He awoke before daybreak. The ward was quiet, bar for the soft rhythm of snoring and his inner voice saying, “So little time, so much to do.” He tried to reason, “But I have until midnight.” Yet, he couldn’t shake the nagging feeling time was running out. So, he lay in bed staring out into the pre-dawn abyss making plans for the day.
The hospital had been his refuge for eleven weeks and he found it difficult to imagine not being there. He was now accustomed to visiting his favorite haunts around Cairo at a whim. That was the beauty of being a convalescent, he spent his days at leisure. Sure, he had to acquire day passes and there was a curfew, but aside from those small inconveniences, he established his own routines in a city that captured his fascination.
He watched as rows of beds containing sleeping forms slowly emerged from the dark. Each time someone stirred and then fell back to sleep, he felt relief. William knew once the ward came to life, he would hit the ground running. Dress. Breakfast. The Bazaar. Lunch. See Lily. Bon voyage. So, he waited, stalling the start of his last day.
It was with mixed emotions that William strolled along the laneway leading to the entrance of Khan a Khalili Bazaar. He set off early to maximize the time he could lose himself within its ancient walls. How often did he visit? He couldn’t say exactly, but it was a place he never tired of. The world within its windy alleyways only existed in novels like Arabian Nights. His memories, like old paintings, needed renewing, to survive the test of time.
Stepping through an archway, he joined the sea of bobbing turbans, fez, and skull caps; swishing robes and scuffing shoes on stone. He hoped to avoid attention; his uniform represented money to the locals. Over the years he learnt to resist their solicitous charms. Today was no different. He ignored the shouting and yelling fired upon him from either side of the lane. With his head held high, he looked straight ahead, surrendering to his surroundings.
He floated along on an infusion of tobacco smoke, incense, and spices. So uniquely Egyptian. His course twisted and turned beneath high vaulted ceilings and open skies void of sunlight, blocked by hanging balconies and walls that appeared to converge. When the alley opened onto a wider, less crowded space, he stopped.
A few small carts rumbled along the cobble stones. Dark curly-haired children skipped beside their mothers who were swathed in black from head to toe; their faces imprisoned behind mesh. Men guarded their tiny shops, armed with tobacco pipes, from which they inhaled in a state of oblivion. William spotted a vendor who sat in a rickety wooden chair beside a cart carrying oversized teapots; steam billowed from their spouts.
He bought a glass of tea and sat on a nearby chair, savoring the strong black brew. From his pocket, he retrieved a notebook and cast his eyes down his penciled list of items he wanted to purchase. On his previous visit, he found some brassware he thought Cis would like. Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough cash. Only problem now is, which shop?
When he finished his tea, he stood and returned to the bazaar with purpose in his step. He now focused on the wares displayed by each tiny shop. To the chaotic orchestra of human voices and hammering of tools against metal and wood, he moved along, allowing his eyes to roam the laden walls. He stopped and picked up items that caught his fancy, then replaced them, much to the chagrin of shop owners. Thousands of clay pharaohs, Queens, sphinx, and cats watched him from a multitude of shops. Occasionally he paused to admire the colorful displays, before continuing. As he passed through an archway draped in sumptuous jewel-colored carpets, he stopped. ‘Aha,’ he exclaimed. Out of the gloom ahead, a wall of brassware glistened like moonlit dew.
The brassware stores were many, and alike in appearance. He scanned the shiny wares on either side of the lane until he spotted some delicate brass vases sitting on a tray. Are they the ones I saw last time? He wondered. As he bent down to take a closer look, the shopkeeper, who guarded his wares from his chair, stood and sidled up to William.
“You like, Sir?” he asked.
Holding a small vase in his hand, William looked at the man whose smile bared a mouth of yellow teeth. “Well, yes. A present for my wife.”
He turned the piece, admiring the hieroglyphics engraved around its squat base. He could envisage a pair sitting on the sideboard in their living room. The perfect souvenir. Subtle, but meaningful.
“How much for these?” He asked, holding up two fingers. Before the man could answer, he spotted the jardinières he had listed in his notebook. “And a pair of these,” he added, pointing to the brass bowls engraved with Egyptian figures.
William read the elevation of interest in the shopkeeper’s eyes as “five pounds” rolled off his greedy tongue.
William knew the game. God knows, he has played it often enough. “Two pounds,” he responded with finality.
“No. Too cheap,” the Egyptian man snapped back with contempt.
William placed the items down and began to walk away. He knew a fair price.
“Okay, okay, two pounds.” William heard over his shoulder and turned to be greeted by another pretentious smile.
He paid for his purchases and glanced at his watch. My God, I’ve been here more than two hours. He quickened his steps until he could see sunlight streaming in from the same archway he entered earlier. When he reached the threshold, he turned to take one last look. Like a mirage, the world of Khan a Khalili vanished into the depths of its cavernous gloom. He sighed, then spun on his heels and headed to the tram stop.