The slightest scent of business can get the best smile out and smoothest talk of the average Egyptian shopkeeper in Khan el khalili. He is glib, smooth and actually very nice. Amitabh Bachan, Shahrukh Khan, Rajiv Gandhi all figure in teaser lines as he befriends and then hold you down with options, smiles and a variety of ever decreasing prices and value. So much so that you wonder what hit you when you walk out with a painting you had no intention to buy in the first place.
This is the average Egyptian trader at Khan el khalili for you. But then, the ones selling perfume are a different breed. Or so I think.
One of them smelt ‘business’ when my friend and bought these nice little containers of ‘scented oil’ that refracted a brilliant array of light into the ceiling. The artistic glass containers looked so beautiful that that my camera stood trained on them for a while.
“Would you want to see the original? The best. No charge for looking my friend. Blah-blah and some more blah…” a voice asked from behind.
In couple of nano seconds were walking into labyrinthine maze of dim alleys and dull doorless buildings. As one dark alley lead to another, we were following the man who was wafting stories of the revolution, of Mubarak and ofcourse of the ‘best original perfumes’. In one dark alley I asked myself if we should be doing this at all. For a fleeting second the Pied Piper of Hamlin and the rats flashed before my eyes.
In a seamless transition, fear began gripping me at every turn. We seemed to be taking too many turns. I feared a gun totting revolutionary or a burglar or some man who didn’t like my looks show up and demand something that I didn’t have or didn’t want to part with.
But my fears weren’t even remotely justified. For now. For, In a short while, we were lead us into a room. We had arrived. The room was filled with ubiquitous white plastic jars like the ones that you would find in a secondary school chemistry lab, a truck load of papyrus paintings and sundry trinkets.
And then the show began.
He went on to show us papyrus paintings that would glow when he switched off the lights. Proceeding to switch off the lights. His booming Egyptian voice served as the background to the wonderful patterns in the painting that continued to glow. My fears of burglars, thugs and the general gent who didn’t like my looks returned. I didn’t even know who to call in an emergency.” What was the equivalent of the ‘100’ Police Helpline?” This and similar such assortment of thoughts caused every conceivable pore to pour beads of sweat.
Every time he would switch off the lights, the company of darkness, the green illumination on the face of the Pharoh or some strange creature on the painting and his booming voice caused my heart to jump like monkey who was going through a behavioral scientist’s experiment on fear or motivation.
He must have seen in me the epitome of a stoical face and a somber look. Seeing that he wasn’t making much of a headway with his paintings, he shifted to perfumes.
His hands reached out and caressed one of those large white chemistry lab type jars. He opened one of them, dabbed some paper into it and announced, “Lotus Scented”.
“Lotus scented”, he said. Again. Lowering his voice. As though it was the last remains of a bottle the Pharoh dabbed on his favourite queen. To be honest, the aroma was exquisite. To say the least. As much as the aroma wafted through my nostrils, the fact that it came from a white plastic jar that could have well formed a classical part of paan shop paraphernalia, blew me.
I was beginning to get impatient. Notwithstanding the aroma. All the sound and light show and the dim alleys had sucked out the explorers’ courage in me. What if the next bottle he opened had chloroform in it, asked a cuckoo in my mind. I sweated more.
At that exact moment he looked at me, and our eyes met. And he said, “For this gentleman who doesn’t believe me, I have something special”.
By now, I was sure, he had chloroform. Or maybe cyanide. My thoughts were only getting worse.
He opened another plastic jar. Steely opaque white. And dabbed some on his wrist, inhaled it, savoured it, “the best I’ve got”. He truly seemed to relish it.
He grabbed my hand in an ever so friendly manner and dabbed a few generous drops, and announced with a flourish “Hugo Boss”. My eyes darted out and landed on the white plastic jar which was three fourths full.
He repeated ‘Hugo Boss”. And like a mafia don, said “original”.
My nostrils inhaled generous quantities’ of the air around and it indeed seemed like Hugo Boss. But I was sweating and pulling Hugo Boss out of a white plastic jar seemed too surreal to be true. I said thank you and we began walking out. He was gracious in his disappointment and escorted us back to the main alley selling us stuff till the last moment.
That night I slept fistfully. The wide array of sensory experiences had left me both tired and soaked with ideas.
In my sleep, the trader had complained to the Pharaoh that I had stolen his jar of Hugo Boss. The Pharoh came after me, riding his bright green dog, and as he neared, his dog pinned me down and sniffed my wrist.
I woke up in a fit.
Shivering from fright, I reached for the jar of water on the sidetable. And as water soaked a parched throat, I realised that the wrist was smelling good.
Quickly realising that it was Hugo Boss at work! I pulled the blanket over. Hoping that the blanket would keep the Pharoh and his dog away, I shut my eyes tight.