Among of the The Perfumed Dandy‘s greatest pleasures in this great big scented world are the remarkable people that he encounters on his travels and the wonderful tales they have to tell.
These good folks come from far and wide and their stories are as diverse as the cities and nations that they hail from.
Over the weeks and months ahead it will be my pleasure to introduce these splendid individuals and their stories to you in The Perfumed Dandy’s Sunday Supplement.
We begin today by traveling to one of the most ancient cities on the planet to meet my very very Special Correspondent…
Our Purple Rose of Cairo was born and bred in much colder climes, but has for the last five years made her home in the timeless city on the Nile.
Always possessing a passion for perfume, her nose has led her to seek out the olfactory arts of Egypt wherever she finds them in this city of secrets.
Here, our heroine shares with us the story of her first adventure into the realm of the greatest of Egypt’s bazaars…
When one visits Egypt for the first time one is struck by the sights, sounds and scent of this ancient land.
Dusty palm trees swaying in the dry breeze, dented cars beeping in a vain attempt to get giggling children to move to the side of the road, ladies shopping in colorful scarves that billow around them like the wings of exotic birds, men in dark suits with ties tied tight despite the oppressive heat: all quickly passing open windows from which the scent of garlic and pungent spices fried to just short of the burning point creeps out into the street.
This is Egypt.
Below our feet is the sand that pharaohs and commoners alike tread.
I came wishing to experience it completely and I did.
Like all visitors I insisted on seeing Cairo’s famed Khan El Khalili Bazaar at least once.
So, one lazy afternoon we went.
The driver dropped us off at a green pedestrian footbridge and we walked over the busy Al Azhar Street to the bazaar.
At the corner was a perfume shop. Tall heavy glass bottles with Arabic script lined the walls.
The color of the bottles’ contents range from deep russet to pale chartreuse, golden champagne to sunny lemon. I longed to stop, but the open-air stall was surrounded by far too many Egyptian customers haggling and getting their orders filled.
We continued up the narrow Al Muizz li-Din Allah Street passing papyrus sellers, gift shops and carts piled with pale cream colored loofahs being sprinkled with water to keep them plump.
Corn was freshly grilled and sweet potatoes roasted for hungry visitors.
Every few steps we are stopped by dark-eyed young men inviting us to come see their wares for “just one minute”. Sometimes they spoke French and other times German as they tried to deduce our homeland.
We came upon the Ashraf Barsbay Mosque and stopped out front to buy an ice-cold Pepsi in a glass bottle. We stood there sipping the delicious brew made with real cane sugar and sealed in time worn glass.
It was heavenly.
Since we must return the bottle, there is time to appreciate all that surrounds us.
Spice shops with herbs bulging from burlap bags, crystal pyramids glittering in the sunlight, belly dance costumes dripping with tinkling faux coins and colorful cotton night dresses catching the wind and fluttering like majestic flags.
The scent of bodies out too long in the heat next to potent perfumes, people pushing and weaving their way amid the rutted streets while men with hand carts piled with goods make hissing sounds like a cat to cause people to jump out of their way.
Young boys with trays full of tea, coffee and soft drinks stopping at shops and filling orders, while older men sit smoking shisha, the pungent apple tobacco drifting around them like a cloud.
We come up to Al Musky Street where the gold shops begin.
The windows glitter and entice us to take a peek at the contents.
We point out our particular favorites and giggle when we adore the same item, “such good taste”.
Hidden between the gold shops are a few perfume bottle and scent sellers. A tall, slim youth with a brilliant gapped tooth smile invites us into his shop that is little more than a glorified closet.
The glass doors are so slim we must open both sides to enter. Perched on short stools we sit and gaze at the beautiful bottles their number doubled by the mirrored walls.
The young man turns on a fan then offers us refreshments. I order a Turkish coffee with one spoon of sugar, my friend another Pepsi.
He starts to show us the latest bottle designs and one by one a small area on the desk is filling with our choices.
Small petite ones in blue, purple and red, unique shapes like palm trees and elephants, tall curvaceous bottles with carved leaves and flowers dabbed with bits of gold paint to enhance the workmanship.
I sip my coffee enjoying the thickness and the hint of an added cardamom.
I ask to see the list of perfumes. He hands me a well worn card that has English on one side. The spelling mistakes are quickly apparent to my eye.
There are single flower perfumes: rose, lily of the valley and jasmine then specialty scents with Egyptian names to light the imagination of visitors: Cleopatra, Secret of the Desert and Bride of the Nile followed by the clever duplicates of famous French perfumes like Coco and Opium.
He grabs a bottle from the shelf and gently swirls the contents so that the dabber has a drop of perfume, this he carefully applies to the inside of my wrist.
The oil is warm and sticky on the skin and begins to emit a delicious scent.
Then he suggests lotus as it is the most famous and sought after oil of all.
We kept trying more and more perfumes till we had no more spots to dab and the scents became one glorious blur.
Now the question was… what size bottle to buy?
He suggested a huge 100 mililitre flacon, but I had been told that it is easier to travel with 10 or 20 mililitre roll-on bottles.
I picked a delicious amber, a carnation, Cleopatra and of course the most desirable: the lotus.
He quickly filled our bottles and wrapped them in bubble wrap. Then out came a well worn calculator and he ground out the total to which we shook our heads and insisted “it is too much”.
He rolled his eyes and insisted in return that he was giving us the best prices in the whole bazaar. We bantered back and forth until we agreed upon the price.
I took the last sip of my now cold coffee revealing the mud-like but oh-so-tasty silt on the bottom.
Then carefully I counted out my Egyptian pounds as he pulled out a small gift. A sky blue scarab stone.
He handed it to me “for luck” along with his card and invited us back soon.
Arms full, we stepped out into a wall of heat and quickly disappeared into the crowd.
Little did I know I would soon be making many return visits to Cairo.
It has been my home for the past five years.
I am recognized at the bazaar and now I know who to ask for when I am looking for a special gift.
While I am not viewed as a tourist, I am not Egyptian either, with my blonde hair peeping out from under my head cover, steel blue eyes and pale skin I walk between the two worlds.
The green footbridge was recently removed, only the weathered steps remain. My perfume collection grows with each visit to the bazaar, jasmine, violet, apple, “Coco”, “Angel”, “Givenchy Pi”, vanilla and many more.
Content in my small flat, windows open, listening to the birds sing, I sit while anointing myself with oils like an Egyptian princess and invite you all to come visit my fragrant realm.
The Dandy is quite mesmerized by that visit to the bazaar.
In fact all that remains is for him to express his enormous gratitude to our very dear Purple Rose of Cairo for sharing her story with us and to set out my sincere wish that will shall hear more of her adventures in the future.