Sunday, May 13, 2007

Wekalat Al-Balah – Fabric Market

My landlord has given me sofas which are upholstered in a very English rose kind of fabric, which he assured me, was very expensive and one of the best in Cairo. While I don’t dispute that, it does not exactly go with my wood, beige and dull orange colour scheme. As a result, I have been plotting and planning to re-upholster them, but have not managed to succeed.

Everyone I know has been advising me that Boulak is the best
place to go buy fabric for curtains or upholstery fabric etc. A wholesale market for fabric, I was told, it offers unbelievable choice and great prices vis-à-vis the big shops and the malls.

On googling, I found that other than being a large fabric market, Boulak has a great history, which vetted my appetite to go visit it.

Boulak Abu Al Ela is the fabric market, which is a part of a larger market called Wekalat Al-Balah (on the banks of Nile), though the two are used interchangeably. In earlier times, ships used to arrive in Cairo at Wekalet El Balah, carrying large amounts of used clothes from all over the world and from Europe mainly. Once they reached the market, they got cleaned and sold again with cheap prices and reasonable quality.

The market used to attracted thousands of people from all around Cairo or even from all around Egypt, especially the poor and the medium classes of the society. This is because these people used to find all that they wanted in one place and with great prices. With years passing by, the market started selling other products. Nowadays, the Wekalet El Balah is considered one of the most famous markets in Egypt.

All this was enough to get me really curious, so one Thursday afternoon, I set off to Boulak armed with my camera, determined to see this historical market. If I managed to get some good fabric in the bargain, even better. My driver assured me that he knew the place, but would madam really want to visit the place? Its very crowded, madam no like. Madam sure, madam wants to go? Yes, Mohamad, I most certainly do!

After a 45 minutes drive, we pulled into a lane (just behind Conrad Hotel) with a row of shops displaying myriad colours of woven fabric. Rows of car with drivers honking to get the car ahead moving, vendors selling koshary, koftas and soft drinks, head scarves displayed on push carts, high pitched voices of vendors hawking their wares, it sounded delicious!

As I got out of the car, on my left side were a number of stalls selling brightly coloured lingerie and women’s undergarments in tantalizing shades of red, black and smooth fabrics like satin. I could see a number of headscarves jostling with other headscarves and bargaining with the shopkeeper as they bought what they needed.

A little ahead were a number of stalls in the open, selling carpets and rugs of all hues and in all shapes and sizes. These are machine made carpets / rugs so don’t expect any exceptionally beautiful or expensive stuff. But they are beautiful for laying out in your room and the colours/ shapes are really tempting! I succumbed to the temptation and bought one for LE 165 which I thought was really a good bargain!!

Finally I ventured into the market. Boulak is the ultimate example of free market economy. The existence of a number of shops selling similar fabrics ensures that prices are competitive. Once you ask the price and walk away, the shopkeeper will beckon you back with a tempting discount. Light fabrics tends to start from LE 12, though you can get synthetic satin for as little as LE 8. Heavier fabrics start at LE 25.

The market is like a labyrinth with lanes crisscrossing each other, offering Aladdin’s treasure in terms of fabric. The lanes are peppered with numerous carts selling everything from scarves, undergarments, socks, shorts, and night pajamas. There are shops selling embroidered and lace work table mats, napkins, bed spreads etc. Another lane was full of shops hawking dresses and swimwear.

There are also numerous shops selling all varieties of dress fabric – cotton, silk to synthetic and in vibrant hues. This is where you pick up fabric if you have found a good tailor in Cairo or simply carry it home to get it stitched.

A Nestle pushcart selling ice cream seemed like manna from heaven and I quickly bought one ice-lolly to quench my thirst and beat the heat. At 1 o’clock, the overhead sun was blazing and I was beginning to feel the heat. As I started to walk back towards my car, my eyes fell on a deep red quilted fabric, which I just had to buy. At LE 20 / mt it seemed like a very good bargain and would look lovely on my sofa which I was yet to re-upholster!

As I drove back home, I must recommend Boulak to every tourist who visits Cairo. Not only is it a big part of Cairo’s history, and, a source for reasonably priced fabric, its also an experience in itself!

Wekalat Al-Balah. A market just north of the 15th May Bridge, where the 26th July Street is crossing the Nile, 400 meters (1,300 feet) south of the World Trade Center. Best time to go is in the morning around 11 o'clock or early evening when its cooler. The market is closed on Sunday.


Mumtaz Zaheer said...

Thanks for the article.. can you mark the market on ?

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Sorry for offtopic

Manisha said...

Mumtaz will try...

Anonymous, thanks for the compliment!

Manisha said...

Mumtaz will try...

Anonymous, thanks for the compliment!

Louise said...

Dear Manisha,
Im a belgian girl, just moved to cairo, your blog has helped me a lot!
I have a question, but would like to discuss it privately, is this possible? you can mail me on
Kind regards, Louise

Anonymous said...

Is it possible to contact administration?

Lori said...

yes, i'm going here today to buy some fabrics for my friend's wedding decorations in Canada! hopefully I will find it okay, and thanks for your blogpost, a friend of mine vaguely told me where it was but i still had no idea and my accent when i speak arabic is so bad i'm sure i would confuse the taxi driver!

Thanks again!

Manisha said...

Lori, you are welcome! I love going there and just browsing through the place... even if I dont buy anything.. I esp love the hoisery faric, wish there was someone who could stitch the t-shirts for me :-(