Thursday, March 3, 2011

Visiting Tahir Square

he location is Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It’s Sunday afternoon, the sun is shining down on us and cars are piling up by the pavement where dozens of street vendors are standing next to one another hawking their wares on the green hedge, dreaming of a better life and a better Egypt.

Abdel Latif is a 30-year-old husband and father of three. Since graduating with a commerce degree 11 years ago, he has worked at a bazaar in Khan al-Khalili selling t-shirts and souvenirs. “I‘ve been on that pavement for the last three weeks to earn my daily bread and participate in this historic event,” says Abdel Latif with a smile.

He admits that his current job is only temporary, until tourists begin flocking back to the country. Or maybe after the revolution, he muses, he can find a respectable job in an office.

“All merchants get their goods from the same distributors at the same prices,” says Abdel Latif. When asked about competition with other vendors, he says this is far from fierce. “We don’t fight over location or clients,” he says. “God divides his blessings equally among us.”

As we stand talking, a young man passes by and asks about the price of a t-shirt. “Fifteen pounds,” I chime in, in an effort to help generate business. The young man buys two, noting that the same t-shirt goes for LE25 in Heliopolis.

As more and more people gather around Abdel Latif, I roll up my sleeves to help him out--which leads to an hour of hard work. The clientele is from all walks of life, even foreigners--this is when I realize Abdel Latif is fluent in English.

“I sell with the same price to both Egyptians and tourists; it is the new spirit of the revolution,” he says.

After a diplomatic car full of clients drives away, Abdel Latif looks at me and says, “We must encourage the tourist to come back; it’s our only way out.”

“Harassment here is common, especially against foreigners,” he says. According to Abdel Latif, efforts to defend a foreign girl that was being harassed would only get him into trouble. “They’ll accuse me of talking to and protecting spies,” the young vendor explains.

After becoming thirsty from the hot weather and hard work, I see a tea and coffee spread a couple meters away. Om Karim sells tea, water and termis (Egyptian salted beans). “I’m here from dusk until dawn,” she says. Om Karim also sells “martyr cards” at LE1 each commemorating those who were killed in the recent uprising.

As I wander around the square and the Qasr el-Nile Bridge, I notice that new, patriotically-themed products are appearing on an almost daily basis: cotton wrist and head bands in red, white and black; Egyptian flag necklaces; crochet mobile-phone pouches; and, of course, Egyptian flags of every conceivable size.

“The bestselling item is the plate number sticker for LE3,” says Hamdy, another street vendor camped out by the Semiramis Hotel.

Tahrir Square has become the locus for every novelty one can imagine. “Martyrs Square,” as many are calling it, oozes with vitality, creativity and the spirit of patriotism and coexistence. God bless Egypt and the merchant-revolutionaries of Tahrir Square.

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