An Artist in Egypt – Walter Tyndale

AFTER a lapse of some years, I returned to Cairo to attempt once again to paint its ancient buildings, as well as the picturesque incidents seen in the shadows they cast or bathed in light against their sunlit walls. I made an early start on the first morning after my arrival, partly to look for a subject, and more particularly to see whether the pictorial side of the old quarters of the city would still impress me as it did on my first visit. It was a fateful morning, for had what I saw failed to stir up my former enthusiasm, I was resolved to pack up my traps, and try my hand in Upper Egypt. I hurried along the Mousky as fast as its usual crowd of people would allow, and turned down the Khordagiyeh to see if an old favourite subject of mine had not been ‘improved away.’ Needless to say, it was a brilliant morning, for the occasional grey days of midwinter were still a long way off. Great awnings hung across the street, and on one side the shopmen were lowering blinds or rigging up matting, in anticipation of the sun which would shortly be streaming down on them. Everything still had its summer look, though October was far spent;—and Cairo, let me say, is much more beautiful in hot weather than during the comparatively chill days of winter. The particular houses I had gone in search of were happily untouched; but had they been restored out of all shape or allowed to fall down for want of repair, I should hardly have had room for a depressing thought. From the crowd of country folk and the heavily laden camels and donkeys, it was evident that a market was being held in the open space in front of the Beit-el-Kadi. Locomotion was difficult till the Nahasseen or coppersmith street was reached, for here the road widens out at the Muristân. This handsome building, together with the mosques of Kalaûn, en-Nasir, and of Barkûk, formed a magnificent group, massed as they then were in a luminous shade. It was a meeting of old friends, and old friends looking their best. The dark awnings stretched across the road gave this pile of masonry a light and ethereal look, though they were dark in contrast to the azure above, save where the sun tipped the domes and a face of the minarets. The crowd allowed but little time for contemplation; I had to move with it, and reaching the short street which leads to the Beit-el-Kadi, a converging stream of people carried us along till we arrived at the market square. I picked my way through the heaps of fruit and vegetables which littered the ground, passed behind a group of camels, and worked my way to the steps of the court-house, which gives its name to the market.

From this point of vantage I was enabled to make some rough studies of the animated scene before me. The sun had now risen high enough to flood the larger part of the square in light. Bits of matting, sailcloth, or anything which can cast a shadow, were rigged up to protect the more perishable goods, and the early comers had taken advantage of the shade of the acacia trees at the further end of the market. The general impression is one of light, colour, noise and movement. The detail is full of human as well as pictorial interest. Various combinations of colour—some beautiful, some inharmonious— leave ample scope to the painter to arrange his scheme. A pile of oranges and lemons, with the black and deep purple dress of the fellaha saleswoman, make a striking note in the foreground; the stacks of pitchers brought down from Balliana, in Upper Egypt, give a variety in buffs and greys, and the blue garments of the buyers are sufficiently faded not to contrast too violently. It is also a great study of types and characters. The noisy Cairene is chaffering with the quieter Shami from far Damascus for some pomegranates which are heaped before him; the Maghraby hawks a bundle of yellow slippers; Jew and Greek are trying to outdo each other in a deal over a spavined horse. Through the motley crowd passes the brightly garmented lemonade-seller, tinkling his brass cups; his rival, who retails licorice-water, seems more in demand; one, carrying a heavy pitcher with a long brass spout, invites the thirsty ones to partake of the charity offered them in the name of God.

‘Sebeel Alháh yá atchan,’ he drones out at stated periods. He is less often met at markets than at religious festivals, and he is paid by some visitor to the tomb of a saint to distribute the water as a thank-offering. A young camel about to be slaughtered is being led about and sold piecemeal, intending purchasers chalking on the hide of the beast the joint they wish to secure. The cheap-jack, with his usual flow of language, tempts the fellaheen to buy his European shoddy; Karakush, the Egyptian Polichinelli, is here, and also the quack doctor. The effect is now rapidly changing as Bibar’s ancient palace ceases to cast its shadow over the further part of the market, and my vantage-ground becomes untenable as the sun creeps round to the steps of the court-house. I work my way to the archway at the eastern side of the square, and find another picture here well worth going to Cairo to paint, for from this point I get a view of the Muristân and the domes and minarets of its adjacent mosques, now in the full noonday sun. A stately background to the busy scene before me. The studies I had made of the market, though far from satisfying me, left me too tired to do more than make a few notes and a promise to come here again on a future occasion. It is a relief, after the glare and noise of a similar subject, to turn down the narrow dark lanes which are found in the residential parts of Old Cairo. The one entered from the archway winds through the Hasaneyn quarter and ends at the eastern entrance of the Khan Khalil.

These lanes where the old houses are still intact are even more characteristic of Cairo than are the busy streets, for something similar to the latter can be seen in most eastern cities. The projecting latticed windows, which relieve the plane surfaces of the backs of the houses, are a distinct feature of this city. Known generally as mushrbiyeh, they were originally small bays in which the water-bottles were placed to cool. The word is derived from the root of the Arabic shirib, to drink, from which we also get our word sherbet. The bays were gradually enlarged so as to allow two or three people to sit in them and see up and down the street without being seen themselves. What corresponds to a glass pane in Europe is here replaced by a wooden grating. Each joint is turned, and so arranged as to make a pretty pattern. This grating is much closer in the apartments of the hareem, and though it freely admits the air and a sufficiency of light, it effectually screens the inmates from those outside. From the enlarged bays one or more smaller ones often project in which the earthen bottles are now placed. There are also small windows in the lower panels, through which I have often seen things hauled up in small baskets from the street.

Sellers of fruit or sweetstuffs are often met in these lonely lanes, and a stranger might wonder where they expect to find custom. Presently a little grating will open and a face will nearly fill the opening. Should the stranger have been seen through the lattice-work, the face will be partly veiled unless it be that of a child, and after some bargaining with the hawker, a small basket containing a coin will be lowered. The coin having been carefully examined, the purchased article is placed in the basket and they are hauled up to the window. ‘Ma’s salama, ya sitt,’ ‘ya bint,’ or ‘ya Amma,’ according to the degree of the purchaser, is usually the farewell salutation of the hawker. But should the purchase not prove on further examination to be up to expectations, a lively altercation is sure to ensue, and voices from unseen parties behind the grating may also be heard. It is sad to see how much of this mushrbiyeh is disappearing; it is seldom now repaired and is often replaced by cheap sashes or is roughly boarded up. There are several causes for this: it is expensive, and the owners of the larger houses have mostly gone to live in the modern quarters and have let out their old homes in tenements to the poorer people. Much also has been destroyed by fire. The houses usually project over the lane as each story is reached, so that the upper windows often nearly meet the ones of the opposite houses.

It is easily imagined how a fire will spread with so inflammable a material for it to feed on. The cheap imported petroleum lamps, which are replacing the earlier form of lighting, have much to account for. Many of the best examples of mushrbiyeh have been bought up by dealers to be made into screens or re-used in the modern suburbs. As seen from the lane, the houses have a gloomy appearance; but it should be remembered that the Cairene dwelling was not built to make an outward display,—its beauty is seen from its inner courts or garden. When he views them from the narrow sunless lane, the visitor wonders how people can live in such unhealthy surroundings. Should he be fortunate enough to have the entrée to a house which is still inhabited by a prosperous owner, he will probably come to the conclusion that no more suitable plan could have been adopted in a country where the summer lasts for three-quarters of the year. I shall attempt to describe a visit to a beautiful dwelling later on; at present let us wander through the Hasaneyn quarter, thankful that the rays of the sun are so carefully excluded. Reaching the wider thoroughfare, where stands the mosque which gives the district its name, the difference in the temperature is immediately felt. We carefully keep to the shady side of the road till we arrive at the entrance of the Khan Khalil. This Khan, more commonly called the Turkish Bazaar, is one of the few which every tourist is taken to see; it is in reality a series of bazaars, the most conspicuous being that of the metal workers.

Passing through a massive doorway we enter a lane, roofed in overhead with long rafters and matting; the warm light, which filters through this, harmonises the various-coloured silks and stuffs which are piled up in every little shop or hung out to attract a customer. Each shop is little more than a square cupboard, but as carriages do not enter here the owners have been allowed to retain the mastaba, or raised seat, on a level with their floors and projecting two feet or more into the roadway. This was characteristic of every shop in Cairo, until carriages began to replace the litter and the ass as a means of locomotion. The merchant drops his slippers as he enters his place of business, while the customer can sit on the mastaba and keep his slippered feet in the street. An old acquaintance recognises me and invites us to sit down; he claps his hands, and the boy from the coffee shop runs across to take his orders. When it is decided whether we shall have coffee or green tea, cigarettes are produced and a series of courteous inquiries then follow. I in return ask after his health and that of his children, but am not sufficiently intimate to allude to his wife. ‘Allah be praised, all are well.’ I ask how his business is, and he tells me that it is Allah’s will that things are not what they used to be. ‘Large rival stores now exist in the modern parts of Cairo and are injuring the trade of the Khan Khalil.

’ He might have added that prices are more fixed in these new stores and that visitors have not the time to spend hours over a purchase. He asks me when I am coming to sit in his shop, again to paint that of Seleem, his opposite neighbour. He calls out to Seleem and asks him if he has forgotten the ghawaga who painted him and his wares. ‘Ya salaam!’ says Seleem, and crosses over to join in the conversation. When the greetings are over it is time to begin the leave-taking, and with a promise to come again and possibly bring a customer we continue our way. I am glad to find that both men still retain the kuftân and ample turban, and have not adopted trousers and the ugly red tarbouch, as most of the metal workers have done. WATER MELON SELLER Descending some steps we come to the handsome gateway built by Garkas el-Khalíly in 1400; innumerable lamps, copied from those which used formerly to adorn the mosques, are exposed here for sale; brass finger-bowls, salvers and ewers cover the counters, and tall damascened lamp-stands fill up every available place on the floor. The original colouring of the gateway seems to have worn itself down to making a quiet and harmonious background to this sparkling mass of metal work. I am soon recognised by the owner of one of the stalls, from whose shop I had also painted a part of this bazaar, and am again invited to sit down to coffee and a cigarette. As some seven or eight seasons had passed since my last visit to Cairo, and considering the thousands of foreigners who must have passed through these bazaars during that time, it is astonishing that he should have remembered my face.

There is, however, no time now to accept of the good man’s hospitality, but ‘In-sháalláh,’ I shall return before many days. Each turning gives us a fresh scheme of colour and the interest of another handicraft. The carpet bazaar leads out of that of the metal workers. The small cupboard-shaped shop is here replaced by one or two important show-rooms, and here and there a beautiful old Persian rug makes one regret the crude colouring of the aniline-dyed modern ones which are replacing them. Be the colours ever so glaring, the subdued warm light which passes through the awnings makes them part of one harmonious whole. A mass of red and yellow is what catches our eyes as we look down the slipper market, at a right angle from the carpet bazaar. Festoons of slippers hang from shop to shop, they are piled in stacks on the counters, and large skins, both red and yellow, are being cut up and hammered about as if the supply was not yet equal to the demand. We have them on our right, and pass through a double row of stalls where we are pestered to buy strings of beads, amber mouthpieces, cut and uncut stones, ‘Nice bangles for your lady,’ besides many other things we are equally not in want of. Here we take our leave of the Khan Khalil, and I also of the imaginary reader whom I have attempted to conduct through it. I am fortunate enough to find an arabeyeh, the Cairene cab, and can ponder over my morning while returning to the hotel.

Yes, Cairo is good enough for a second visit, and, please God, a good many more. My second impressions were perhaps pleasanter than my first ones, for I had not now that bewildering sense of how I should set to work, and also if it were possible to give anything like a pictorial presentment of these scenes. The physical inconveniences of working in crowded streets and amongst a strange people appalled me; but I did not then realise, as I do now, how much a tactful guide can do to make this work a possibility.


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