The last time this Intolerant was in Khan El Khalili (approximately six months ago) she was so overwhelmed by aggressive shopkeepers, trash and harassment that she’s avoided it ever since. A crying shame really as Egypt’s most notorious souk is home to plenty of quality Egyptian cloth, jewelry, flatware, mementos and artwork at fantastic prices. Whenever I want to pick up a gift or a little something for the flat these days I stick to a couple of shops in Zamalek or head downtown. I do this knowing full well I will end up paying a little bit more; however, for the hassle-lite experience…it’s worth it.
One place worth frequenting, and where I send friends/travellers to purchase souvenirs of their time in Egypt, is Oum el Dounia (“Mother of the World”) in downtown Cairo. The colourful, French-owned boutique is located at 3 Talaat Harb just adjacent to Cairo’s infamous Tahrir Square.
It’s a bit tricky to find, but make the effort because this place is indeed the mother of all handicrafts in Cairo. Enter from the mouth of Talaat Harb (off of Tahrir) and stick to the right side of the street. It’s the 3rd or 4th entrance, just a few doors down from the former Algerian Airways office. Keep an eye out for red signs that will point you towards the first floor where you ring the bell in order to enter a remodeled apartment from the early 1900’s that has room upon room of Egyptian treasures.
There’s clothing and jewelry, books (mainly French) and bags, hand puppets for kids and table runners for adults. The majority of items stocked at Oum El Dounia are made by local artisans and include items from small and medium enterprises from across Egypt. Even young entrepreneurs and Sudanese refugees are given a space to showcase their products provided their goods are made with quality and care.
The clothing includes printed t-shirts, woven galabiyas and tunics. There are recently published books on Egyptian/Arab graffiti and I’m a sucker for the oh-so-soft cotton – table cloths and napkins – along with the quirky fair-trade dishes, bowls and serving plates that come from the pottery mecca of Fayoum.
Though the prices are higher, it’s not by much. Pottery you might purchase in Fayoum for 50 LE winds up being 70-80 LE here. Jewelry that runs 150-200 LE in Khan El Khalili has a 20-40 LE markup at most. Pocket change for the convenience of not having to cab it to the heart of Islamic Cairo and haggling for the items you desire (unless you’re keen on getting into a haggling smack down, in which case…knock yourself out).
Ultimately, if you’re poking around downtown Oum El Dounia is a great place to escape the heat, or commotion, for a good half hour. If you want to avoid the throngs of people and traffic around Tahrir it’s best to go Friday and Saturday mornings between 10:00 – 13:00. Oh, and try make it one of the last stops before heading back to your hotel or home, because once you’ve walked through the crimson French doors it will be a challenge to leave without buying something. Anything.
Go on, try it. I dare you.