A Store with No Door

Continued from A Store with No Door

“This shop has been in my family for 120 years. My grandfather taught my father. For sixty years, I have been making fiteer.”  He looks down the street and points toward the twin minarets of Bab Zuwayla. His hand waves into the air as he counts the shops – saddles, fertilizers, bird cages, barbecue grills and wire baskets, butcher blocks and stools, wooden ‘kobkab’ sandals, herbs, shisha café, coffee bean shop, marble, alabaster, and Ramadan lantern workshops.

Ramadan lanterns – fawanees

making kunafa

“Down the street my brother makes kunafa. We bake kunafa pastry on a flat, iron griddle in the back of the shop. Our street has never changed except the name. It was called Taht el-Rab’a” (meaning beneath the apartments).

At this time on any other morning, the street would bustle with energy but today Egyptians ‘sniff the spring breeze’ on Shamm el-Nassim, a pharaonic tradition in which Egyptians celebrate the arrival of spring by eating salty fish (fiseeskh), green onions, and boiled eggs. Another man takes over the fiteer baking and the Hagg pulls up a chair; his daughter places his shisa (water pipe) in front of him and arranges three hot coals over a ball of wet tobacco. For some minutes, the Hagg draws air through a long red pipe causing water to gurgle softly.“Soon we will be very busy. People have to eat something sweet after all that salty fish,” explains Hagg. “When I was a child, we used to spend the day under trees, but now, most of the time, I am here: all holidays, Ramadan, feasts, Shamm el-Nassim, I am here.” Speaking to no one in particular, Hagg tells us that fiteer has been made in Egypt for hundreds of years with samna baladi (traditional Egyptian ghee), but recently, meat and vegetables or sweet ingredients are added to the paper-thin pastry. “It is an Egyptian tradition for the bride’s mother-in-law to buy a wedding fiteer to serve the morning after the wedding at the couple’s house; sometimes I make a twelve-layer fiteer for rich families.” Hagg smiles wistfully. “One time a poor girl came to me, and said she was getting married, and wanted the wedding fiteer and asked for a six-layers. I told her that since her husband’s family and her family were not rich, two-layers would be enough. I could have made a six-layered fiteer, and got paid more for it, but why should I do that?”

From the shop, a dark-haired girl about four-years old, races under the table and sits at the Hagg’s feet. “This is my granddaughter, Habeeba, one day she will be making fiteer.  Habeeba means beloved.” Hagg continues, “Our street has never changed since I was small, like Habeeba, but it won’t be so for her. The government is going to tear down all those shops across the street to widen the road for parking.” Habeeba climbs onto her grandfather’s lap and lays her head on his chest. “But every year I go to Mecca for fifteen days, this is my vacation.”

Purr-Purr, Purr-Purr, the water pipe gurgles as the Hagg sucks smoke through the pipe. The white smoke drifts from the side of his mouth and around his head. Two veiled women stop to purchase several kinds of fiteer. The Hagg tells a joke and they laugh. “Sometimes foreigners come and pay much more than they should, but I only take the price of the fiteer and return the rest. I don’t like to cheat people; I want them to come back.” Two demitasse cups of dark, sweet. cardamom-laced coffee appear. “Money brings problems…lots of problems, what is most important is to love people.” 

The fiteer baker rolls his next circle of dough, pats it, lifts it, stretches it and twirls it. The oven fire glows and until the government removes it, the little garden on the curb still grows; and all through the day and night, seekers and dreamers, workers and wanderers walk by this doorless fiteer shop under the apartments…

(Excerpt from Taht el-Rab’a – Then and Now. Lesley Lababidi Turath, Cairo: Vol. 2, May 2009. All rights reserved.)

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