Berfumery and Hosbitality in Cairo

In Cairo


We will start with Mohammed Ali and the perfumists of Cairo.

We wandered down the mad and busy streets between the meydans, searching for a cafe, a restaurant, anything for a hint of food. Do Caireans eat?  There are bags and watches and travel agencies and tea houses but we could find no food in central Cairo.

We stopped to look dumb and vulnerable in the Picaddilly Circus of North Africa and were inevitably approached by our first Approacher.  He very kindly told us that because it was friday all restaurants were closed for mosque and please, won’t we come into his shop for tea while we waited for Cuma service to finish?

Having lived in several conservative and religious lands before, I knew it wasn’t true.  Someone would be minding the counter whilst the rest unrolled the prayer rugs in the back room of the cafe, restaurant, carpet shop. Nothing interferes with capitalism, not even God.

However jaded and skeptical we were, we still figured, aw hell, tea, could use a cuppa and sniff out his wares.


Kind fellow


It was a perfumed oil shop, quite pretty and filled with rows of tiny, coloured glass bottles. We spent the necessary half hour in the shop having metaphorical rugs of perfume unfurled on the floor for our perusal. The low table before us was covered in bottles of various sizes and shapes. Our sampler arms stank of every flower and every spice and every leaf. The tea was good. Muhammed Ali was there, too,  on the table, in an old framed photo of the perfumed man’s father, many many years ago.

Perhaps he needed to smell pretty for George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle?


Auto Body Shop, al fresco


We managed to extricate ourselves from the perfumed grip of the disappointed man. He conceded to show us the restaurant he had initially recommended and to guide us to the Official Government Tourist Info Centre, both nearby.  Not that we had asked to be shown any Official Government Tourist Info Centre.

The tourism office was a spartan private travel agency run by a man with the accent of an Ontario used car salesman. He’d lived in Toronto for 15 years, apparently. He insisted we needed tours up and down and throughout Egypt and no no no it impossible to do anything on your own here, verrry dangerous, death and dismemberment not unusual for solo travellers. We nodded politely and enquired again about the food, our tummies roaring.

He led us to the doorway and pointed. It was across the street, empty, with an English menu, and frighteningly expensive and called something doofussy like Felelelawful or Fefelalaful. We walked on, searching for food.  The Long March of Mao, as it were, except hotter and with more traffic and fewer caves or Communists.


I think I was once in Cairo but I can’t be certain. I did write it down so it must be true.


On the second meydan, we paused to look at all the angles jutting off the traffic circle. Many many arms of traffic.   A second man greeted us in English. Shit. He inquired about our needs (love? affection? self acceptance and inner calm? lunch?) and directed us to a good and recommendable restaurant just around the corner. We walked as he had pointed. Saw nothing. He came jogging up behind us to guide us…into his shop.


Coffee House


Enter perfume shop number two! And oh look, on the low table, his Pa and Muhammed Ali!  Same era! Same perfume bottles ! Was there a Dedicated Take Your Picture With Cassius Clay Day for all perfumists in Cairo?

The man demanded we sit down and drink tea and smell his wares and gawp at his Pa and Mohammed Ali. When we politely refused, citing hunger and disinterest, he roared with indignant anger, insisting we accept his Generous Traditional Egyptian Hosbitality (very similar to the Mandatory Traditional Turkish Hospitality in Sultan Ahmet carpet shops, really).

We argued back that we were hungry and not interested. He roared back we must sit and drink tea.

It continued thusly:

Drink tea!


Drink tea! You must accept traditional Egybtian Hosbitality!

NO! We are hungry!

And so on.

And then we walked out, ears exhausted, bellies empty, and suddenly realised that the restaurant he was guiding us to was the Felalalawful joint the the first perfumer had dragged us to.

We had come full circle in the perfumed Muhammed Ali felafel circle of life.




We ended up eating gorgeous little veggie pizzas on pastry dough (like borek, only…pizza) and sipping from Arabic labelled bottles of coke in a lovely little hole in the wall down the street served by a man who just smiled and served and left us alone to eat and talk. Ah, hosbitality!


Neither perfumists nor hustlers

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.