A trip to Cairo’s Friday Market

CAIRO, Egypt — A snake writhes against the oppressive grip of a child’s hand. Chicken heads roll, separated violently from their bodies by a covey of impassive women who make a pittance at the butcher’s table. A man picks painstakingly through a heap of used broom heads, eventually settling on two that appear the least worn. A young man, a scar punctuating his right eye, sells live bats, perpetuating the tradition of bathing young Egyptian girls in bat blood to prevent unwanted hair growth.

It is a timeless scene that plays out week after week along the alleyways of the Friday Market, the dark heart of Cairo.

The teeming temporary souk creates a symphony of sin: Pickpockets brush shoulders with police informants, gambling ring operators relieve unwary shoppers of what little extra they have to spend, while contraband bottles of beer and brandy change hands discreetly.

The market has grown to consume most of a neighborhood in the slums of eastern Cairo. It includes a sprawling poultry market under a bridge, a food market boasting cow heads and camel hooves, and a junk market spread across an obsolete set of railroad tracks. 

Abdullah Khalifa sells broken old TVs, which buyers can — and do — snap up for as little as $8, much to the vendor's amazement. “I don’t know why [the TVs] don’t work, but people buy them anyways,” Khalifa said. 

Every couple of years, government officials announce their intention to move the market because of its sprawl and general lawlessness. Vendors take the saber-rattling in a stride, saying there’s no way it could ever happen. In a country where up to 50 percent of the population lives on $2 a day or less, ordinary folk depend on the market for appliances, tools and other gadgets that would be well beyond their reach in the capital's retail stores.

At the center of things are the gambling ring operators, who run their operations in defiance of respectable Egyptian behavior, the law and Islam itself. They have a knack for winning that would put a house in Vegas to shame.

Mohammad Mahmoud yells for bets in the game of Berwaz. Gamblers put down Egyptian pound notes on a board, making their choice of numbers and symbols. The dice clatter to the table. One shows a “2” and the other a heart. One man at the corner of the table, a stack of bills in front of him, smiles.

A policeman, watching the illegal proceedings, slides furtively from his tableside perch, disappearing into the crowd.

Mahmoud typically pulls in about 1,000 pounds, or just under $200, per day. After paying off his plants — friends who pretend to gamble — and an array of prowling police officers, Mahmoud and his brother split the remainder. So as if in penance for his sins, Mahmoud earns only $20 to $30 on a good Friday, or so he says. The sum feeds his family of 10.

Even to earn that pittance, he explains, he has rigged the game heavily in his favor. Magnets under the board and in the dice help insure he rolls a disproportionate number of "ones," a losing number for everybody, according to the rules.

Two of Mahmoud’s friends stand tableside, a pile of cash between them. “No one can win if the man operating the game is a professional,” Mahmoud said, adding that: “Everybody knows this market has gambling, but no one can do anything about it.”

That’s because the roughly 15 gambling stands that operate in the market all have agreements with the police. Not only do their bribes reach into the middle ranks of the force, but gambling ring operators like Mahmoud actually serve as informants to the police, keeping a finger on the pulse of the market, reporting any misdeeds.

Wrinkles etch the edges of Mahmoud’s features, however, and only the faintest fleck of a smile ever seems to flicker across his face.

He’s made a living sinning in the eyes of his state, his god, and himself. And he seems burdened by it. “We know for a fact that this is not decent work,” he said, “and we don’t feel honored to be doing it.”

And despite their comfortable standing with the police, the men who run the gambling ring aren’t, apparently, without scruples.

“I don’t let foreigners play," said a man, asking to be identified only as Rizk, who runs a game with a wheel that calls to mind an American mainstay, Wheel of Fortune, "because I don’t want to affect tourism.”

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A tale of two lovers

Trash or treasure? Egypt's poorest decide