Monday, 16 January 2012

Sense memory at the souq

Smells are evocative. For me, it began on the plane with the unidentified but specific smell I associate with the Middle East, particularly the souqs. The scenery traveling from Cairo airport to Giza was quintessentially Arabic too, although I was too tired to take much in yesterday evening.

This evening, sat sipping mint tea after a wander around Khan al-Kalili souq I was struck by the power of the senses to remind me of other places and times.  The setting sun and the dusty city coming to life on foot could be anywhere in the Arab world. Cairo by day is full of traffic and like nowhere else I've been, but when the sun went down and the mosque emptied, it was all people walking, buying from the street food vendors, greeting friends in the inimitable Arab style and bustling around.

The sound of traffic dying away, and the horns giving way to a hub-bub of voices, in a dialect of Arabic so unlike the Modern Standard Arabic I've started learning that I can't even follow the ritualized greetings. The call to prayer from the mosque in the square reminded me of the riad in Marrakech right by a minaret, and the 4am call. The inevitable sound of souvenir hawkers approaching the table we're sat at, selling everything from tissues to pashminas, from "Rolexes" to jewelry. The studied continuation of Indo-European language conversation as their sales pitches are ignored.

The taste of tooth-achingly sweet mint tea, drunk black with spoons of sugar added. Again, Morocco.

The smell of spices from the souq. The smell of sweetcorn charring over an open brazier. The gentle scent of mint from the tea. The subtle underlying whiff on the breeze of incense burning. And pervading it all, the unmistakable smell of shisha pipes, of tobacco laced with fruit smoke. All these are are the smells I love, reminding me mostly of many happy hours in Muscat, in the old souq haggling over pashminas, or sat in a local cafe eating mezze and drinking avocado juice, or sat in the desert with some locals, sharing a barbeque of local dishes and conversation.

For all that there are similarities, there are differences. The language. The stall owners are more practiced at flattering in English. The city is so much bigger, but also very densely packed with people. These make it far and away the least laid back city after London and New York. "In'shallah" its not much in evidence here!