Sunday, August 06, 2006

Return to the Alley

No, don’t worry, this blog is not becoming the “Midaq Alley Show,” but due to popular demand (thanks, Peggy) I returned to the Alley today to take some photographs.

When I got to the major street, I was pretty surprised that I remembered so well how to get back there. Stopping only for photos along the way, I headed through the spice market (first photograph) and took a right into the smaller and shaded alley (second photograph). To my surprise, the entrance to Midaq Alley was filled with office supplies for sale (third photograph) that were not there when I made my first trip a week ago. But through the canyons of notebooks, I could see the unmistakable café that guarded the entrance to Egypt’s most famous alley. It takes a while to get to the alley from my house, and I was reluctant to just take a handful of photos and then leave. Instead, I sat down for tea and shesha at some tables outside the café. A quick word on shesha, which is one of the major cultural elements of Egypt…. On pretty much every block you will find a café in which mostly men congregate daily to smoke tobacco from large water-pipes. I have two of them within two blocks of my house, and throughout the city they act as gathering points for the masses. The tea I drank is also amazing; it’s called Arousa, and you drink it with fresh mint leaves. Having never liked tea before, I’m quite happy letting tea assuage my coffee binging tendencies. But back to the Alley….

As I sat there drinking my tea and smoking my shesha, I noticed that everyone in the Alley started looking at me strangely. Of course I attributed this to the fact that they weren’t used to having foreigners come for tea in their little alley. It was difficult to ignore the handful of Cairenes sitting in the café tossing strange looks at me and engaging in conversation that was clearly about me, but I did my best. After about five minutes I began feeling uncomfortably hot. Engrossed in a book, I hadn’t realized how much I was sweating. And so, like any smart kid my age, I moved my chair three feet over into the shade. And with that, I heard an eruption of giggles from within the café. I looked up and saw all the men having a good laugh and a bunch of them were giving me the thumbs up. “Very good, very good,” said one. I had forgotten that it was so much in their nature to avoid the sun whenever possible, and that it was strange when someone didn’t. Walk down the street any afternoon, and you will find one side virtually empty, while the shady side is nearly paralyzed with pedestrians. So, after giving those Egyptians their little laugh for the afternoon, I headed up to the rest of the Alley.

At the end of the main entrance to the Alley, where the café is, stood a spice shop which had been closed the previous week. Wondering whether this was a sign of more life to come up the stairs, I pushed on.

Rounding the corner, I headed up the stairs (fourth picture). At the top of the stairs is a big landing (fifth picture) that goes back a ways, filled with trash and seemingly without purpose. I turned left to face the Alley again, and I was a little disappointed to find that the spice shop below had not served as on omen, but rather as an anomaly since the shoe shop was the only sign of life (sixth photo). I had felt a certain embarrassment about taking photos below with so many Egyptians lounging in the lower part of the Alley. Here, though, I snapped away with all the confidence in the world just because I could. And upon my return home, I plugged my camera into my computer to find that all fifteen, or so, photos of the Alley looked just about the same.

This return visit was amazing to me in that I was able to focus not so much on getting there, but on being there. It was really incredible to me to take such a small chunk of earth, visit it twice, and get to know it fairly intimately. Its colors, its smells, its garbage all became familiar because there wasn’t much to have to get to know. Amazing, too, that it, as a piece of land, a piece of property, is worth so little but that the spirit invested in it by one man’s writing is something that cannot be priced.


Anonymous said...

hey theo....
your pictures are terrific,
but it's your words which reach all my senses;
and the combination of the two:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Theo. These photos were great. And I love the story about sitting in the sun.


Anonymous said...

I would love to have a picture of you smoking your shesha??