don’t know you want it

In addition to the pyramids of Giza (there are pyramids all over Egypt, so one must specify), which are less than 40 minutes by car from us, there is also “The Khan” as a major tourist draw. It’s officially called Khan el-Khalili, but us locals refer to it as “the Khan” (okay, everyone does, but I’m trying to acclimate here!). So this past Monday Ron agreed to take me down to the Khan, just to experience it.

Our first adventure was taking the metro. Cairo has a metro system similar to Washington, DC’s in that they have the 3-4 colored lines. We’re lucky that in Maadi we’re only a few blocks from the metro. I won’t mention that we got lost in those few blocks, but managed to go around again, and this time take the correct off-shoot from the traffic circle and find the metro right there. We went in, up to the window (like an old-fashioned train station), paid our 1LE each, and got two paper tickets. We climbed the stairs over the train tracks to get on the right side (I’m still getting my bearings and find my north and south meters are often wrong). The metro system here has “women only” cars, but there have been discussions about it moving from the front of the trains to somewhere in the middle. I was told to merely look for the gaggle of women and go stand near them, when I choose to ride the train alone. I forgot to even look for it when Ron and I were waiting. It would by my suggestion that they just paint these cars pink, make it easier for everyone to locate them (though surprisingly, no one’s asked for my opinion yet).

After a few minutes the train arrived and we clambered aboard. It was very similar to DC or NYC subways, seats along the side, rails and poles to hang on to, straps (for those who attain to be straphangers, like nephew Max in Tokyo). The only difference I’d say was the lack of air-conditioning, though on the day we rode it it really wasn’t necessary, but I could see that in the summer it be a whole different experience. Men and women were riding in the car, so I don’t know how necessary the “women’s” car is, though I might feel different without Ron next to me. At one stop as we were standing there, holding our straps, in front of the open doors, some boys walked by and waved at us. How nice. ☺ I opted not to return the gesture. Ron told me later that he was ever-vigilant about making sure there wasn’t any casual touching, brushing, or basic grabbing on my persons. And there wasn’t.

So we exited at Sadat Station, in downtown, right near the Egyptian Museum. Now, when I say exited, I should clarify that it was more of a mosh-pit like shove-down. I’ve been in subways and trains in Boston, DC, NY, London, Amsterdam, Germany, etc., and never have I experienced a mob-scene like that. I never felt afraid, per se, however I was gripping my purse/camera tightly and doing my best to move forward, hoping that Ron was close behind me. We finally burst onto the platform and I turned to see Ron emerging from the fray. I just had to laugh. The concept of those entering the train standing to the side to allow those exiting to do so, is completely foreign – obviously. Good to know. I’ll bring my battering ram or tazer next time.

Once outside, we headed to the line of taxis. Most were empty of drivers, who were sitting on a wall nearby. Ron leaned in to ask the one driver in a car about going to the Khan, and we were immediately surrounded by loud and fast Arabic. Apparently we needed to go to the first cab in line, though somehow we ended up in the second one. Regardless, he took us to the Khan and we exited onto a busy street of tiny stores. Ron led us around the corner where it opened into a large grassy square, bracketed on one side by a huge beautiful mosque, draped in tiny Christmas lights (I guess they’re just colored lights in this context). SIDE NOTE: Egyptians, or at least Cairenes, love strings of colored lights. They decorate cabs, buildings, trees, store fronts, feluccas, and mosques in draped and wrapped strings of lights, neon lights, etc. In some areas it’s like a carnival. There was something almost Hollywood-like about the whole scene. Hundreds of people milling about, in all forms of dress, with every nationality present (tour buses were coming through with great regularity).

We summoned our strength and determination and dove into the fray of the Khan. You know when you’re on an amusement ride, and you sit down, strap in, and the ride starts to move forward and you enter through doors into a dark or other-worldly place just before the car jettisons forward? Well, this was the same experience, minus the plastic sticky seats. We walked into a small alleyway crammed full of shops (not an experience for the claustrophobic or agoraphobic). It was a bombardment of sights, sounds, and all sensory sensations. There was tourist chachka as far as you could see, pyramid replicas in all shapes, sizes and materials (I think I saw a blow-up one), sphinx replicas, brass plates, bowls and pitchers, jewelry of all kinds (some wearable, some just to gawk at), t-shirts, keychains, everything a tourist would ever buy. In addition to the stuff, stuff, and stuff (it was like our old apartment), there were hawkers everywhere at every turn, trying to get you into their store (which has the same stuff as the next guy’s store and the next after that). They are relentless, constantly yelling at you, offering a “free look,” actually yelling, “I don’t know what you want, but I know I have it.” I laughed out loud the first time I heard that, but by the seventh, it had lost its humor. Most of these guys stop at physically dragging you into their shop, some don’t. But if you make it through the first section, you find yourself in an equally Kafka-esque section, but now we get into the marginally less-touristy merchandise, and depending on your digging skills, some good buys.

Gallibayas are the traditional shirt or dress worn here. They come in a huge range of colors with beautiful beading or embroidery and are cotton, long-sleeved, loose and comfortable. They are all over the Khan and you hear non-stop, “Gallibaya for the lady?” “Gallibaya for man?” Ron’s favorite was, “I have your size.” I’m sure we’ll purchase a gallibaya here or there in the future, but for now we declined, constantly.

The Khan is laid out like a labyrinth or a hedge-maze made out of shops. In addition to the crazy twists and turns of the narrow cobbled streets, there are stairways and alley off-shoots everywhere. This is probably one of the only places in the world where it’s relatively safe to allow a stranger to lead you down a dark alley; here you’ll end up at to a tiny shop where gold jewelry is being made before your eyes, or appliqué wall-hangings are being sewn, or “genuine antiquities” are being sold just to you.

At one point Ron led me, much to the excitement of the hawker on the street, up a narrow stone staircase. At the top we found ourselves in an open-air courtyard with more shops all around the edges. We wandered into a few here, as they were less crowded and the sellers were, well, less obnoxious, than the main street guys. Here we could actually browse or “look for free” as the hawkers promise relentlessly. We saw some beautiful brass ware, from name plates, to bowls and pitchers, to basically anything that could be made out of brass.

In addition to the items you see for sale, most of these merchants can also make things to your specifications. Unlike the states, here you often buy directly from the artist or designer, or if they can’t do it, they know someone who can create what you want. It’s an exciting option to be able to requisition a piece of furniture or art or kitchenware, as opposed to buying the latest from China in a box with too much packaging. I’m sure we’ll partake of this option during our time here (though I’m not sure Ron knows that we’ll partake of this option…).

The thing about the Khan is if you have the luxury of being able to return a few times, and not be constrained to the tour bus slots, you can explore it first, peek at things here and there, get an idea of what you might be interested in (silver or gold jewelry, beads, gemstones, clothing, glassware, marble, brass, bronze, etc.), get recommendations from others, and then go back with a purpose. There are some fantastic shops wedged inside, and it just takes a little time, effort and determination to find them. But even if you’re only here for a few days, you have to at least attempt the gauntlet of the Khan.