WATANI International 19 September 2010
What do black market goods, the world’s largest painting, and one of Cairo’s most immense conflagrations have in common? The answer is a small pocket which, until a few months ago, lay in an eastern section of Cairo that sprang to life only once a week.
If you wanted a cell phone at half price, it would have been no problem—you just had to go along to the Imam al-Tunsi market. If it was a spare part for a home appliance you were searching for, you would have found it at the at the Imam market. If it was a bird or a pet friend, you’d have found one there too.
The market was on the way to the Saladdin Citadel. No one knows exactly when the Imam market—also known as the Friday Market, the day it is held—was established, but it was certainly one of the largest black markets not only in Egypt but also in the Arab world regarding the quantity and variety of goods, as well as the large number of shoppers it attracted.
Pets lost or found
You might, though, have wished to leave your sensitivities behind. “Don’t ask where the goods come from, the most important thing is the price,” was the motto adopted by the traders of the Imam market. You might find the cheapest prices, but this leads people to distrust the source of such goods or products.
Some people justified the very low prices of goods in this market on the pretext that such goods—especially furniture and home appliances—might have been secondhand, while some, such as electronic goods and cell phones, were stolen and later purchased by the unwitting traders.
Whatever its appearances, the Friday Market was not a flea market. To begin with there was food—all kinds of vegetables and fruit. Then there was the live animal market with kittens, puppies and birds and those of a possibly less legitimate origin—dogs and cats, monkeys, small crocodiles, snakes and tortoises. Honest or not, the pet stalls always attracted a crowd of children. As for the bird market, as well as the dove and canaries, there were several suspiciously rare species of birds of prey, which were high in demand by Arabs from the Gulf.
Low, low prices
On to computer soft and hardware and their parts, such as an accumulation of used screens, hard disks, printers and DVDs of Arab and foreigner films. Prices varied according to condition. Even medical equipment could be had at a low price. Most of this equipment was secondhand. There was also a variety of cosmetics, perfumes, skin care products and hair gel.
The antiques traders lured both locals and tourists who came to browse at collectibles and paintings. There could be bargains there, since vendors often ignored the real value of the artwork in favour of a quick sale. Near the antiques was a corner for coins and paper currency. And if it was culture you were interested in, the Friday Market wouldn’t have let you down. As at the Azbakiya wall in Downtown Cairo, there are vendors who specialise in old and rare books, and even used school textbooks. Books prices go as low as three and ten pounds.
Furniture occupied a vast area of the market, with anything from bedrooms to wooden kitchen sets. One furniture trader told Watani that sellers came from all over Egypt to display their products in the Friday Market, with many coming from the wood furniture manufacturing centre at Mit Ghamr in the Delta. When you reached the ceramic and aluminium products, then you knew you’d come to the end of the market. The ceramics are generally cheap because they are seconds or faulty in some way.
The Friday mural
This, then, was the Friday Market. One regular shopper, Alaa’ Abdel-Rahim, told Watani that he had come for a TV set. Prices ranged from EGP700 to EGP1,000, half the price outside. “But what really made me hesitant to buy was that there was no warranty,” he said.
In a way, the Friday Market was an embodiment of everything Egyptian. All its details and more are depicted in a mural “Friday Market” by the Egyptian artist Taha al-Qurani, whose work was registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest painting in the whole world at 140m high and 23m wide.
“It represents a unique ambience where poor and humble people come from everywhere in Egypt to buy things they need on the base of low prices.” Qurani says.
It took three years during the past decade, and five years of successive preparation which included weekly visits to the market, drawing sketches and shooting photographs, in addition to 20 hours of video recording for Qurani to finish this giant painting. “I was watching the video tapes while I was painting, and I could even smell everything I depicted in the market,” he says. “I never imagined that the painting would be as large. All I was concerned about was depicting the humanity in the market.”
Qurani did not want his artwork to be just a painting, “Instead, I wanted it to be an operetta.” On the other hand, he adds, displaying the large painting was not easy since most art galleries in Egypt are small. “I had to wait,” the artist says, “although waiting was very hard for me. At last, the painting went on show in the art gallery at the Cairo Opera House.”
One day last June, Cairenes woke up to find that one of their biggest and most popular markets had been destroyed by fire. Some were shocked; some shrugged their shoulders and said they expected it; some were surprised to find that a market with that name was there in the first place.
The fire started when a car fell off the flyover bridge that runs over the market and immediately exploded, setting market kiosks ablaze. The flames quickly spread to some wooden huts. The accident left three dead and 11 injured.
The market consisted of small shops and wooden stalls. The summer naturally brought high temperatures, which coupled with the lack of industrial security and the slow reaction of firefighters led to a situation like a scene from the apocalypse for the thousands of poor families for whom the market was their only source of income.
The government, which had never favoured the shady market or its traders, tried to defer criticism of its handling of the catastrophe by claiming that, two years before, it had ordered the transfer of the market to the outskirts of 15th May town, and it accused the traders of refusing to move.
The traders, for their part, had no desire to move to the middle of nowhere. None of them had studied economics, marketing or business administration, but they know that location and transport were the mainstays of their trade. They argued that bona fide trading provided a legitimate income for a class of people whose needs and livelihood were ignored by the government. And they asked why the regime could not accept the reality of the market and help organise it to its best advantage. So far the situation has not been resolved.