Sketching in the Streets and Alms for the Poor
Dec 15, 2016
TRAVELING ALONE, Part 11—
Continuing my story about travel and art in Egypt (finally!):
Sketching in the Streets of Cairo:
In 1990 I sketched in the Khan el Kahlili, the main bazaar in Cairo, which stretches along the main thoroughfare in the Fatimid section of the city (built about 1000 years ago). The section is also called Medieval Cairo. After I asked permission to lean against his wall, a shopkeeper gave me a bucket to sit on, which was very welcomed (I didn’t NEED to ask, but it was a good way to be polite and get a conversation started). He also brought me bottled water, AND shooed away people who would stay too long asking questions Of course, I bought something from him when I was done.
The following year I sketched on the street leading to Bab al Futuh, which is right next to Al Hakim mosque. As I was sitting on a bench drawing the crenellations at the top of the mosque, a little girl came up to me to watch. She did not bother me, just watched and smiled. I gestured with my camera if I could take her photo, and not only did she agree, she struck up a ‘glamour girl’ pose—head tilted to one side, one foot out. After a few minutes, an older woman, who apparently thought the little girl was bothering me, told her, “Ya bint, imshee, imshee!”—“Hey, little girl, scram, get lost!” And she did—and then came back later. I still think of her, and later I drew her from the photo I took of her. She because part of my card series “Women and Children”.
An Adventure in Getting Lost:
Another day I decided it would be a great idea to walk around ‘Fort Sulkowski’ (aka Schulkowski). I was intrigued by the the name, and though it would be fun! I had my map. I had my bag with my sketch pad and pencils (a small 6x8 pad? Of course not, 12x18, because really, why would you carry small when large is so much more cumbersome?). I had my water in my purse (one of those ‘ergonomically’ designed shoulder things, that expand indefinitely), along with at least 5 lbs. more of things I might need. I had my video camera (full size, with 3 extra VHS tapes and two extra battery packs (because why carry 1 when 3 will do?). I had my walking shoes. And I had my plan. Basically, I had three very large bags (my purse, my video equipment, and my drawing supplies) hanging off my shoulders.
I would begin by walking around the Fort until I came back to where I started. A very simple plan, beautiful in its simplicity. It would take a while, but time I had. What could go wrong?
First, let me just say that distances on a map are deceiving. Just sayin’.
Secondly, when a map looks like a wall is there, it might not be.
Thirdly—and I cannot stress this—contrary to popular belief, taxis do not just drive around EVERYWHERE looking for fares
So, I began my walk early in the morning, looking like a bag lady. I walked to the Fort from the Victoria Hotel.
I skirted the wall, took lots of photos, and some video. No sketching. More walking, photos, video. No sketching.
And then the line of the wall didn't so much stop as just dissolve. Looking at the map, I thought I could figure out where it picked back up, and walked int that direction.
I walked for a while, and then I noticed that the area didn’t look like anything I had seen before. The houses looked very British, and upscale, the streets were wider, the traffic was sparser, and there were NO TAXIS. This might have not been so significant, except by this time I was getting hot, and tired, and hungry, and I was ready to give up and go back to the hotel. IN A TAXI because I had NO idea where I was.
I stopped to look around, looked at my map, looked around some more, asked someone on the street where I could find a taxi. They spoke no English. That was the bad news. The GOOD news is that Egyptians are the nicest people. This man gestured for me to wait, got someone who could speak English, and they found out what I needed. I needed a taxi. They got me a taxi.
I had no idea where I was, nor how much it would cost to get to the hotel, so I asked for the cabdriver to drop me off at Bab el Nasr (El Nasr Gate), which I figured was closest to me. It was, and when we turned down the street I recognized the masonry and almost cried. He pulled over and let me out just outside the gate. (See map below of my path)
It was so lovely to walk into that gate, providing such cool shade against the heat of midday.
I decided to sit and rest for a few minutes on the sidewalk curb (which was inside the deep gate) before heading on. I put down all my paraphernalia, and supported my head in my left hand, my right hand extended over my knee, palm up. In the midst of many feet walking by, I was aware of a man’s feet, with a limp, going by. Black trousers, black shoes. I could hear the shuffle as it passed. I was also conscious of a pause in the sound, and then, more shuffling, getting louder. A pause. Something fell into the palm of my hand. A piaster. An Egyptian piaster.
An Egyptian piaster was like a penny, but less. One hundred in an Egyptian pound. At that time, 3 Pounds Egyptian equalled about one dollar.Still, to an Egyptian citizen, this was a lot of money. A loaf of bread was a few piasters, and they add up. Without thinking I jumped up and ran after him. I stopped him and gave it back, thanking him profusely, even though he did not want to take it back.
Then it hit me. I must have looked REALLY bad for him to think that I was begging. I also realized I had not had any water since breakfast (or had lunch, for that matter). No wonder I was sinking, and no wonder I looked like I needed help! I was also wearing a black, long-sleeved T-shirt, a longish denim skirt, and a black scarf I had tied behind my ears. I quickly drank some water, and then went on my way.
Later, I wished I had saved that piaster. After all, he was just acting in good faith, helping the poor and needy. I denied him that. And it would have been fun to have that piaster still.
What I learned: People are kind, having water is not helpful if you don’t DRINK the water, and I carry too many ‘what if’ things (to this day).
My friend Lucy Smith (aka Scheherezade Imports) JUST got back from Cairo. You might want to check out her Facebook posts:
Some of my Egyptian paintings:
NOTE: ’Fort Sulkowski’ is actually the Mosque of Baybar, which has been various things during its existence (after it was a mosque), including a fort for Napoleon (named after an officer in his army), a soap factory, and a garden.
Next time: We Pause for Resolutions
Cheryl Hadrych says (Dec 16, 2016):
I LOVE this! Wonder what happened to the little girl you sketched outside of Al Hakin Mosque in 1990....where is she now? Beautiful drawing.
Linda Hollett-Bazouzi says (Dec 16, 2016):
Thank you, Cheryl! I wish I know what happen to that little girl--I should go back and show her photo around. She would be about 30 now.