“‘Cause time is just a remedy
Covered in disguise.”
– Electric Indigo, The Paper Kites
Saturday morning, and I am currently still in bed buried underneath layers of duvets and fleece blankets and pillows, savoring the warmth as the wind outside blows at a staggering speed of 48 miles per hour. As I listen to my front attic window rattle endlessly I am overwhelmed by a sense of relief at having canceled all engagements for the day. In fact, I might not even go to work in the library today as planned, all my fantasies of having a productive day destroyed by this horrendous weather. The thought of having to cycle to Queens’ with the wind as my enemy makes me shiver.
But I must admit, this sort of weather is perfect for a deep, introspective kind of soul-searching in bed, particularly about Time. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I have a strange fascination with the trinkets of time — that is, antiques. My mother and I both have this dream of opening an antique shop sourcing unique items from the bazaars of Cairo, Marrakech, Istanbul, and even anywhere closer to home — Indonesia comes immediately to mind. There is just something about antiques that fill me with a sense of wonderment — perhaps their age is testament to how they have weathered through the test of time just fine, yet still staying true to their roots.
Antiques to me signify two important things — time, and place — which make them whatever they are worth today. Indeed, not many can look past the rust and the dust and appreciate them for more than just their aesthetic value. To appreciate antiques, one needs to look at them with a keener eye, an open mind, and — if I may say so myself — with a little bit of a wild fantasy. Of course, antiques came from a completely different time and place from the present, so we may need a little bit of help from our imagination to understand where they’re coming from.
Our last trip to Cairo, Egypt in October 2014 gave us a fantastic opportunity to indulge in some serious antique-hunting. Cairo has inherited not only millennia-old monuments and breath-taking buildings but also many of these fascinating trinkets from the past. Every antique store I walked into was almost like an Aladdin’s cave, like this one on the Shari’a al-Muizz li-Deen Illah, one of the oldest streets in Cairo dating perhaps more than a thousand years back, from the Fatimid Dynasty:
Although I enjoyed myself tremendously during this trip, I would one day love to revisit this street with a local historian or expert who might be able to shed more light on what all this is about. Indeed, these antique stores are full of hidden gems, but without the proper knowledge they may remain forever in oblivion.
Besides antique-hunting though, I treasured our time on Muizz Street simply for the pleasure of observing the bustling atmosphere of every day life unfolding side by side with these ancient buildings which become very much part of people’s daily activities. In fact, the locals seem not to notice the historical significance of the buildings they pass by every morning, too occupied with the pressures and realities of every day life to contemplate on these fantasies of history. On this street, what fascinates me more than the history of it all is the sight of seeing people hard at work trying to make a living. This is indeed a city with people trying their very best to soldier on even in the midst of an economic crisis, like this gentleman right here:
Even as tourists, we could feel the tense economic constraints Egyptians feel stifled by. Not a single taxi ride began and ended without prior haggling and frustrations on both sides, as was the case with the purchase of anything in the market from a pair of antique photo frames I acquired in the Khan el-Khalili to even towels, for goodness’ sake.
Cairo is a metropolitan city simply bursting at the seams with a population of more than ten million to its name. It is a vibrant city that never stays still for long, and has many surprises in store for its guests, like this quaint coffeehouse in one of those narrow streets in the Khan el-Khalili:
El-Fishawy is sort of Cairo’s Café de Flore, and has been around for more than two centuries. Its clientele includes upper middle-class women in hijab smoking a cigarette or calling out to the servers to reload their shisha with an admirable confidence, as if they own the place. When we were there at sunset, the day was apparently just about to start — tourists, locals waiting for their friends, and even young families started flocking in. I had a feeling that this place doesn’t sleep at night either.
Despite my frequent visits to Cairo ever since I was a child, there will never be a “last time” for me here — I will always return, time and time again, to the warmth of its people (though some may continue to test your patience on the littlest of things); to the age-old beauty of this city (though I might time my next visit in the winter again, when the weather and the dust are more bearable); and to the amazing freshly-squeezed mango juice to be enjoyed in the cafés facing the Hussein Mosque.
I will be back, inchaAllah.