Day 1: Khan al Kalili and the Umm Kalthoum museum

We did so much in Cairo on our first day I felt like I have been here for a lifetime. It’s a good lifetime, one that will never be long enough.

I woke up with the sun (I’m sure I can thank jetlag for that) and decided today would be a beautiful day. The scene from our balcony told me no different. Good morning, Cairo. Good morning, Egypt. 

The plans for the day were to register for the conference, and then find a way to get to the umm kalthoum museum and to the khan al kalili bazaar. After breakfast and registration our group decided the best decision was to hire a car from the hotel to deliver us to each of our destinations. We could book the driver for the day and spend 1 hour at the museum and 2 at the market. The price was reasonable and it made everyone in our group feel much more secure about being able to find our way, so we struck a deal.

Our driver Wahed didn’t speak English but he loved playing shaabi for us on the radio, and swiftly nagivated  (with lots of sudden Cairo stops) through traffic in the city. Our morning commute included a few camels which made us all bust into laughter. Wahed slowed down to let us take a picutre, the driver stared right back at us as he carted his furry companions along.

We couldn’t find the musuem. Once got into the downtown part of the city our driver kept asking fellow drivers out the window where it might be. Ever eager to help they’d give him directions back and forth across the city. We started to feel sick with the stop-starting and near misses of impact in the crowded areas, but finally just as we were about to give up our driver asked again and this person lit up when they told us how to get there. For once I believed the museum was real. We finally pulled into the shady lane that housed the Umm Kalthoum museum.

For exactly 6 Egyptian pounds (less than a dollar) foreigners can enter the museum but not take pictures (for pictures it’s 12 pounds). Uum Kalthoum is without a doubt the most famous singer of Egyptian music. So famous in fact, I’ve been told to never dance to an uum kalthoum song where you can hear her voice, because as a dancer I would never convey the music as she has already done. It can not be improved or moved by my presence. Her songs are legendary even without words in the Egyptian culture and dance community for they are perhaps considered one of the most beautiful sentiments of life. 

The museum is a lovely tribute to her. They display many if her dresses and her famous sunglasses encrusted with crystals. There are photos from all ages of her life. But my favorite are her hand written daily ledgers each telling a moment of her life she did not want to miss.

The four of us sat in the dark video theater to watch a film about her life and work. 20 minutes of film does little to convey her impact on the world of music but the end is perhaps the most telling. When Uum Kalthoum left this earthly world the entire country mourned her. Video footage shows millions pouring into the streets to guide her to her final resting place. More people than I think have ever attended all of the Elvis, Selena, or Michael Jackson concerts all combined. So many people, that as the camera pulled away I couldn’t even tell the mass of writhing mourning bodies was human. To touch music or lives as she did is truly a gift. 

I was so happy to have heard of this little gem in Cairo and if you have the patience to find it, you will also find a little of the real Egyptian magic that still exists here. 

We woke Wahed from his nap in the car parked under the shade tree and headed out to Khan al Kalili. 

I was scared of shopping in the bazaar. It’s hard to determine what’s real when you read travel blogs about shopping in Egypt. I expected the most horrible things from the shop owners there. But was thankfully proved wrong on our trip. Do the men hassle you? Certainly. When there are hundreds of stores crammed into a large medieval bazaar of small shops selling mostly the same things any hope you have of getting people into your store rests on our personality. I was so happy to be travelling along with my friends “Miss America, Shakira, and I would kill whoever you want if you marry me”. Perhaps the best pick up line I’ve ever heard was thrown our way. I almost don’t want to share it with you, because its magic is powerful.

“Hey wait you dropped something! No stop you dropped something!”. We finally turned around and he patted his chest proudly “my heart.”

I could have spent days wandering the shops and learning to haggle. I picked up a few items for loved ones back home and on our way out of the bazaar we stopped at a costume shop that caught our eye on the way into the bazaar.

The men ushered us upstairs into a room filled to the brim with the latest in dance fashion. If you find one you like and the rhinestone is falling off he will “fisk” it for you and no costume is too small for you, I promise. The men showed us their costume collection, one even momentarily picked up a melaya veil and twirled around while we all clapped and egged him on to dance for us. They were a jolly and happy group. One particular costume caught my eye. I was finally tempted to try it on. This perhaps sealed my fate.

One member of the group announced our driver would arrive to pick us up within the next fifteen minutes and we really must go. I inquired about the price of the costime, and although entirely reasonable, I just did have that much cash on me anymore. The shop clerk offered to escort me himself to the nearest atm, but I explained nearly all of my money was in cash at the hotel. I still wouldn’t have enough to pay him. He inquired how much I might be carrying and I told him frankly. He told me I could put a deposit on the costime and come back any time during my stay. I felt entirely uneasy about it so declined but I promised I’d return and if the costume was still there I’d buy it. I finally told him I really must go and two steps down the stairs he said “wait! Give me everything you said you have and we are finished. Deal.”

Who says no to that? Deal. 

I walked out with my happy purchase of what I personally believe is the most beautiful costume I’ve seen all week, which is the result of a completely unintentional haggle. I truly didn’t have the money in the bank or on my wallet but this man meant business. How much was the gorgeous costume? Can you see a picture? That’s a secret I don’t intend to share here. I’m bringing back a lot of bling from my stay here so I’m afraid this will have to remain my mystery.

The evening concluded with the grand opening of the festival and dancers from all over Egypt in every style including awalum shisha balancing, whirling dancers in colorful skirts, and some good classical Egyptian. I’d expand on it now but I think I’m going to go enjoy a glass of wine on the patio while I watch the beautiful Cairo sunset. 

*while blogging on site I only have my phone and slow Internet access. Some stories my have grammar issues or mispelled or even autocorrected words that don’t make sense. Proper editing will occur in August upon my return. 

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