Cairo’s Khan el Khalili – Everything you want, even if you don’t know you want it

(Written May 2008) 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” (I’m trying to acclimate). So one day, my husband 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. But in addition, the metro system here has “women only” cars. I’ve been told that the women's car could be in the front, middle or end of the train, so if I’m by myself, I should just look for a gaggle of women and go stand near them. It would be 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 older-style DC or NYC subways, hard plastic seats along the side, rails and poles to hang on to, straps dangling from the ceiling. The primary 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 would 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 my husband 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; but I opted not to return the gesture. My husband 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, right in Tahrir Square 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, Italy, etc., but never have I experienced a mob-scene like that. I never felt afraid, per se, however I was gripping my purse and camera tightly and doing my best to move forward, hoping that my husband was one of the bodies pressing against me. We finally burst onto the platform and I turned to see him emerging from the fray. I just had to laugh. Apparently the concept of those entering the train standing to the side to allow those exiting to do so first, has not caught on here. 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. My husband leaned in to ask the one driver in his cab about going to the Khan, and we were immediately surrounded by lots of loud and fast Arabic. Apparently we needed to go to the first cab in line, regardless of the lack of driver. So despite our ignorance, we managed to make it all the way to the Khan without any further blunders. We exited the taxi and walked around the corner where it opened into a large grassy square, bracketed on one side by a huge beautiful mosque, draped in tiny lights. There was something almost Hollywood-like about the whole scene. Hundreds of people milling about, in all forms of dress, with every nationality present and tour buses coming through with great regularity. We summoned our perseverance and determination and dove into the chaos 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, 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,” or yelling, “I don’t know what you want, but I know that I have it.” For the t-shirt and gallibaya sellers (the traditional long shirt or dress worn here), they'd bellow out, “Gallibaya for the lady?” “Gallibaya for man?”, and my husband’s favorite was, “I have your size!” We laughed out loud the first time we heard these, but by the seventh, they had lost their humor. Most of these guys stop at physically dragging you into their shop; most of them. 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 fun buys. 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 a few 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 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 my husband 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. Here we could browse or actually “look for free” without constant yammering. We saw some interesting brass ware, from name plates, to bowls and pitchers, to basically anything that could be made out of brass, but didn't buy anything. 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 my husband fully understands that we’ll be partaking of this option…). The thing about the Khan is if you have the luxury of being able to visit 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 in Cairo for a few days, you have to at least attempt the gauntlet of the Khan. And don’t be shy; remember, they have your size!