Saturday, December 20, 2008

Cairo’s Souq al Gomma - A death on the Nile

While on the way to Pyramids in Gaza, we were passing a Friday souq - Al Gomma. The souq was held in the cemetary!
According to an article (we did not know the souq was famous, otherwise we might stop over, but then again, we might not as the souq was crowded and notorious Cairo is known for petty crimes), Cairo’s Souq al Gomma is one of the world’s most unforgettable shopping experiences. But planned government changes will spell the end for this ancient, vibrant “mother of all markets”.

Originally, the Friday Market was just one of seven markets held on each day of the week in the area around the Shafi mosque. Today, only the smaller Tuesday market, and this, the mother of all markets – Souq al Gomma – remain to exploit the country’s long mercantile tradition. But all that may change if a Dh3.4 million plan to relocate the market to an “improved” site goes through. The proposed spots are located well outside city limits and include the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road, and a tract of land in a satellite city near Cairo Airport.
The government plan, announced in 2004, is an attempt to curtail the rampant selling of stolen goods that has earned the market its nickname “Souq al Harameya,” or the “Thieves’ Market”. But anyone who has visited the market realises there is a lot more on show than a few stolen mobile phones. It’s hard to imagine a space that could fit as many stalls and tables and rugs into so many corners and streets as naturally as City of the Dead.
“If they take away the market many people will suffer and find nothing to eat,” says Ms Mustapha, an opponent of the plan.
“They won’t find an adequate area to relocate it. Everything is here.”
She is not alone in her fears, but others are doubtful that a government plagued with ineffectuality will ever put the plan into action.
Ahmed al Abyad, an antiques dealer who has been at the market for more than 40 years, will believe it when he sees it.
“If anyone knows about this market, its Uncle Kamel, he’s been here for ever. He says he’s 90, but he’s a liar – we all think he’s well over a hundred,” says Mr Abyad.
A bit of guidance is appreciated in the hectic sprawl that is the Friday Market. Stretching for miles throughout the labyrinthine paths of City of the Dead, the stalls of Souq al Gomma are a mixture of colourful textiles, Chinese goods and a lot of smells — some exotic and some unpleasant.

“The old souq was the start of trade around here,” says Mr Kamal, who turns out to be a sprightly 76. “[Now] it’s got everything: furniture, clothes, watches, rings, everything you want is here. Downtown shops are going bankrupt because of Souq al Gomma.
”The market is nestled in a dusty patch beneath a flyover in the southern cemeteries of City of the Dead just beyond the Citadel, erected by Salah al Din and now a popular tourist attraction. At the foot of the Moqattam hills, the five square miles of mausoleums are almost as old as the city itself, and have never been as quiet or as macabre as the name suggests. Tombkeepers, watchmen and their families were the first residents, but as Cairo continued to draw in migrants, many of the country’s rural and urban poor moved in among the tombs.
It’s a fitting location for the Souq al Gomma; “gomma” means both “Friday” and “gathering.” And Souq al Gomma is the unintentional collaboration of many different communities - the tomb-dwellers and the Zabaleen – Cairo’s rubbish collectors, who pick up most of the city’s trash by hand and provide almost all of its waste disposal. Zabaleen, a community of Coptic Christians, roam the streets of Cairo removing rubbish door-to-door for a meagre fee. Much of what they gather is recycled, sold or fed to their livestock. But some of it finds its way into the Souq al Gomma.
As one seller empties bag after bag on to the ground he says he purchases many of his items from the Zabaleen. He meticulously arranges individual piles of rotary phone parts, empty hairspray bottles, sandals and broken nintendo controllers for display. It’s hard to imagine anyone is interested in a collection of used batteries, but as he nods at a potential customer rummaging through a pile of doorknobs the seller says there is enough profit from selling “used parts” on Friday mornings to support his wife and two children.
Down the path from him is an area of tables offering old magazines, movie posters, postcards and family photos from the 1960s. The seller says he replenishes his stock somewhat haphazardly – buying it from men who scour the city street by street, shouting out from the pavement offers to buy family heirlooms from anyone willing to sell. There’s a decent profit to be made out of buyers interested in Sadat-era propaganda brochures and those with a perverse curiosity for the contents of unopened letters.
Not far from Moqattam is Zamalek, an upper-class and expatriate haven, where colonial villas dot the leafy green streets. Throughout the area signs are stapled to fences and trees saying call the phone number listed on it. If called, there’s a decent chance one of the men from the Souq al Gomma will answer.
The past few years in Egypt have not been easy. Wages have stagnated while inflation has risen and the market has been flooded with imports. For antiques dealers like Ms Mustapha and Mr Abyad it means that fewer people are interested in buying antiques and that cheap goods are attracting a different kind of clientele.

“Before, the customers were rich. They used to come out here looking for brands. Now the customers don’t have that much money,” says Mr Abyad.
“Let me tell you something: would you compare a customer who is coming to buy a piece of fabric or a pair of pants with one who is looking for an antique? There’s one who buys an antique book and one who buys anything, something simple. There’s a huge difference between the two.”
Still, it isn’t easy to tell the real from the replica. When looking at plates engraved with image of Saad Zaghoul, the leader of the Wafd party its hard to imagine anyone would want to make fake artefacts commemorating a politician who was prime minister for a mere 10 months in 1924. But buyer beware. Anything is possible at Souq al Gomma.

A lone set of German tourists in safari shorts withcameras hanging from their necks wander into Mr Kamel’s stall to admire a well-preserved gramaphone. Mr Kamel deftly offers an opening bid: 400 egyptian pounds (266 Dh).
Immediately the tourists scoff. Feeling an affinity for Uncle Kamel and thinking they may not have grasped the exchange rate properly, I venture a hopeful “That’s a pretty good deal.” Glaring at me, they shoot back with, “Yeah, if it was the real thing,” before moving on.
If you’re only coming to Souq al Gomma in the hope of stumbling on a Tiffany lamp, you miss out on the real find - the open and hospitable people and insight into a way of life that if the government has its way, will be a ‘now, for a limited time only’ deal.


manlaksam said...

Pak Man baru habis baca....emmm menarik juga.

MAHAGURU58 said...

Assalamualaikum bro.

You have a flair for storytelling! :)

Had me gripped and reading your article to the very last word!

Congratulations to you sir!

Wassalamualaikum wr wb.