Holiday shopping in Cairo – Expat-Style

Holidays in Cairo are apparently marked by the sudden influx of Christmas Bazaars. They’re everywhere! Our embassy newsletter had a full-page list of them so you could plan your life around finding that quintessential macramé potholder – Pharaonic style, of course.

A few friends had expressed interest in going to one being held at the Nile Hilton. We had heard from others that in years past this bazaar was great. Well, it was big at least. When we all thought of a Christmas Bazaar, we thought crafty stuff. Apparently the big thing for expats in Cairo who don’t have access to a Commissary like we do, is alcohol. There were towering stacks of beer and wine from all over the E.U. And that was basically it. Through the throngs, and I mean throngs, of people and baby carriages and big frosty glasses of Heineken (at 10 in the morning), we found two or three tables selling non-perishables, and that was about it.

There were four of us who went, in two pairs. At one point Kristen called me to see if we’d arrived. I said we had and we were by some Swedish Glogg stand. They were inside the main area, working through the Heineken crowd. We’d never find each other. So Susan and I just left. But not before Susan took me to her favorite shops within the Nile Hilton and warned me against others (who were overpriced or just over-snooty). Susan is a consummate shopper. Not only does she know where to get practically anything, she knows who to ask, and how to bargain. It’s great fun going on a shopping adventure with her, so when she asked if I was game, I said sure!

We started out grabbing a cab to see if we could find a certain bookstore that she wanted to see. They have funny hours, so she jumped on the chance to catch them when they’re open. Our taxi driver at one point turned too soon and was two blocks away but on a busy one-way street, so he suggested we just walk. Susan, in no uncertain terms, told him to drive around the block and get us to the address as agreed to. With a heavy forced sigh, he did.

The shop was great, but in addition to books it also had a lot of vintage black-n-white photographs of old Cairo, cards, wrapping paper, postcards, etc. At one point I wanted to know if they had a certain photo that wasn’t matted or framed, just loose. So, to my utter delight, my simple sentence of “Andik bas suura?” (Do you have just the picture?) actually got a positive response instead of a confused look. I was flying high.

From here, Susan walked me all over Garden City (downtown), showing me good rug shops, towel and sheet shops, book binders, everything. It was nice to have a guide. At one point, we stopped in front of a lingerie store (surprisingly there are lots and lots of these all over Cairo – so despite the outward appearance of conservative abayas, apparently Victoria’s Secret might have a niche here, though she’d definitely have some competition!). We saw a pair of underwear in the window that had, for whatever reason, taxi symbols on it (seatbelt, the red hazard triangle, a license plate) and found them funny so we went in. First we poked through the fuzzy pajama sets and lounge-wear and heavy robes but didn’t find anything of interest so we asked about the taxi underwear and were immediately invited to an upstairs portion of the store. Here was the good loot! Satin and silk, feathers and lace, and some bizarre unmentionables we won’t mention. We found the taxi wear and then Susan asked if they had any “Monika” outfits. The saleswoman excitedly said yes and showed us a leaning stack of boxes marked “Monika” and “KoKo.” I asked, “What’s Monika?” “They love Monica Lewinsky here, and there’s a whole line of naughty lingerie named after her,” Susan told me. Now, I guess I’m more naïve than I thought, but I was really surprised by this. And these were feathery, boa-like, outfits. Completely ridiculous. Susan bought one for her sister.

From here we wandered through a few more stores, but nothing could top the taxi underwear and Monika-duds so we eventually headed home and met Ron for lunch. Ahhh, Christmas-time shopping in Cairo – taxi underwear for everyone!