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 20 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.
Text by Jack Shenker
All photos © Jason Larkin
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