The street of Cairo is one of the most charming fantasies of the Exhibition.
Who has not often dreamed of this mysterious Cairo, the only city in the East that has preserved intact to this day the very setting in which the Arab storyteller brought to life the legends of the Thousand and One Nights! To satisfy this desire, Messrs Alphand and Berger cut out a slice of the old city of the Nile and, like the magician of the tales, took it on their mantle with its inhabitants, its donkeys, its merchants and transported it all alive to the Champ de Mars, placing it for more contrast at the door of the Palace of the machines, this iron dream of modern engineering.
Starting from the southern foot of the Eiffel Tower, we enter the labyrinth of greenery and exotic palaces which stretches out in front of the end of the Palace of Liberal Arts, and after having passed along the pavilions of Venezuela, Guatemala, and Havaï, we are stopped by the Indian Palace which blocks our way. Let's go in, since we are not in a hurry and all roads lead to Cairo.
This Indian Palace is a reproduction of a monument in Ahme-dabad. Its walls, whose reddish tone has been obtained by a whitewash with ox blood, are cut with bands and sculpted scrolls, of a charming effect, which are dominated by elegant bell-towers. On one of the sides runs a low promenade, supported by elegant columns of various models. The interior is intersected by a large gallery with a marble basin supported by lions in the centre. A high dome, supported by a double tier of columns, a type of one of the oldest monuments in India, covers this central part where a restaurant has been established, served by Indians in white robes and coloured turbans. On either side of this gallery are shops full of Indian trinkets: chiselled brass, ivories, cardboard dolls, marble idols, lacquered vases, glazed pottery jugs, feather fans. Parsis, natives of Bombay, do you the honours of these marvels, rather mediocre samples of the delicate Hindu industry.
Without yielding to the kindly solicitations of the black waiters who offer us refreshments in the Indian style, we leave the palace and from the very threshold we see the minarets of the city of Cairo silhouetted against the blue sky.
The crowd is pressing towards this point, which seems to be one of the favourite meetings of the Exhibition. As we approach, the raucous sounds of the tom-tom and the high notes of Egyptian flutes strike our ears; it is a Moorish café that invites us to come and taste, to the sound of music, a so-called pure mocha cooked and served in the Arab fashion.
Taking a side street, we enter the Moroccan bazaar with the crowd, where small stalls display fabrics, sweets, dates, burnous, jugs and pots of all sizes that serious turbaned men offer us in the purest French. Buy Ya-rahat loukoum, the delight of the seraglio," one of them tells me, "it's two cents. For ten centimes I taste the piece of sweet and perfumed pastry which is the delight of the sultanas. A little further on, an honest fellah offers me a pair of sandals which he is now finishing: but I resist the temptation, and, continuing my journey, I find myself in the main street of Cairo, at the corner of the mosque of Hassan. Before me lie the facades of Egyptian houses, lined up in a deliberate disorder and projecting their elegant turned wooden moucharabi. The moucharabi looks like a cage and it is a balcony; behind the tight network of its fine balusters, the Muslim woman follows the tumult of the street sheltered from any indiscreet look. The narrow doors of the houses are decorated with earthenware inlaid in the wall or with crude paintings, and all along the ground floors there are narrow shops sheltered by rudimentary wooden awnings.
But, as I am indulging in the already distant memories evoked in me by the sight of these houses, which seem to have been taken from the Cairo I once visited, a short, guttural cry of alarm pulls me from my contemplation, and almost immediately I am half-jostled by a beautiful white donkey, which trots past me, carrying on its red saddle a charming European boy, and followed by a fellah in the long blue gandoura. Yes, I am definitely in Cairo; I recognise this pretty little donkey, it is indeed him, or perhaps his father, who once carried me so often to the Esbekyeh, the Bazaar or the Pyramids. It is also a kind idea to have brought us these donkeys and their characteristic mounts on which everyone can take a ride for a modest price.
Through the crowds I continue my journey, amused and charmed by this lively reconstruction. I stop in front of the dark and narrow stall where a potter makes before me, with clay brought from Egypt, one of those crude gargoyles whose shape has not changed since the Pharaohs; next to it, using his feet as much as his hands, an Arab is turning delicate little wooden skittles intended for the making of a moucharabi. Then, a little further on, a jeweller chisels bracelets or contours filigrees; a shoemaker embroiders sandals; a gunsmith engraves the handle of a dagger; an artist inlays panels or chisels a copper plate. At one corner opens the shop of the confectioner Ahmed-Ahmed-Wanaz: next to the eternal a-rahat loukoum, there are sweets sown with sesame seeds or roasted chickpeas, rose sweets, banana sweets, of a truly original taste and which were very much appreciated by the young visitors; he also has sugar figures, lions, camels, locomotives of the most picturesque and archaic design that can be imagined. Near his stall a superb tanned and turbaned fellow, in a bright tunic, rings a glass, shouting: "Good orangeade"; this janissary is a coconut merchant; his stall, with its large glass jugs, is of a successful picturesqueness.
From this point I hear a strange melody resounding over the cries of the crowd. Guided by this chanting, I enter a gate and find myself in a courtyard where the donkeys and their drivers are lined up. The donkeys and their drivers, while waiting for the customers, have arranged themselves in a circle and are singing a popular round at the top of their voices. How amusing and lively it all is!
I finally tear myself away from this spectacle, enter one or two more shops and pass under a superb velum which shelters the entrance to the Egyptian concert. But, if our readers are willing, we shall not enter, despite the calls of the tambourine, into this concert which is not intended for them and whose presence disgusts these curious ensembles.
As I reached the end of the street and could already see the first locomotives announcing the entrance to the engine house, a tall, lean, black fellah bent down before me, and as his hand humbly stretched out, I heard the word "Bakchich" come from his lips. Ah! We have been brought here to the whole of Egypt, for they have not forgotten the sovereign baksheesh, that fateful word which is the "Sesame, open up" of this land of the Thousand and One Nights, a land which is forever closed to anyone who does not know how to use the almighty baksheesh: baksheesh of a penny for the fellah, baksheesh of a piaster for the guard who opens the mosque for you, baksheesh for the caïd, baksheesh for the pasha, for the prince, baksheesh for everyone. So, without hesitating, I give the fellah two pennies and leave the street of Cairo.
© L'exposition universelle de 1889 - Louis Rousselet