Bargain battling at the bazaar

Sarah Malik heads into Cairo's markets to sample the local culture and watch the haggling.

The drums beat rhythmically as the whirling dervishes spin into rapturous circles, disappearing in a blur of colour.

We are in the Khan-el-Khalili market in Cairo watching the sama, or spiritual dance of the sufis. The dancers or dervishes are devotees of a mystical branch of Islam known as Sufism, known for expressing their love of the divine through ecstatic dance and poetry.

The dance involves about fifteen dervishes, most dressed in robes of white turning rhythmically in unison to drums which play from an upstairs balcony. The performance then works up to a crescendo as the whirling becomes more frenzied and the dervishes scatter and come together in concentric circles. The master dervish then finishes the performance gliding across the stage, without seemingly touching it, his robes flying over him as he moves hands astride in perfect equilibrium, melding into the pounding of drums and a stream of blinding colour. The crowd is mesmerised and afterwards we file out slowly, the hypnotic dance still playing on our senses.

The performance of the whirling dervishes is a free event organised by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and plays to packed houses every night.

I wander through the adjoining book shop admiring the sophisticated range of modern Egyptian art on sale with novels from the late celebrated Nobel -prize winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz and CD's of sultry tunes from Egypt's famed singers from the classic Umm Kulthum to the pop tunes of Amr Diab.

The area we are exploring is framed by two magnificent mosques, the white arched Al- Husseini on the left and the ancient domed Al-Azhar over the underpass on the right. Al-Azhar is attached to an Islamic university of the same name which has been a famed seat of ancient Muslim learning for over a thousand years.

Later my friend Claire and I wander through the magnificent courtyard of Al-Azhar, before meeting up with our fellow traveller Aadil to walk through the bazaars before dinner.

The central bazaar district of Cairo at night is buzzing with shoppers and hawkers engaged in spirited bargaining.

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The markets can be an intense experience for those not used to the spirited haggling and shouting as hawkers call out from all directions. Our new favourite Arabic phrase during this time became 'la shukran' or 'no thanks!'

The endless haggling tires me. I am content to finger the sparkling array of copper pots and vases, and savour the rows of exotic spices and perfumes lined in rows next to jangling belly dance belts and sequined scarves glittering in the night. Just walking through the narrow lanes of this lively city is thrilling.

However Claire needs to get a slew of souvenirs for her family and decides on three model pyramids. Aadil, who hails from India, is a seasoned bargainer and we watch with awe as he negotiates vendors to a fraction of the quoted price.

This complicated process involves an hour of bluffs, lies, wild gesticulations from both sides and even a fake 'walking away' before we finally seal the deal. Claire and I are left sorely pitying the lack of haggling skills we've developed in our western shopping education.

CAIRO BAZAAR TRAVEL TIPS

*Most of the products can be found in bazaars throughout Egypt, so take your time and compare prices before buying gifts.

*Feel comfortable to politely decline when necessary so you can enjoy the colour and liveliness of the scene.

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