Suq al-‘Ala ~ The Friday Market

For our first trip around Cairo, we’re going to the Friday Market near the Citadel. In Arabic, suq means (open) market and ‘ala means castle. Adham took me early one morning, and I wore fairly loose clothes and a hijab (headscarf to cover my hair). It is not really a tourist attraction, and on the day we went I saw no tourists (other than myself!) and it was just people going about their Friday morning routine.

The suq reminded me of the old flea market in Sausalito, as well as Porta Portese in Rome. Anything your heart desires can be found in this market, from baby carriages to rottweilers.

couple selling wares under umbrella

couple selling wares under umbrella

This couple was the first shop as we entered the suq. Notice the sheesha (hookah) to the man’s right, and the radio he is fixing.

young girl watching the wares

young girl watching the wares

Children in Cairo are often treated more like adults than in the States. Young boys run around the streets delivering tea and sheesha, and it gives me eternal amusement to watch them perfectly mimic adults in their speaking styles and hand gestures. The idea that children should be in bed by 8pm is not a common one, and I often see families (complete with toddlers and carriages) at restaurants, sweet shops, and window shopping at one in the morning.

this one is for dad!

this one is for dad!

This vendor was especially tidy in setting up this tool display. Assorted screwdrivers, saws, pliers, cool bolts, hooks and locks; perhaps this vendor has a shop in Cairo and makes a special trip to the suq.

kid's corner

kid's corner

Toys for tots and some pretty slick tricycles. There were plenty of Egyptian women at the market, although the overwelming majority was male (not unusual at all). These women are wearing very typical muhijaba clothing: long, dark and loose. In addition they are wearing full outfits underneath the black outergarments, and it was at least 80 degrees this day!

carpets for sale, entering the main suq area

carpets for sale, entering the main suq area

As we passed through the carpet area, the suq quicky became crowded with vendors, especially for clothes. Adham is in the blue shirt with a Yemeni kifaya (some of you may recognize from this past winter, it kept me warm in Italy!)

me!

me!

And to be fair, I included the only photo of me taken on that day, so you can see what I wore.

my favorite photo from this series. want shoes?

my favorite photo from this series. want shoes?

how about shoes with no flies on them?

how about shoes with no flies on them?

shoes for your browsing pleasure

shoes, shoes, and more shoes for your browsing pleasure

The number of shoe stalls was pretty surprising. But then considering how large this market is… The first photo is my favorite, the man’s hand gestures and cigarette are perfect! Notice the green fly-swatter in the second photo. The third photo shows a style of clothing for men called galibayya, a single, long outergarment that is worn over pants and a shirt (usually, and hopefully!) It is not common among middle- and upper-class Egyptians, and usually indicates someone from Upper Egypt or a farmer (fellah). However Adham’s well-off uncle and very wealthy Bedouin in the Sinai also wear the galibayya, so you can’t always assume someone who wears it is lower class.

hamam - an eyptian delicacy

hamam - an egyptian delicacy

This man is selling hamam, which people translate to “pigeon” but they look more like doves. They are delicious to eat, and people all over Cairo have cages on roofs and attached to windows. In the evening, you can see flocks of hamam flying all around the city. Strong hamam can cost as much as a tens of thousand of dollars, because they will attract birds from other groups and increase the flock for the owner. A famous man in the 1980s had thousands of hamam and his aviary spanned an entire rooftop. But these days, it is not quite as popular as a lot of roofs have been appropriated for human habitation rather than bird.

the market for animals

the market for animals

The hamam sellers line the entrance to the animal market, a large section of which you can see in this photo. The conditions for animals are pretty atrocious. At least a quarter of the dogs and cats looked as if they wouldn’t make it through the day, and there is very little food, water, or space provided. Nevertheless, anyone can come to sell things at this market, and you do see some well cared for and unusual animals among the mix. Notice the lack of women in this particular area. Sometimes I felt like I was at a Rammstein concert, looking around me and seeing a sea of male faces, but with Adham next to me everyone was very polite and I wasn’t bothered in the slightest. However it was apparently unusual to have a white girl in hijab checking out the animals, and I definitely had the largest crowd gathered around to observe me!

a man and his dog

a man and his dog

This man is selling his German Shepherd. I have only seen a couple other privately owned German Shepherd in Cairo: one when Adham and I took his dog to the veternarian, and two that live in a villa with Adham’s neighbor. Other than that, all the German Shepherds I have seen are employed by the government and large hotels as bomb sniffing dogs. The idea of dog breeders is near absent in Egypt, as Muslim people generally avoid keeping dogs as pets. The nose of a dog is said to be unclean, since dogs are always sniffing at everything. If you make wudu (ritual washing before prayer) and touch a dog, you must make your wudu again before going to pray. The few street dogs that you see around (nothing like in New Delhi) are rarely taken in by people, even when adorable little puppies. It is only among the middle and upper classes that one sees a real kind of dog culture. The ladies who lunch of Heliopolis (the posh area) with their rhinestone-bedecked and fuzzy-sweater-wearing yorkies and pugs have quickly caught on to the dog-as-accessory trend.

siamese kitten for 50 guineas!

siamese kitten for 50 guineas!

There must have been at least ten kittens like this, and almost half seemed too young to be without their mother. 50 Egyptian pounds is equal to about nine dollars, and Adham tells me I could have bargained the seller down to 20! Cats are regarded quite differently than dogs. Although most people do not have domesticated cats living in their homes, the streets are populated with stray cats that people will put food and water out for occasionally. The Prophet Mohamed is said to have had a cat, and by his action this automatically makes housing a cat acceptable. Interestingly, it is not considered proper to buy and sell a cat, but rather it should be given as a gift or rescued. An owner has a responsibility to give food, water, and the freedom to roam to his or her cat.

desert fox

desert fox

After the hamam, kalb (dog), and hut-ta (cat) areas, comes the exotic animals! These vendors did not like me taking photos of their animals, so all I got was this sneaky photo of a little fox. There were also ferrets, iguanas, snakes, and a chameleon! Interestingly, I saw no chickens or rabbits, probably because these are regarded as food and never pets, therefore they are usually sold in butcher shops.

view from the animal section

view from the animal section

The animals are kept under the freeway overpass, and it makes for a dark, dank area. It was nice to come back out into the sun and the air.

space saving techniques

space saving techniques

Some vendors have a very small area for their goods, and vertical presentation definitely helps make things stand out. Notice how crowded the market is in the background!

clothing for sale

clothing for sale

This is a typical display for clothes. With hundreds of people rummaging among the articles, it would be impossible to keep everything folded. I did not look through the clothes very much, but what I did see looked practically unused. I have no idea where the clothes come from, if they are thrift, overstock, donated or gathered from family and acquaintances. I imagine a combination of all.

perusing the kora (ball) selection

perusing the kora (ball) selection

I like this photo of a mother and her child checking out the toys. This is towards the end of the suq, and the vendors start to spread out more.

keeping cool on a hot summer day

keeping cool on a hot summer day

This is a water (or juice) vendor, the kind you’ll see all over Cairo. The earthenware jugs keep the water cool, and the paper cups are for takeaway customers. It also sells tirmuz, a delicious snack that looks like bloated corn kernel and is incredibly addictive. You also see vendors with glass cups for stand-n-drink, but my favorites are the men who carry around a large metal drum of water strapped to their backs and a holster belt equipped with small glasses. These men are often colorfully dressed with flowers and trinkets adorning their water drums.

summer color

summer color

Many trees in Cairo bloom during the late spring and early summer, and you will see  technicolor blossoms across the city. They really make a nice contrast to the dusty buildings and the blue sky.

i got in trouble for this photo!

i got in trouble for this photo!

I liked this archway and took a photo, but shortly after the man sitting in the doorway went to the police idling nearby (there are almost always police idling nearby in Cairo…) and complained about me taking a picture. The police (three young men around my age) came up to Adham and me, politely explaining that I wasn’t allowed to take photos. Egypt has incredibly strict prohibitions on taking photos of anything governmental (try taking a photo of Mubarak’s presidential palace and see how long it takes for the secret agent men to tackle you and take your camera – just kidding! i think…) but occasionally you will find that regular people don’t appreciate being photographed either.

I was walking around Cairo with Adham one day and there was a big trash dumpster that was pretty raunchy and had garbage spilled all about it. There were about seven cats perched elegantly all aound the rim of the dumpster, but when i went to take a photo of the cats, Adham dissuaded me and explained that the people watching on the street would think I was taking photos of garbage to show everyone back home how dirty Egypt is! So, being a foreigner with a camera introduces a new set of social regulators to maneuver by, and although I wish I could take photos of all I see, there really is a time and a place for everything.

Well that is the end of this first installment, I hope you enjoyed the tour through Suq al-‘Ala! I reduced the size of the photos so if you would like to see any of them full resolution just let me know.

egypt cairo souq suk souk souq suk souk friday market

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11 Comments on “Suq al-‘Ala ~ The Friday Market”

  1. MOM Says:

    I was thrilled to get your new posting and quickly made a copy of it so I can read it on the bus to work. You are such a fantastic writer and you always make it so interesting.
    I hope sarah@hungry.com is working so you can receive e-mails for your birthday. this is the time of year I feel soooo far away from you. I’ll keep sending you notes in the hope that you get them.

    I love you and am so proud of you!

    Big Hugs and Kisses. MOM

  2. Mary K Says:

    Fascinating photos of the market…I kept comparing it to the ones I know–in London, Rome, Paris–all so reflective of their respective cultures. Which brought me to thinking of the one atop the Ashby BART station on the weekends—so representative of multi-cultural Berkeley (except, of course, for our hill dwellers–not many of them represented there!)
    Please keep your photos coming…you have such a good eye!

  3. anina Says:

    hey, where exactly is this market? is it only on friday? thanks!

    • sarahstil Says:

      Hi, the market is also known as Suq il-Goma’a (Friday market) and yes it is only on Friday. You will find it under Al-Tonsi flyover (the Autostrade), between the Southern Cemeteries and the Khalifa district, south of the Citadel (il ‘Ala). You can take a taxi there as it is pretty well known.

  4. anina Says:

    thanks a lot!

  5. anina Says:

    hello again,
    two weeks ago, when i was in cairo i went with my friend to the market. from the first minute we had a strange feeling, not only because we were the only tourists around, but also because of the way people where looking at us. after about 5 minutes a friendly guy told us to go, because this area is very dangerous for tourists. so we went up the flyover and watched the market from up there.
    this was my expierience with the market and would nobody recommend to visit this place as a tourist!
    cheers, anina

  6. sarahstil Says:

    Anina,

    If you read my post about this market, you would have seen that I specifically noted that it is not a tourist destination, and that I, a non-Muslim, covered my hair before I went to the market as a sign of respect and understanding that I was in a local area.

    Just because there are no “tourists” does not mean that the market is dangerous. People may have looked at you strangely because they are not used to seeing foreigners at the market, not because they wanted to hurt you. I am a tall, skinny, white girl who definitely did not blend in and I got lots of looks, but I had a great time and no one was rude or unkind to me at all.

    I seriously doubt that anyone in the market that day had any intention of doing you or your friend bodily harm, and I think that man who told you it was dangerous probably just didn’t want you to see how dirty the market was and then go tell your friends that Egypt is a dirty country. Cairenes are often sensitive to how outsiders perceive their home, and tourists are generally kept to the more “picturesque” parts of Cairo.

    If you want a pretty, easy, touristy experience of Cairo, then go to the Khan al-Khalili or the Pyramids Sound and Light show. If you want to see what some actual Cairenes do on their Friday mornings, go to the Suq al ‘Ala. Of course it is not for everyone, so be prepared. Dress discreetly, don’t carry an obvious camera, and just wander around taking it all in. And smile.

  7. Patricia Jerome Says:

    Wonderful! Thank you for sharing all these fantastic photos. My husband and I just finished a course on Egyptology. The course was really more about history and culture, though, including present day Egypt. We discussed the Alepp Suq and other places not in Egypt, and travelled to San Francisco to see the King Tut Exhibit. We also enjoyed an evening at a fantastic Egyptian restaurant, also in San Francisco.

    Again, thank you.

  8. Karen Says:

    I have been to the Friday Market in Cairo and can’t wait to go back. Being a blonde westerner, I was, as always, viewed with some curiosity. However, as a veteran visitor, I was treated with the utmost respect by the people in the market and elsewhere in Cairo, as always, and was the recipient of their hospitality and genuine friendliness. I highly recommend visiting this fascinating city and interacting graciously with the warm and genuine inhabitants.

  9. Joan Says:

    I would really like to go to this market. I have read that you should go with a male, but I don’t know how to find one to go with! (sounds funny, I know.) The hotel I am going to stay at will hire a driver, but said the driver can not go into the market to stay with me, since it is not safe to leave his car. Any suggestions? I am 54, and 5’0. I would actually be flying into Cairo early JUST to go to this market!!

  10. aziz Says:

    hi, is it possible you can locate this friday market on some maps?


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