The driver let us off at Khan el Kalili. From M’s description, I was expecting an old market square with a flood of tourists. What we got was a dark alley with a few locals. We were immediately picked up by some young man named Hassan who insisted that he was “not looking for a tip –I am a good Islamic scholar. In Islam, is good to do kindness” who told us Khan el Kalili was right around the corner and he would show us. OK. It was early evening and there were other people around, so following was easier than shaking him.
We turned down a small, dark street lined with poor looking shops and women peeling vegetables in front of their apartment buildings. The little streets were stereotypically Egyptian – full of potholes, mud, and broken bits of rubble and stone. We turned down another street. Then another. And another. This was getting uncomfortable. I could only imagine what was going through M’s rather less travel-savvy head. Suddenly, she stopped and said she’d broken her shoe. Perfect excuse to get rid of Hassan I thought (thank you, M). He of course wanted to take us to a shoe repair shop; I said I’d deal with the immediate problem and then find one, thank you very much and goodbye. He smiled and said he would wait, but I was a bit insistent. He actually left. I thought the whole shoe thing was a ploy on M’s part to get us out of an awkward situation. Unfortunately, it was not.
We were so far into the old souk and the streets were so filthy that giving her my shoes and walking barefoot was not an option, so she hobbled along and I started searching out a shop for flip flops. I found a cramped little stand that sold camel-leather sandals and dug for something that would fit one of us. The shop was owned by a man in his sixties with black teeth and cracked hands, who spoke as much English as I do Arabic. He quickly saw our problem and snatched away M’s broken shoe, giving it to a wizened little man crouched over a workbench who must have been his father.
The shopkeeper fluttered around us making sympathetic noises, trying very hard to make us comfortable on the broken concrete slab he used for a bench. His sandals were hanging on strings all around the little stand, and he took down every one that looked as though it might fit. As we tried on every large-sized sandal in the tiny shop, I watched the old man tackle the broken shoe. He studied it and studied its mate, looking at it from all angles, pulling and poking. Clearly he’d not seen anything quite like it before. Of course I had no faith that he’d be able to do anything with it. The sole was a rubber wedge in two parts with a leather upper. Nothing there to nail anything to. The old shoemaker attacked the upper sole with rubber cement, but I didn’t think it would hold. After a few minutes of patiently waiting for the cement to get tacky, he obviously thought the same. He got up, searched around for a little spirit lamp, and lit it. Meanwhile, M paid a pittance for the only pair of sandals in the shop she could get on to her feet, and we got up to go. After all, her original shoes were a write off, it was going to take us some time to find our way out of the maze of the souk, and we were grumpy and frustrated at the loss of M’s nearly new shoes. The old man signaled us to wait. I suppose because we didn’t know how to refuse, we sat back down. He took the lower sole and melted the inside surface over the spirit lamp. He ran his calloused finger over it to make sure it was molten and then slapped it onto the upper with the edge of the leather strap between the pieces. He pressed the pieces together and grinned. Perfectly sound.
M tried to pay him for coming to her rescue, but he refused, bowed his head and put his hand over his heart, smiling and speaking to us. I imagine he said something like “In Islam, is good to do kindness.”