17 Mar Hustle in the Land of Pharaoh
Egypt is a beautiful, intriguing country. A fascinating blend of the sleekly modern and the nostalgically ancient.
A land that stewards so well the amazing legends of antiquity, and yet also is truly metro.
Fascinated by the rich history of this country, I recently inveigled myself into a business trip my husband took to Cairo. I was quite eager to tour some of its world-famous sites and somehow convinced him to take me along.
So we arrive in Cairo in the early hours of a Monday morning, and immediately plan our itinerary for the week – business meetings for the hubby, and an adventurous tour for the two of us, later in the week.
My husband spends the first few days at work, but the day of our tour finally arrives, and a chirpy Egyptian lady named Daisy*, shows up. She’s delighted to be our guide, she assures us.
Daisy leads us to our first stop – The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities – and I’m soon in history-buff heaven. My husband trudges along, making the obligatory comments now and then, but I can tell that all this is mind-numbingly dull for an outgoing extrovert like himself.
Our chatty guide keeps him somewhat engaged as we move along, but after a while, he has had just about all he can take, and needs a shot of caffeine, lest he expire.
“I’ll show you somewhere we can have some coffee, while we visit our next site,” Daisy promises.
So we proceed.
But in a few minutes, we find ourselves standing outside a small building, on a dusty side-street down-town. Its two wooden doors open into a long, dimly-lit room.
It’s a shop.
Daisy leads us in and a boisterous, middle-aged man walks quickly towards us.
“Welcome please,” he beams, as she discreetly steps aside.
The man takes my hubby’s outstretched hand and shakes it heartily.
I’m not sure whether to offer mine, on account of the local culture – a man will rarely shake a woman’s hand, I have learnt. But he happily shakes mine too and ushers us in.
“Man and wife?” he asks, and when we confirm, promptly assures us that he’s a family man himself.
“My brother, he has four wives, four problems. Me, one only. Why please? Because one is more than enough,” he chuckles. “Come in, come in.”
He’s a Bedouin, he informs us, so his brother’s numerous wives are not that unusual.
The shop is small and dark, furnished with several sets of lounge seats arranged in groups of three or four, each subtly separated by light tapestry.
We’ll soon discover why.
“Welcome please,” he says again. “My name is Hakeem*. In this shop you are welcome. You can buy or you can see. If you buy, we are happy. If you don’t buy, we are still happy. But first, you must have a welcome tea, ok?”
Instantly a young boy materializes from the shadows, and politely repeats the offer.
“Coffee or tea please?”
Assaulted by all of this, my hubby and I are glad to have something familiar.
Tea for me, coffee for hubby.
“Cardamom or peppermint tea please?” the boy inquires. His English is stilted, and he speaks less confidently, but he’s polite and quietly hospitable.
“Peppermint,” I reply. “And water please.”
Hakeem speaks briskly in Arabic and the boy disappears.
In a few minutes, we have our tea and coffee, served in two short glasses, and a bottle of cold water each.
Hakeem begins his spiel.
“In this shop we sell only genuine products, my friends,” he begins. “But remember, if you buy we are happy, if you don’t buy, we are still happy. See here please.”
He hands each of us a small brochure.
“Essences of Flower Perfumes,” it says.
“Very good essence please. Smell exactly like perfumes in Europe. See number six?” he turns to me. “Very nice for ladies.”
I take a look at the brochure. “Lotus,” it says.
“See also number twenty-five? Very good also, smell exactly like J’adore, by Christian Dior.”
I’m starting to get intrigued.
Again he says something in Arabic and the boy swiftly appears at my side.
“Your hands please?” the boy says.
I stretch out my hands and he places a drop of essence on the back of each hand.
I take a long sniff. Aaah.. heavenly.
“See number thirty-four please? Smell exactly like Beautiful by Estée Lauder.”
The young man finds another spot on my hand and places a drop.
I take a sniff. Even better. Truly beautiful this one.
By now I’m hooked.
Hakeem then turns to my husband.
“See number ten?” he says. “Excellent for men. Smell exactly like Hugo Boss.”
I observe as my hubby takes a sniff and nods appreciatively. He recognizes the scent – Hugo Boss colognes have been some of his favourites, over the years.
Our interest is piqued and we want to know more.
His family, he explains, has been in this business for years. It is now in the fourth generation, having been founded by his great-grandfather more than sixty years ago. The family grows all sorts of flowers and spices on their estate, a 150-acre farm about 100km south of Cairo – Bedouin country.
As a tradition, he says, the family employs only fellow family-members, extracting the essence right there on their farm.
Later, we find out that the boy serving us is, in fact, his younger brother. *Basil is his name.
Perfumers from all over Europe visit the farm at least four times a year, when the flowers are in bloom, and buy thousands of liters of essential oils, for use in their products.
“One drop of essence, plus nine drops of alcohol, make Eau de Parfum or Eau de Cologne,” he explains.
“And one drop of essence, plus nine drops of alcohol, and five drops of distilled water make Eau de Toilette. That’s why it’s cheaper. You can buy in pharmacy even.”
Clearly, Hakeem knows his stuff. And sure enough, lined along one wall are framed pictures of the farm, showing numerous types of flowers, wonderfully captured in full bloom. 80% of the flowers’ essence is purchased by the European perfumers, he explains.
“Then they mix with perfumer’s alcohol, add brand name and sell at very high price, small bottle.”
Fascinating, to our un-tutored ears.
But there’s more.
“See number thirty-seven please? Healing essence. Peppermint, lavender and citrus, very good for headache and cold.”
My eyes light up. Au revoir, sinus headaches!
“See the peppermint tea you drink? Grown on our farm please. Also the cardamom.”
I take another sip. It tastes even better, now that I know its history. I ask for another.
Basil quickly disappears and brings a fresh glass of the home-grown Peppermint.
And we now know the reason behind the homely setting, we suspect. You’d have to be made of steel, to walk away empty-handed after all this!
“See number thirty-nine?” Hakeem continues. “Sandalwood. Add one drop of honey and one drop of milk, very good for facial mask.”
He should know, I think to myself, seeing as we’re in the land of Cleopatra – she whose beauty famously slayed a good number of suitors.
“Mix these two healing oils, very good for bones.”
Aha. I file that at the back of my mind, for future use.
“Madam, look at number twenty-seven,” Hakeem continues. “Please very good scent, but use only after midnight,” he says with a straight face. “Otherwise, too much children.”
We burst into surprised laughter, more than a little abashed. Hakeem smiles.
“Me, I have four. All girls. So actually, I have five problems.”
Then he turns to my husband.
“Now my friend, tell me which ones you like for you and Madam,” he says. “We take Egyptian pound, US dollar, Euro, credit card.. all.”
“But remember – you buy, we are happy. You don’t buy, we are still happy,” he reassures us.
Needless to say, friends, “Lauder”, “Hugo Boss” – along with sandalwood, lavender and goodness knows what else – now majestically adorn our bathroom shelf.
The hustle is real, in the land of Pharoah ?
*Not their real names, but close.