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A trip to Cairo’s Friday Market

Snake charmers, bootleggers, bat's blood vendors, gambling dens ... plus, for those who need them, appliances and TV sets.

A man sells pigeons in the popular Friday Market in Cairo Feb. 13, 2009. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

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.