Khan al-Khalili, a major historic center and one of the many beautiful aspects that collectively create what we know as Cairo. Located in Islamic Cairo, this سوق (pronounced “souq”; market in Arabic) is today largely focused on tourists, with overly repetitive mini pyramids, mini pharaonic gods, stores of chandeliers, stores of hookah’s, stores of papyrus paper posters, and so on. There are also stores with many lanterns, which is perhaps a more well-known characteristic of Khan al-Khalili. These have become almost iconic in its relation to Khan al-Khalili today.
However, when Naguib Mahfouz published his book “Khan al-Khalili” in 1925 (and set in 1942), it was regarding how World War II was affecting the average citizen in Cairo, depicting the story of a young man from a middle class family, who had to move from a much more affluent neighborhood to the crammed, rowdy alleys of Khan al-Khalili under the belief they’d be safe from the bombs of the Germans due to the religious significance of the holy site and the mosque of Al-Husayn.
Living in Maadi, crammed with little alleys, children playing in the streets from 7 am- disrupting what sleep I dreamt I could have – alongside the incessant honking of cars that does not cease to rest, I often think of Mahfouz’s “Khan al-Khalili”. Due to this, and because I had still not yet been to the actual area of Khan al-Khalili, I finally went.
As we were sitting in a cafe, enjoying some tea with mint and with too much sugar along with some hookah, a little boy came up to us, hands clad in سبحه (pronounced “sobhah”; prayer beads in Arabic), asking me if I wanted one in broken English. We decided to try teaching him how to say “please” because he was saying “bleeze.” He asked us how to say “do you want one” in English, and we taught him. Later on, we had switched cafes, after some roaming around and browsing the repetitive stores, and he appeared again. I was so delighted to see him I purchased a sobhah from him, and decidedly took a photo of him.
He must have only been about 9 or 10, with golden-brown hair, and big, brown eyes. He was an adorable and polite child, and he most likely didn’t have a future in front of him. The streets of Cairo are largely cluttered with groups of young men, bored, restless; the economy is doing poorly (although Sisi is doing many things to improve it and tourism, crucial to the economy, is rapidly increasing, with Egypt experiencing a 35% increase in tourism in just 2017) and there is, unfortunately, a case of overwhelming supply and devastatingly little demand – many with the tools, motivation, will, intellect, and education for certain jobs, but there are not enough jobs for them.
While I do not pretend to understand this little boy’s life in it’s entirety, I do understand the characteristics of his social class, and what this most likely entails – given the circumstances of the time and place. This little boy would most likely grow up and work blue collar jobs, taking in the dust of the streets, struggling to make ends meet, perhaps living a consistent life albeit in times of abnormal circumstances, such as if a caretaker passes away early or if there is a disease that plagues a member of his family or his own life that requires masses of medicinal bills, then he will struggle many of the days of his life.
But he is not one boy. He is the millions in Cairo. I wonder- does he know yet, that he most likely doesn’t have a future ahead of him?