Well people, I can safely say that yesterday was a day of extremes for Cairo. The morning started with a visit to the animal section of Souk al-Gomma, the Friday market that rambles down dirt streets, beneath freeway flyovers, into the City of the Dead…
Some of the products for sale are indistinguishable from the mounds of rubbish that line the walkways – piles of broken cassettes, single shoes, wonky sunglasses – but there are also clothes, food, antiques… and then there’s the pet section, where a six-month old puppy that threatens to grow the size of a small horse could be yours for LE5000 (more than $1000).
The pet section is grotesquely amazing. Prospective buyers lounge on crates watching a man parade a massive, scarred blue Great Dane for sale, its savage barking at the prompting of teasing small boys attracting a great deal of interest. German Shepards are extremely popular, and young long-eared puppies wait mournfully for someone to befriend them, accepting a soft pat so gratefully, you just want to take them home immediately.
Slim-bodied snakes crawl over the hands of their traders – young boys learning from their fathers – wild-eyed chameleons shudder at the intensity of the noise and the only place the thickness of the pollution and fragrance of the rubbish is forgotten is around the bakhour (incense) sellers.
But the show highlight, for me, was the pigeons. Take a look at London, Rome or even Melbourne and you’d never understand how a population could adore pigeons. Locals rave about their specialist pigeon restaurants, describing the plump birds with almost lascivious glee. Apart from the regular grey flying rats we’re used to seeing, there are some absolute beauties here.
There’s large, white birds so soft they could be mistaken for a handful of tissues. Enormous brown pigeons, like fat chooks, and one black-and-white one with feathered feet and a mop top. I asked if I could take a picture, and was instantly besieged with men and boys eager to be photographed with their beloved birds. They really do love them, though you wouldn’t know it the way one bloke pulled a few large ones out through a small door and tossed them into a big brown paper shopping bag.
The souk has a bad name for pickpockets and the crush of humanity hides a multitude of sins and unspoken dealings, but apart from a light manhandling (saved countless times by my ever alert bodyguard and bag holder:) it was an amazing place to visit.
It was a serious contrast to the rest of the day, which culminated in a drive through Bulaq, one of the poorest and roughest of Cairo’s suburbs, out to a wedding in the new, elite town of 6 October. Lost in Bulaq and dressed in our wedding finery, it was obvious to the people staring into the car that we weren’t from round these parts.
Named after the victory day in the Arab-Israeli war in 1973 which saw Egypt take back the Sinai, (or Yom Kippur War in Israel) 6 October so is far out of town, sort of on the Cairo-Alexander road, I’d dispute that it was actually Cairo. Neat, identical villas make up the suburbs that, from a distance look like ghost towns, so quiet in comparison to the rest of the city.
The wedding was small and intimate by Egyptian standards, but had all the necessary requirements – the couple perched on a love seat on a stage overlooking the reception, the wedding singer with his mic turned up onto full reverb, and the belly dancer a strawberry blonde Russian who I think was actually the best dancer I’ve seen in Egypt. I still find it weird to have a robust woman clad in a pink body stocking, knockers held in surely only by sheer willpower, sliding over the bridal couple, but that’s obviously just a cultural difference. If it was me, I’d have to have a dance-off with her!