Home / Culture and Society / Travel / Khan El Khalili in May: Cairo’s Great Souk is Open for Business

Khan El Khalili in May: Cairo’s Great Souk is Open for Business

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My husband left Egypt for Kenya a few days ago. The day that he left, we went to Khan El Khallili together for several hours.

According to my tourist book on Cairo,

“Khan el-Khalili is a major souk in the Islamic district of Cairo. The bazaar district is one of Cairo’s main attractions for tourists and Egyptians alike.”

Well, when my husband and I went, it was fun and romantic. We started our day by getting dropped off at the gate by a taxi. We then sat down at the nearest cafe. I had my favorite drink, lemon with ice. I also had a tasty chicken shawarma. My husband had roasted lamb chops. They were small, so looked like lamb lollipops. Then we shared a delicious small salad, or what we call kachumbari in Kenya. Tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, cilantro. There was also some nice tahini in the middle of the plate to dunk the pita bread in.

The waiters were amused by my valiant attempts to speak Arabic, and they laughed and smiled, and for the most part, we understood each other. Then my husband and I wandered into the true Khan El Khalili. You walk into the narrowest of alleys. Above you are the balconies of building built right next to each other, right out of a book by Naguib Mahfouz. On either side is shop after tiny shop, with clothes and wares hanging out of the windows. Every possible good – shirts, embroidery, boxes of mother of pearl, silver earrings, spices – can be found in Khan El Khalili. It is a veritable cornucopia of the best Egypt and the Middle East have to offer, all to be had at the best price you can negotiate.

The tragic part is that the drop in tourism caused by the Revolution means fewer customers. Each vendor was more anxious than the next. Each one was desperate to convince you to sample his or her wares. There were very few customers that day, perhaps a few dozen. I was dizzied and thrilled by the selection. I bought a gorgeous embroidered blue shirt, some stunning silver braid earrings, several spices, and many beautiful boxes. But I became exhausted by the persistence of the vendors. I was relieved I was with my husband. Remember that in a normal year 11 million tourists come through Egypt, and the great majority of them pass through Khan El Khalili. The vendors must really be suffering right now.

According to Frederick Kunkle writing on April 19 in the Washington Post, the drop in tourism after the Revolution has hurt Egypt’s economy.

“In February, tourism was off 80 percent compared with last year, and it was down 60 percent in March. That is a crippling blow for a sector that accounts for one of every seven Egyptian jobs and makes up about 11 percent of the nation’s economy.”

Egypt is perfectly safe now. There are so many opportunities for people to shop, and to view this land of amazing contrasts. Come see the New Egypt. Save Khan El Khalili.

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About Warigia Bowman

  • Wow Glenn, that is a great story. What a nice young girl. Opening a boutique sounds fabulous!

  • Glenn Contrarian

    I’d love to go to the souk in Cairo…but I won’t get the chance in the foreseeable future.

    But I’ve got a story that you might still appreciate – my wife recently went to an inexpensive market area in the Philippines (the local equivalent of the souk, you might say), and there was a stand selling cheap knock-off purses – Dooney and Burke, Coach, Chanel, you get the idea (and I sometimes shop with my wife and that’s the only reason I know these brands). She never buys a really, really nice purse for herself – she’s too thrifty for that – but the chance to buy a faux Chanel for about thirty dollars was too much to pass up.

    The girl watching the stand was a young Muslim girl, and was of course very eager to sell. Problem was, my wife only had enough money for the fare home plus about six dollars. The girl bargained and begged – you know how it is (and how Americans are largely clueless when it comes to bargaining).

    When my wife explained to her that she only had six dollars that she could spend, the girl actually closed up her little shop and walked with my wife to three separate ATMs…none of which were working at the time! So the girl went ahead and sold the purse to my wife for about $6 – one-fifth the asking price – mostly because my wife was the first customer of the day, and in the Philippines the first customer is always your ‘good luck’ customer.

    So I told my wife that before she flies home, she should go back to the girl and buy another purse at a better price, because the girl had shown a lot of gumption and was never rude. That, and we’ve got plans of someday opening a boutique there, and that’s the kind of salesperson I want working for us!