You will know you are on the right path to the tent-makers market in Cairo when you pass the little man making fezzes and the tables displaying fuchsia polyester bras. When the street vendors stop harassing you for your money in fake American accents, like they do in the tourist bazaars, you will also know you are diving deeper into the heart of old Cairo. Keep walking through Muizzeldin Street. You have to squeeze by women dressed in the same long robes and veils, haggling with male store owners for towels and sheets and pots and pans, checking off items for their daughter's trousseaux.
You will have to step in mud and other unmentionables while dodging a boy pulling a cart piled high with boxes of crisps, or be honked at mercilessly by a mini-pickup winding its way through dozens of shoppers in the narrow passageway. But you are not at the tent-makers market until you pass the formidable, yet rather dilapidated, gate of Cairo. Bab Zuweila is the only remaining gate in the southern wall of the ancient city of Cairo. Splendidly designed with intricate carvings in stone, it used to be the gathering spot for the public during the Mamluk period. Try to control your temper at the obvious debasement of historical sites like this one - public urination and littering are unfortunately the norm here - and cross the gate's threshold: you are now at the beginning of the tent-makers market.
One of my best friends from high school is visiting me in Cairo at the moment and it has been a pleasure to see Cairo through fresh eyes. I was forced to put my haggling skills to use when shopping for silver jewellery or perfume and taking her to Shari al-Khayamiya, or the tent-makers street, was high on our list for shopping destinations. The street is a wide, roofed alleyway flanked by small shops on either side. At one time artisans on this street produced fabrics used by caravans. Today, large rolls of the tent fabric lean against the walls of the shops, colourfully decorating the market with bright blues, reds and yellows.
The fabrics are now used for ceremonial tents for weddings, funerals and other gatherings. All over the city you can see colourful tents wrapped around mosques in preparation for a funeral, or wrapped around a neighbourhood for an outdoor wedding. You know Ramadan and Eid are coming when the bright tents are hung around butcher's shops and supermarkets. Ingenious artists in Egypt have also used the tent material to bind notebooks.
Besides selling tents, the artisans make rugs and hand-sewn tapestries. The latter are dazzling with interwoven designs and flowery patterns. Men sit in the shops, glasses perched on the tips of their noses as they labour with small needles and thread, pulling together small cushion-sized pieces or huge wall hangings with circular shapes. The atmosphere of the market is cosy and comfortable. Haggling is a pleasure here, with shop owners eager to make sales while easing into prices you want. They will sit you down on a mound of their carpets, pulling out rugs and tapestries one after another while you sip tea, served to you as a gesture of generosity in the hope it will warm you to buy something.
This trip to the market reminded me how much I enjoy haggling. My personal strategy includes a combination of international haggling practices, throwing in a white lie about being Egyptian and hence deserving of cheaper prices than those offered to tourists and foreigners, and pouting. I find these will usually guarantee me a price I can live with and don't mind paying. On this day I am in the mood to part with my money and the carpets I see are enticing, well-made and already quite cheap. I buy two colourful striped floor rugs and two wool wall hangings for my friend - all for US$20 (Dh73). I leave the market my wallet a little lighter, my feet very tired, but with lots of shopping bags. Absolutely the best feelings in the world!
Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo