Monday, April 13, 2009

, I

This day we started with four hours at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities that I was last in about fifty one years ago. It had changed a little in that there are now guards and a security search almost like the airport. Also no cameras inside and I have pictures my mother took inside.
The first floor is devoted to heavy objects ranging from small stone and wood objects up to rather larger like the two story high pair of demi-collossi or what ever you want to call them and the second floor devoted to sarcophogi and the Tutankamun collection which is considerably larger than what shows up in books or museum tours, in that it is the entire collection of artifacts from that collection and there are quite a few of them. They are also, for the most part, for my taste, among the most exquisit works of art and craftsmanship in the world. They take my breath away and I suspect quite a few others as well. It doesn't matter to me what the social realitites of the world might be that produced them, we would not be where we are if such had not occurred, whether there were slaves or kings that impoverished their subject or what ever the modern PC complaint might be. Complaints are irrelevant to me in the face of such astounding and exquisit beauty. We all might learn a thing or two. Ahem.
And then we got lost walking back to the hotel. I realized why I am getting lost so easily and didn't the last time or when I was a child. I was staying those first two times in Garden City near the el Tahrir bridge (the one with the magnificent bronze lions) and I had the river to orient me to the west and I always knew where I was, the Citadel in the east and the river and the pyramids in the west. Now, staying up in the middle of the city near the Ezibekeah Gardens and all the roads run in constant diagonals and little traffic circles that have six streets crossing them and I am constantly befuddled.
So we finally took a cab for an entire $1.75 or almost 12 Egyptian pounds. Sat around a while, had a beer Stella and headed out for the Muski to buy a few wanted things. I get drunk on Cairo at a time like this, wandering throught the crowds, getting denser and more dynamic and I'm walking with my eyes looking in two hundred degrees and rapid fire, thinking fast, shooting and sometimes holding the camera at waist level, wide angle open to the widest and aiming and shooting at what I want, sometimes while I look the other way to distract any subject from thinking I am paying them any attention and sometimes not caring as we are all moving so fast that even if they object I am gone in the crowd before they can complain. This is my one predatory act in such an environment. I want to catch people living, being unselfconsious and relaxed about themselves and as unaware of my presence as I can manage. Sometimes they are absolutely delighted that I care enough and are more than happy to pose or acknowlege my interest with open armed warmth.
We were walking thus, through the crowds that line the road on the way to the Muski and we wondered where those stairs went so we went up and there were other little alleys and there were men smoking sheesha (they are absolutly everywhere) and there were feral cats (also everywhere) and we were walking so fast and I was in the rythmn of seeing and shooting and also trying to anticipate the subjects ignorance, concern, indifference or otherwise noticing me and there was the woman washing her hands at the public water supply, the men smoking and the cats in the sun all in one place. Then we turned around and plunged on and took the alley that was less than a hallway up past the man selling herbs and spices and I stopped to buy some Egyptian saffron which is widly sneered at as not being "real" saffron as it is safflowers entire blossoms. But I recall it being a pleasant addition to food before and it costs a pittance so I bought a half a kilo for 25 LE which is like $5. And then we went on, more pictures and more attenae open to what might be that we were looking for and there was a man sitting by himself in a stall with a lot of tapestries that I was interested in and we went away with both of us very happy and surprised and then we were on this street in the midst of Khan el Khalili in front of a mosque and this truely charming young man did what he was supposed to do which was to say "WELCOME, what are you looking for, I'm sure I have it here..." and he did have some brass trays I was interested in and hadn't yet found and yet not quite what I had in mind and so I told him I like this, I don't like that (I like Islamic and Egyptian art, I don't like tourist art and will not buy any obvious such kitch) Some of them like that (especially if they are prepared to be able to fulfil your wishes) but I always get the self satisfaction that I am interested in their culture much more than some trinket that I could buy the equivalent of at Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco which I would never do and don't recommend anyone else do either. But anyway, he got the look in his eyes and said he wanted to take us to his shop, "over there, up stairs" so I said, OK show me and he said what else are you looking for and I mentioned a thing or two and he said lets go and so we did.
He took us across the alley and into an alley smaller than a hallway and up some stairs to another alley while telling us that this was a special alley named in the title of a Naguib Mahfouz novel and I got interested that he would so unselfconsciously site such a reference without even finding out if I knew who that was and he took us past the men smoking sheesha and drinking tea and up more stairs and down a hallway pretending to be an alley that had little stalls on it that there could really only be customers for if they were brought willing or by force and then he rolled up a metal door on a mini stall mostly filled with the kind of kitche that I don't want except for a certain item and he sat us down and asked us if we wanted tea or coffee or a cigarette and he warmed to his task. He left us there to get the refreshments and look at what ever we wanted while he was gone and then he came back and we looked at the items of interest and we took our time and he took his time and we drank tea and coffee and smoked cigarettes and told each other trivia about our lives and he could have charmed the pants off of a flat tire. He was the real deal. There is this Egyptian who it is a pleasure to deal with, he will give you a fair deal if you give him a fair deal and there is a sort of gentle dance where everyone is enjoying the fact that we're all here to come away happy. He spoke middle bad english, but made up for it in quantities of heart and soul. Of course when the one transaction was complete he wondered if there wasn't maybe another one that I was looking for. Didn't I want a brass tray? It was the first thing I'd asked about and so he had his sister go and look for the tray again. The first time she produced the required aspects of this tray but minus any ornamentation and the second time with tourist ornamentation and now, up in the secret hallway, smoking a drinking tea he has her come back again, this time with the right stuff. Two trays that looked to me like they were fifty years old, in need of a little polishing and he set about to polishing it with his bare hands. He smeared it with brass polish with his hands and then for fifteen minutes hand polished with a rag and after quoting a price readily came down seventeen percent or so and I was sold if for no other reason than he had fulfilled exactly what I asked for and put so much work into his wining and dining and finding what I wanted that my only concern finally was not money but did I want to cart this tray home. He made me answer the question in the affirmative for being such an incredibly sweet and gentle young man who obviously enjoye dealing with me and Jesse. He insisted we take pictures, he wanted to show us the cafe named by the Mahfouz novel with the pictures of the writer on the wall and insisted we walk back arm in arm. While we were sitting drinking and smoking cigarettes and making our transaction he commented in his poor english how this was a "mens thing" we were doing. And so it was. It was really fun.
There are a million more things that I am thinking, feeling and remembering constantly here. It has been Easter and the Copts are a minority here

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