Thursday, February 5, 2009

A market of the living amidst the tombs of the dead: Inside Souq el-Gomma

-Taken from '
-Cairo - February 2009

-Original photography by Jason Larkin

From the highways gliding above it, little of detail can be discerned. At this height the frothing jaws of a dog straining on his leash are too small to behold; the sharp roll of a dice on a clandestine wooden table too distant to hear. You will, perhaps, catch the sun reflecting off an old gramophone here on the railway tracks, a rusting bathtub there on the horizon by the tombs. Certainly you’ll note the heaving clusters of human flotsam expanding and contracting through the alleyways, now shrinking into tight balls of energy, now scattering away in every direction like a shimmering school of fish. But as your eyes range across this vast anarchic arcadia, you’ll comprehend nothing of importance from above. To understand this strange beast you must descend down from the sun-blazed highway and deep into its bowels.

Cairo and its teeming mass of twenty million inhabitants have been described as an essay in entropy, which is the study of the degree of randomness and disorder within a system. “What keeps this plane in the air,” asks American author Maria Golia of the urban sprawl she has made her home. “How goes the city, when it looks and acts like it’s held together by rubber bands?” If Golia’s characterisation of Egypt’s capital is correct then no corner of the metropolis better illustrates her point than the frenzied sub-world of Souq El-Gomma, a city within a city where infinite and intertwining networks of commerce and crime, socialising and spirituality collide together and expand with a seemingly endless elasticity. It is, quite literally, a universe unto itself; a market of the living that rises up out of the tombs of the dead, defying all attempts to fix it in space or time.

Souq El-Gomma, ‘the Friday Market’, began almost half a century ago as a ragged assortment of faded silverware and broken antiques laid out in the shadows of the Sikket Hadid El-Suweis road-bridge. These were the days when each corner of the capital boasted its own daily street-stall extravaganza – Munib on a Tuesday, Mataraya on a Thursday, and now this dusty land under the Moqattam cliffs on a Friday. As presidents and policies came and went and Egypt’s economic fortunes ebbed and flowed, so the other markets faded, driven out by over-zealous officialdom or a dwindling customer base. Slowly but surely the vendors – of pigeons and puppies, carpets and sinks, telephones with no handles and shoes with no soles – made their way to Souq El-Gomma, which started to spill out from the underpass across disused train tracks to the east and into the narrow alleys of a huge cemetery to the west. Today it is believed to be the largest street market in the Middle East, where anything from camel hooves to second-hand toilet lids can be obtained for the right price, offering a dirt-streaked window onto the realities of contemporary Egypt.

Ayman Mohammed Rafat Hashush works during the week as a contractor for a firm doing restoration work on old houses. The fifty year old and his wife are still waiting for God to send them children, but until then he throws his energies into his stall at the Souq. Ayman first started visiting the market two decades ago, and soon became addicted to its chaotic charm. Eleven years ago he made the transition from customer to stall-holder, paying an old woman ten guinea a week for the sandy ground in front of her home and another 150 guinea a month to store his wares in her building. Back then Ayman’s trestle table of vintage film posters, out of date calendars and broken games consoles stood on the fringes of the market; today it has been enveloped by Souq El-Gomma’s unstoppable growth.

He waves his hands at the frenzied hum of buying and selling all around him. “It’s the economic situation that has driven these people here,” says Ayman. The current government has pursued an aggressive programme of economic liberalisation and privatisation in recent years, claiming they are dragging Egypt kicking and screaming into modernity. The result has been a widening of the already vast chasm between rich and poor and an inflationary explosion, leaving the legions of Egyptians on government fixed-salaries sliding into poverty as a result. “Half the sellers here are respectable government employees who are forced to supplement their salaries with work at the Souq,” observes Ayman. “Many more are downtown shopkeepers whose goods won’t sell in the economic climate. They come to get rid of their stuff here, hoping to earn a few extra guinea for their families.” The political establishment’s efforts to ‘liberate’ Egypt from its old socialist structures have consigned millions of its citizens to the margins, and Souq El-Gomma, itself on the margins of this once great city, welcomes them all.

A scuffle breaks out on the edges of the junk stretch, a side street drowning in rubbish laid out on mats by tired-looking men. They have purchased these mountains of waste from the Zabaleen, an army of rubbish collectors who gather the city’s unwanted dross and welcome it into the nearby ‘Garbage City’ neighbourhood they call home. Individuals pick through the debris, offering a handful of piasters for any gems they unearth. One young man is searching for smashed lightbulbs so that he can make decorations for Ramadan; another seeks broken cassette tapes, hoping to find some which can still be recorded over. As the local municipality announces to great fanfare that it is farming out recycling contracts to multinational companies, Cairo’s occupants quietly get on with reprocessing and reusing every item that passes through the city’s clogged arteries. Far from the prying eyes of the authorities, Souq El-Gomma is the capital’s large intestine, stubbornly digesting and spitting back out all the items that pass into its frenzied passages.

The fight dies down as the combatants are dragged away from each other. “This place is fucked up; full of thieves and thugs,” scowls one ageing mother who rents out space to stall-holders. But for many, part of the attraction of the Souq is its darker underbelly – the illicit canine market where bulldogs are goaded into frothing madness by their owners in an effort to attract potential customers; the ramshackle gambling tables that spring up and disappear in the blink of an eye. But the absence of the police from Souq El-Gomma does not mean lawlessness and in this most anarchic of urban villages there is a strict hierarchy in place. “Ceramics are over there, furniture on the other side” says Sharkaya Fouad Mohammed gravely, a wrinkled 59 year old whose corrugated iron cafe lies at the heart of the souq. “Some parts of the market are mixed up but here everything is compartmentalised.”

To reach the future of Souq El-Gomma, you must descend into the past. Down past the metalwork stalls and through the collections of old gramophones and leaking fridges, you find yourself in a city of the dead, where Cairenes have made their homes amongst the gravestones. With nowhere else to go, the Souq’s tentacles are now spreading through these small mausoleums as well, with first-time sellers arriving every week to set up shop against the walls of the deceased. Newcomers pay one guinea for a floor spot and three more for a chipped wooden table on which to display their goods, handing over their money to a benevolent mafia who in return keep the alleys free of trouble and the stall-holders protected. People bring ill-fitting jackets and family photos from their apartments to lay out in the sun; used batteries vie with plastic imports from China and the Emirates, the wheels of globalisation turning slowly through the tombs.

As spectacular as it is repugnant, the contradictions and commotions of Souq El-Gomma inspire the full spectrum of emotions in its visitors. Yet to the inhabitants of the Friday market, it remains a simple economic necessity. “It’s the bread that we eat,” sighs one veteran as he surveys the bedlam. “How can anyone hate it?”