Sultans of Bling

Most people visit Cairo for the Pyramids at Giza, Sakkara and Dashur. Many do it also for the medieval mosques in Islamic Cairo. But Cairo as a shopper’s paradise like Hong Kong or Bangkok? Not quite.

However, we’ve spent the past couple of days exploring the underbelly of Cairo’s gold traders, in search of a wedding ring (no, not mine!) Jewellery is dictated by fashion, make no mistake. And the fashion at the moment in Egypt is for Seriously Big Bling.

So when Fee turned up in town with her little, white hands and a taste for the understated, it became immediately obvious we were in for a rough time. We visited the gold strip in Misr el Gedida (Heliopolis) near Midan Salah El Din, and also the gold traders of Khan al-Khalili and Sharia El Muizz.

The shops ranged from luxe emporiums to tatty offices where dealers pulled trays of diamonds out of secret compartments behind their knees and talked about the colour H and vvsi grades of clarity, princess cuts and claw settings. It was a learning curve for both of us.

We weren’t the only shoppers. While a few Christmas tourists poked their noses into the shops, Egyptian buyers were busy poring over the trays of gold, lured by enormous diamonds and rich yellow, 18-carat extravaganzas. None of Australia’s pale, limp 9-carat wanna-be gold.

Interestingly, it’s the ladies who wear the most gold in these parts. The precious metal is considered to be detrimental to men’s health, so most men wear a silver wedding ring. I’m ok with that. With gold prices at an all-time high as investors seek safe investments, grooms get off pretty cheaply. Not like the brides.

Rings ranged from pretty little trinkets from young men to their intended bride to no-holds-barred golden knuckle dusters that have you dragging your hands on the ground under their weight.

The main thoroughfare of El Muizz is lined with gold and silver shops (not to mention other businesses selling lanterns, plaster busts of Nefertari, pyramid fridge magnets, inlaid chess boards, chandeliers, tatty jewellery and a never-ending stream of tassle-laden shisha pipes). All through the night the cobbled street rang with the sounds of the zaghroota, the elated wail that Arabic women do when they’re celebrating. Weddings especially.

“It can make a man’s blood rise,” an old man confided to me once.

“What’s that woman screaming for?” asked a concerned Fee. Different ears, different interpretations.

Fifteen shops and three shopping sessions later, we have found the ring (a sweeping solitaire), negotiated the price (of course, more than the original budget) and organised for the resizing. The bling, my friends, is in the bag.

PS: If you’re jewellery shopping in Cairo and want some contacts, we had success finding the ring at the dusty, seemingly empty Ahmed Hosny & Sons at 99 Sharia El Muizz and are getting work and diamond done at the lovely Gouzlan, beside Naguib Mafouz restaurant in the heart of Khan al-Khalili.

The plight of the pigeon

The first time I looked up, properly looked up, in medieval Cairo, I noticed weird wooden towers built on the top of apartment blocks. “What are they?” I asked the old man showing me the view from a mosque in Cairo’s City of the Dead. “Hammams”, he said. “Bathrooms?” I thought. How weird! People climb up those rickety little ladders to go to the toilet? “Hammans?” I asked, just to be sure. Yes, yes, he nodded. “Hammams.” What I later discover in the great game that is learning Egyptian is that a hammam is a bathroom, but a hammam…is also a pigeon. Something to do with more or less ‘m’ pronunciation. Yes, winged rats despised by the Anglo world, scourge of European monuments. Yet all over Egypt, these little boxes on stilts are where one of Egypt’s great delicacies are nurtured. In the evenings, you can hear a whistling as the owners call their beloved flocks home. “They’re very intelligent,” someone tells me. A first I’ve heard that, but then I’m not a pigeon fancier. The best restaurants in Cairo are said to include Farahat in the medieval part of the city, Gamilaya, as well as upmarket Nasr City. I’ve eaten pigeon in the alleyways of Khan al-Khalili, where a boy rushes up to you, asks you, “How many?” then rushes off again to grab the required number of pigeons, salad, bread and a peppery, watery pigeon broth and slaps it all on the table without any ceremony or cutlery. It’s oily and messy, the little bodies stuffed with fireek, or crushed wheat (think bulgar, Aussies). In comparison, I ate pigeon at a friend’s home. His wife is obviously the mistress of pigeon cooking – she stuffed hers with rice, which sits just beneath the skin. Less oily, less messy, infinitely more tasty. “Eat like you’re at home,” she said as she dropped two platters of pigeons on the table. “With both your hands, your feet…whatever.” Then I learned what is considered the pièce de résistance amongst this breed of pigeon fanciers. A quick tap on the head and voila, pigeon brains. I have only one word to describe them. Small. But then, what do you need a brain for if you’re a pigeon? Thinks: eat. Thinks: procreate. Thinks: eat. Sounds like utopia. If only the accommodation was better. Still, city views are good…

Sufism in Cairo

The Hussein mosque in one of Cairo’s main square is one of the holiest in the country – take a look inside and encased in a silver casket is the head of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammad (though as the Lonely Planet points out, a mosque in Iraq alleges it has the same head of Hussein.)

Men enter in the main door, women at the side, and the mosque is completely divided in two. The same guidebook says non-Muslims can’t enter, but I’ve never heard of anyone being turned away. The men’s section is spacious and calm, while the day I entered the women’s section, it was full of kids and picnics, and women ululating by the casket, which is visible from both quarters.

On Fridays, the columns out the front of the Hussein mosque bloom into beautiful umbrellas to shield worshippers from the hot summer sun.

The area around Midan Hussein is also a hotbed for Sufism, a tearaway arm of Islam that most people know through whirling dervishes, the religious twirling to rhythmic chanting in a bid to enter a trance-like state to get closer to God.

A troupe of Sufi dancers perform three times a week in the Wikalat Sultan al-Guhria, a caravanserai (doss house for travellers) that dates from 1504AD in Islamic Cairo. The sufis wear full-circle skirts (tannoura in classical Arabic) while a singer cries over a blisteringly loud band of drums, rebaba (a two-stringed violin from Upper Egypt) and the strident clarinet-like instrument, the nay, which is said to date back to Pharonic times.


Meanwhile, as the six men (it’s all men) in white skirts spin and whirl for up to half an hour, a seventh, in the middle, wears brightly coloured skirts. At different points, he peels off layers of his skirts, a jacket, and holds aloft a flag with Allah’s name written on it.

Be warned: like all Egyptian music, which has just two levels, off and 10, it’s seriously loud. It’s ear-splittingly loud and it’s mesmerising.

Details: Al-Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troup, free admission, Mon, Wed, Sat 8.30pm.

A realeo, trulio boutique hotel in Cairo

I recently reviewed a gem of a boutique hotel, Le Riad, in Gamilaya, the medieval Islamic Cairo. It sits on the main street of El Muizz, which stretches from the city gates of Bab el-Futah to Bab Zuewelia.

The area nearby is the mad bazaar of Khan al-Khalili and is a pedestrian zone (mostly, excluding taxis, wild boys on motorbikes, donkey carts and horse drays) that was, until very recently, potholed and filled with the soup of a handful of centuries.

So when a Frenchwoman and her Syrian partner found this 1960s apartment block, it was home to 81 people, the rooftop serving its usual Egyptian occupation – as a rubbish dump. Now the rooftop is a chic Arabesque-meets-Bel-Air garden terrace that looks over some of the city’s oldest mosques, including the mosque of Al-Aqmar, which dates from 1125. You can see minarets from the Fatamid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods, the citadel and the waterfront hotels that line the Nile.

Lovers of white, despair! Veronique has one of the most energetic and exciting visions of colour ever to be seen in a hotel – and it all works. She is amazing! Each room is a vivid colour, either mid-blues or hot pink, eggy yellow or rich reds. They’re named after periods such as the Ottoman or Pharonic suite, or after people and personalities – the singer Omm Kolthoum, a Bedouin room, the bellydancers’ room…

She can tell you where every chair came from, what period the reproductions are modelled on, from Pharonic furniture to chic 1950s. She sourced all the photos, paintings, the detailed touches like the antique typewriter in the Nagib Mafouz suite (winner of the Nobel prize for Literature).

She’s taken the bulky silver necklaces of the oases women and box framed them for dramatic effect, the light fittings are enormous and super-glam, and she serves the best pastries in Cairo, discovered after an extensive search. “I would be looking at pain au chocolate and would have to ask, ‘Is that a pastry or a roast chicken?'” she said over dinner. Her driver picks them up from a bakery near the Four Seasons First Residence, Giza, every morning, and it’s worth the effort.

There are just 17 suites, and it’s not cheap, ok? The standard suites are E240 up to E300 for the superior suites. But in a city characterised by big five-stars and slummy dives (with the notable exception of the lovely budget Pension Roma) and the Talisman Hotel, a former project by the same dynamic duo, it’s a welcome addition to the Cairo scene (and hello, Kartell opens a shop here in a few weeks, too!) Anyway, here are the pix – you be the judge.

bombing in khan al-khalili market

Yesterday’s bombing in the world’s greatest tat market is such a shock – what possible motives could the bombers have? I was up at Khan al-Khalili a couple of days ago, visiting a jeweller friend, and had left a watch up there to be fixed. I meant to go up to collect it yesterday, but was too lazy, and the shops close earlier on Sundays, the quietest day of the week at the market, though that’s little consolation.

I rang Sharban and he was ok, it was his day off (hamdo allah, he said a hundred times), but he had said the other night, when we were in a cafe drinking cold mango juice, that business is down due to the problems with Gaza. Poor thing, I feel so sorry for him as I can imagine his livelihood disappearing down the drain.

Perhaps I had my head in a bucket, but I didn’t know about it for a few hours, as my main news source, CNN, was FAR more concerned with the Oscars.