The tables went flying. The goods disappeared. The teeming market was liquidated in seconds. The police were coming by, and that was cause for panic in this Attaba market.
Indeed, market life in this neighborhood – the site of current construction on Cairo’s third Metro line – is tougher than ever, legitimate or not, even for those built up by the government. A walk through the neighborhood is a walk through an element of Cairo teetering on the brink of extinction.
As you exit the subway into the Azbakia book market, the classical music that accompanies any book-browsing experience is nowhere to be heard, muted perhaps by the sound of the jackhammer. In its sixth location in 15 years, the market awaits the completion of the neighboring construction of the Attaba link of Cairo’s third subway line for what many hope will mean a return to stability.
For now, the impressive Arabesque woodwork of the 133 kiosks built by the government following the Metro-related displacement offer a hint of this market’s long history. The kiosks are filled with books – entering some without toppling the waist-high piles can be daunting – offering literature of all forms and languages.
Demand from students, mothers, tourists, children and anyone else with an interest in (cheap) reading has led to a diverse range of options, though, to be sure, the same books can often be found in any of the 133 miniature shops.
The newspaper stall stands out as an exception to the rule. Stacks of issues from the days of the revolution sit beside posters for films from a time when Egyptian cinema could be considered classic and their posters collectable.
Students dominate the area in the evening, following classes and the afternoon sun. So there is no lack of research textbooks, foreign language aides and classic literature. But Mickey Mouse comics, cookbooks and travel guides are equally available.
Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations is most prevalent among English offerings, a testament not to the shop keepers’ love for Victorian literature, but to the course offerings for students of English.
Indeed, book sellers in this market do not always have the affinity with books that one might expect.
Bookkeeping has been in the Farag family since his grandfather opened a stall in 1957. At that time, his grandfather purchased his first collection of rare books in an auction, “and they asked him to sign the sales contract, but he couldn’t because he does not know how to write, Mamdouh said. “But he knows the value of the experience of books.
Mamdouh Farag said that, though today’s booksellers are educated, they don’t have the same appreciation for the books. Instead, customers learn about the books beforehand, and take advantage only of the low prices that the market has to offer.
While books remain in fashion, other market industries in the area are falling into troubled days, in spite of a fascinating cultural relevance well worth the visit. Three blocks east, Darb El-Barabra provides everything you need for your affordable, Coptic wedding or sobuo’, a celebration of birth similar to a baby shower.
An array of beautiful pieces big and small adorns the storefronts. Ceramic pieces and ceremonial candy are available at the Patisseries (the French meaning is lost on the pink and white candy) that have been operating through the ages. Candles sold at LE 2 a dozen, distributed to children during the sobuo’, stand beside the meter-long wedding candles often decorated brilliantly with textiles, pearls and silk tapes. Flowers hang down store fronts (plastic these days) and chandeliers from store ceilings.
Watch on as the girls perform the candy packaging and gift box wrapping for the “bonbonier. These stuffed cartons distributed during baby showers are filled with peanut sweets and small ceramic figurines and plastic toys, perhaps with the addition of chocolate. The items are often labeled with the baby’s name and a poetic phrase. Unseen, according to one shopkeeper, are the specialists who come up with such phrases.
Darb El-Barabra, “the path of barbarians that was once home to the Nubians of Cairo, was at one point a community of Armenians and Greeks, from whom many of these ceremonies arose.
Patisserie shopkeeper Sayed Anwar said most of the Egyptians in the trade were taught by the Armenians and Greeks that lived in the area. “I personally learned from a Greek foreigner called Simon this whole candy industry, he said.
But even as the cheap Chinese alternatives overtake local crafts.
Shopkeepers here say that economic difficulties have reduced family budgets for such celebrations. The typical LE 1,500 spent on preparation – from figurines and candy to flowers and candles – has dropped to maybe LE 300.
Yet just as the bookkeepers keep selling, the wedding planners continue their dated trade.
“We accompany the bride throughout her journey, said shopkeeper Mahmoud Amin.
“We literally walk her down the aisle.