A walkabout around Wekalet El-Balah in Cairo’s Boulaq district
Written and photographed by Nehal El Meligy
"It used to be called cinema Ali Baba.”
I instantly imagine all the moviegoers standing at the cinema’s entrance and saying in unison, “Open Sesame.” The doors would then magically open with colorful light bulbs on the walls leading them to one big screen. They all sit on the floor; heads tilted backward, mouths slightly open in astonishment. A great movie is playing — one not even in other theaters.
“I only went once because I was curious. It was known people didn’t go there to watch movies, so I wanted to see for myself,” says Yasser Salah, a used clothes or bala merchant, in Wekalet El-Balah. “I went the one time. I saw something I didn’t like and then I was certain of what I’d heard, so I left.” Salah chooses to be discreet about what he witnessed but he tells me that Ali Baba used to be frequently visited by what he terms “gays and druggies”.
The one-screen cinema is now called a name that inspires next to nothing: Cinema El Korsal El Gedeeda or the New Corsal Cinema. It plays four movies in a row, so when most people go in, you never know when they’re coming out.
I sit with the 41-year-old Salah on a warm Friday afternoon in front of his apartment building right in the heart of what is commonly known as El Wekala, as he tells me childhood stories about growing up in the area.
Like the many spoons of sugar Salah adds to his tea, the color of the door to his apartment building is the only thing that adds flavor to this drab alley. The lime-colored door opens up to a worn marble staircase drizzled with crunchy tree leaves and an old rusty metal banister. Apartment building No. 9 was originally six floors but the government tore down the top three floors after the earthquake of 1992; the floors had been partially damaged and were a threat to the rest of the building.
The name Boulaq Abu El Ela, the neighborhood where Wekalet El-Balah is located, is thought to have come from the French ‘Beau Lac,’ or ‘beautiful lake.’ From the roof of No. 9, however, the view is far from easy on the eye.
Standing on the fourth floor of this building, I can see to my right the confident and shiny Nile Towers and to my left the intimidating Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Maspero building. In the few minutes I spend on this roof, I can’t help but imagine how residents of not just El Wekala but all of Boulaq feel when they’re constantly reminded of the contradiction and proximity of this unreachable world to their own.
We go downstairs and sit at a small round metal table in the yard for a rare view and a personal history of El Wekala all to ourselves. To the right of the building there is a medium-sized warehouse with huge metal doors — which is also the dead end of this alley, El Gazayer Alley. To the left is El Ahmadein Street, one of the main streets of the market. Across from the building is, unsurprisingly, another building. Built against its wall is a kiosk-like stand, owned by Salah’s uncle Amm Ahmed, mainly for making tea and coffee for the people in the area. The kiosk is fixed between two doors; another lime-green iron door to its right that opens up to what used to be an apartment and now a storage room, and to its left an apartment. The latter is where Amm Ahmed resided as a child with three other families, one of which was a Christian family, each living one family per room. Some 15 people called the apartment home, sharing one bathroom and one kitchen, but with a privately owned waboor gaz (golden kerosene cooker) in each room.
This is Egypt … everyone wants to be able to drink tea whenever they please.
Salah calls on a teenage boy with dark silky hair to make us some tea. He’s already made some tea for the gentlemen sitting at the only other table in the yard. There are three of them, looking over their shoulders every few minutes to see what Salah and I are talking about. Amm Ahmed, however, waits for no invitation. He stands next to us fixing his shisha, dragging a few puffs to make sure the smoke is to his liking. He grabs a chair, makes himself feel at home and launches into the story of the warehouse behind us.
Zack Hazak Salamon, a Jewish Frenchman, was the warehouse’s original owner, Amm Ahmed explains. It was used for manufacturing marble and parquet approximately 60 years ago, around the same time Amm Ahmed started working in El Wekala.
Salamon rented the space to Farid Gabrial Safra. I ask Salah where he was from, and he tells me he was Jewish. I remind him being Jewish is not a nationality. We laugh and then agree he was probably French, too.
On El Boulaq El Gedeed Street, Abu El Ela mosque — from where the name of the area, Boulaq Abu Ela, was derived — is just around the corner when you take a right from the Corniche. This is the first mosque that greets you when you enter the neighborhood. There are other Islamic gems as I learn from Amm Ahmed during one of his many interruptions to my interview.
Just before I leave that first Friday, Amm Ahmed starts to tell me about three ancient, beautiful mosques in the area, which he insists are much bigger and more glorious than Al Hussein mosque in Khan El-Khalili. So the following Friday, I meet Salah shortly after the prayers; he’s agreed to give me a tour of the mosques. I once again stop to sip tea in what has become my favorite spot in Wekalet El-Balah. Salah tells the boy with the wavy hair to make me a cup of tea. This time the ahwagy doesn’t need to be told how much sugar I take — he remembers from last time.
We make a move after the asr (afternoon) prayers. I have my notebook and pens in my backpack and my camera is hung around my neck. I am all set. We turn right on El Ahmadein Street and make a path for ourselves in the midst of shoppers, clothes stands and toktoks. Salah leads the way, greeting every other shop owner and turning down invitations to tea.
After a two-minute walk, we reach what seems like a dead end. There is a big building facing us with an old blue sign hidden behind a huge clothes stand with the name of the street: Esh El Nakhla.
On the right was our first stop — Merza mosque. Salah asks a chubby man in a brown galabeya if we could talk to Sheikh Abdel Aziz. The man, who seems to be the sheikh’s helper, goes inside to call him. The sheikh appears at the top of the stairs, asking Salah who he is and what he wants. We immediately take off our shoes so we can go up the stairs and talk to him. From the way the sheikh is standing and how the helper is holding his hand, I can tell he’s blind.
With only one man praying inside, when I walk in I am able to scan the mosque’s interior quickly and thoroughly. It instantly takes my breath away. I gaze in amazement at its old beautiful design and architecture; I had no idea there was more to Wekalet El-Balah than used clothes and spare car parts.
The mosque has beautiful marble walls, pillars and colorful glass. There is a separate area for the women behind the men’s praying space. Above the women’s section is what looks like a wooden balcony. Mosaad Fawzy, the helper, says that this is how old Turkish mosques used to be designed; women in the past would sit on the balcony if they wished to see the imam giving the Friday sermon.
Mostafa Jurbagy Merza was a Turkish prince who rebuilt the mosque in 1698 after a flood destroyed it in 1332. This information, however, was neither on the mosque’s cornerstone nor given to me by Sheikh Abdel Aziz, I found that out online.
I start snapping photos the moment I walk into the mosque. The sheikh asks Fawzy what I am doing and starts yelling at me to stop taking pictures. Salah and I are then led to a simple room in the mosque with a desk, a wooden couch and tea equipment.
In what way am I related to Salah? What newspaper do I work for? Do I have a permit from the Ministry of Antiquities? I answer all the sheikh’s questions but to no avail. He finds me suspicious and even his last name is information he deems me not trustworthy enough to obtain.
Every time Salah tries to step in for me or ask the secretive old man a few questions about the mosque, he hits him on the leg. Being an amazing storyteller, however, Salah is able to distract the sheikh and Fawzy waves me outside the room to sneak out and steal some shots. I only run back to the room when I hear the sheikh scream that I return.
I leave the mosque amused but a little disappointed. But Salah has another story up his sleeve. When he was just a child, he was not supposed to go beyond Merza mosque after dark, as all the shops would close and it was too dangerous to walk around. If anyone crossed the mosque “a genie would appear and freeze them and they wouldn’t be able to move,” he tells me.
Lucky for us, it isn’t dark so we aren’t too worried about going past Merza to reach our second destination.
El Qadior judge Zayn El-Din Yahya mosque, commonly known as El Mahkama mosque, is famous for missing the top half of its minaret.
As legend has it, the minaret was split in half when a huge snake swirled around it.
Not knowing what really happened to the minaret, Salah asks the first man he sees sitting in front of a shop when we walk out of Merza, “Do you know what happened to the Mahkama mosque’s minaret?”
The big man’s dark green eyes seem a little worried as they rest on my camera, but Salah introduces himself and reassures him I am doing a story on the area and how it’s changed over the years. Suddenly the man sits up straight. “I have maps.”
After a few minutes, the man returns with one map under his armpit and another in his hand. He rolls them out on the car I am leaning on. One map is ancient yellow, and the other seems more recent. The man, Khaled Saber, is a broker and he’s had these maps for years; both are torn in half and taped back together. There were both detailed maps of El Wekala; the streets, the mosques and the churches. Despite its worn out state, Saber says he prefers the old map because the font used for names and numbers is much bigger. While I am touched by this man’s kindness to offer anything he has to help us, I have no idea why he brought these maps. I still don’t know what happened to the other half of the minaret.
We thank Khaled for his valuable input, take a right and then there it is down the street. In less than two minutes, Salah has already found someone who could tell us about the mosque’s history.
“The minaret was destroyed by the French,” says the man, describing himself as the heir to a big metal business. I tell him that to my knowledge, the French came to Egypt twice: when Napoleon arrived with his expedition which was in the 18th century and the Tripartite Aggression in 1956 and that was nowhere near Cairo. When the man cannot tell me when it happened, Salah reminds him of the snake myth hoping that he could confirm its authenticity. He does not. The only fact we glean is that this mosque used to be a court as well.
Salah recalls how one day an acquaintance of his was driving right where we were standing when all of a sudden one of the car tires got stuck in the asphalt believed to be covering underground crypts. When the friend finally jacked the car up, he flashed his mobile phone light and spotted a void but couldn’t snoop around for long because he was almost suffocated by the smell.
Salah claims the street behind us used to be connected to the Nile and prisoners would be brought on ships for execution via underground waterways. There are still prison cells underground, and an execution room, which he saw with his own eyes. A friend of his, who is also in the metal business, built a wall to hide the execution room from government inspections because he wanted to use it for storage, Salah adds with a flourish.
Ahead of me, stacked around the mosque are huge metal bars that are very hard to ignore. This apparently is the designated area for selling them, called Souq El Asr. These metal bars are sold and used in the construction of buildings and factories.
Leaving the unappealing sight of the bars behind, I step inside the mosque. It is much simpler than Merza’s mosque. There is no marble, no balcony and no colorful glass. It is beautiful nevertheless, its most prominent features an open-air ceiling in the middle and consecutive arches supported with pillars. On the door’s right-hand side is evidence of some renovations being made. When I ask the keeper of the mosque, Hagg Mohamed Ezz, he says they’ve been there for a while and that no one has done any work in ages.
“Do you know what happened to the minaret?” I asked Hagg Mohamed.
The minaret’s top half fell off as a result of distant attacks in 1967, he tells me.
I don’t even bother telling him that the Six-day War in 1967 was in Sinai.
We are finally heading to our last destination, El Sanan Pasha mosque. On the way to the mosque.I pick up the foul smell of horse feces, yet I was thankful that none of it was visible to me. Wooden horse-drawn carriages are loaded with the metal bars and the horses navigate the alleys of El Wekala until they reach the trucks parked by the Corniche.
Our final stop has no genies lurking around its corner, or minaret-related myths. It is surrounded by a metal fence and has an entrance with a sign bearing its name. The mosque is surrounded by a yard, a part of it for wuduu’ or washing up, and the rest is just extra space for praying.
I like this mosque the best. It has a beautiful dome and a relatively short minaret. Inside it is round and cozy. Its walls are neither made of colorful, distracting marble like Merza nor is it completely devoid of decoration like El Mahkama. Except for the dome from the inside, it is made of bright white marble that I can’t take my eyes off. Like Merza this mosque also has a women’s balcony.
This time this mosque’s keeper doesn’t withhold any information from me; he doesn’t have any. The people in charge of this mosque really wanted to put all inquiries and confusion to rest so they hung a big sign in the back with the mosque’s history. This was the second Ottoman-style mosque to be built in Egypt. It was built by the Turkish minister Sanan Pasha, of Albanian origin, in 1571.
We leave the mosque just after the Maghrib (sunset) call to prayer. We walk past all the three mosques on the way back, in the dark. We are not frozen by any genies, but I am held captive by the neglected cultural richness I’ve come across in just two Fridays.
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