Not far from Cairo's madding crowds

David Wroe takes the alley less travelled and finds an oasis of calm in one of the world's great, bustling cities.

Mohamed is a gentle old man with a milky cataract in his left eye. He divides his time between looking after a 650-year-old mosque and caring for his daughter, Salwa, who has Down syndrome.

Mohamed, 72, used to be a muezzin, the man who climbs to the top of a minaret and calls people to prayer. He says it has left him with a raspy voice, though the Cleopatra cigarettes he smokes have probably done their bit.

Each day he and Salwa sit in the doorway of the mosque and watch life pass by on the bustling Khayyamiya, the "tentmakers' alley", with their gas stove and kettle to make tea, like a couple of characters from the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz's novel, Children Of The Alley.

"This is the best street in Egypt," Mohamed says. "The best street in the world."

He invites me to come and live in the mosque - an offer I politely decline because, beautiful though the mosque is, I've seen the dank room at the back where he sleeps. Besides, the mosque is in the middle of renovations - at a very Egyptian pace. The piles of sand, the tools, the scaffolding and wheelbarrow never seem to move. But I like visiting him because he is a little oasis of serenity in a city where peace and quiet are rare commodities.

Cairo is, to my mind, one of the world's great cities, whatever its shortcomings. With a population of 18 million, the crush of people is suffocating. If you're a woman, the young men on the street can be vile. There are five million cars on a road system at best equipped for two million.

The result for visitors is that Cairo delivers either a gutful of reality in the traffic jams and sprawling suburbs or, if you choose to swing past the pyramids and the Egyptian museum in an air-conditioned bus, no reality at all.

Yet there is an intoxicating energy to Cairo and, if you know where to look, even beauty. The tentmakers' alley is one of the few places left that blend the romantic with the real. It may live in the shadow of the famous Khan al-Khalili market, a few minutes' walk north, but the tentmakers' alley is the place to go for a more authentic experience.

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To get there, you walk down a busy market street where tinsmiths hammer away and roadside carts roast sweet potatoes. Boys weave along on bicycles, balancing trays on their heads piled with freshly baked bread. Every imaginable trade seems to be in progress, so that the street rings like a soundly struck bell with the songs of the city.

At the end of this industrious concourse is Bab Zuweila gate, built in 1092 by the Fatimid dynasty, which established Cairo. The gate, with its 20-metre tall honey-coloured minarets, is the only surviving southern entrance to the old citadel. Iron rings are still attached to the walls, from which criminals and enemies of vindictive rulers were hanged.

The tentmakers' alley is just outside the gate and tucked away, which is perhaps why people miss it. The first sighting, though, draws you in, because it is the only market in Cairo that still has the traditional wooden roof with holes that create shafts of sunlight in the dust, bringing to mind the souks of Damascus and Istanbul.

The alley is named after the craftsmen who for centuries have stitched ornate quilts to decorate the insides of tents for weddings, funerals and Ramadan celebrations. They're still here, though their numbers have dwindled to about 45. It is hard work for meagre pay. Years of sitting cross-legged, head bowed over a quilt, ruins the back and the eyes.

Still, for now at least, the stalls in the alley are piled high with exquisite, handmade quilts that are used as wall hangings, bedspreads and cushion covers. Some bear pharaonic designs using ancient Egyptian symbols such as lotus flowers. Others use geometric Islamic patterns, copied from the doors of old mosques. For about $10 you can buy a cushion cover. For about $500 you can buy a huge wallhanging that took six months to make.

I was introduced to the alley by Jenny Bowker, a quiltmaker whose husband is the Australian ambassador. Bowker has been helping the tentmakers by organising exhibitions, including one at Melbourne's Exhibition Centre, where everything was sold in 90 minutes.

Her enthusiasm for the place is infectious. "This is the first place I bring visitors, so they get a good first impression," she says. "It is teeming with life."

Bowker introduces me to the alley's colourful characters, some of whom are sweet-natured, others a little wilier. I quickly befriend Ayman, a young stall-owner, who becomes my guide. The alley is a complicated place, he tells me, full of rivalries and alliances. Artisans often copy each other's designs, sparking feuds. Some older tentmakers haven't spoken to each other for years.

The good news for the visitor is the tentmakers have agreed to keep the alley hassle-free. They don't drag reluctant buyers into their shops, or steer shoppers away from their rivals' stalls. They keep commissions down, meaning there are bargains.

Past the tentmakers, the alley continues, winding through the heart of old Cairo. Teetering walls are propped up with wooden scaffolding. The buildings, hundreds of years old, have the latticed windows from which women could watch life on the street without being seen and ancient doors decorated with Islamic carvings.

They are shabby, crumbling, yet grand; they were, after all, the homes of some of Cairo's wealthiest citizens. Cairo's elite now live in walled compounds on the outskirts of the city, with swimming pools and golf courses.

We visit a mosque that is old and ornate enough to be a tourist attraction but is still a working mosque, where we are approached by a young, bearded man who looks in the mood for a theological scrap. He launches into a strident speech, which Ayman reluctantly translates.

"He asked are you Christian and I said yes. So he wants to know why you believe in the prophet Isis."

"Isis? You mean Jesus?" I ask.

The man nods vigorously. "Isis," he says.

"Ah, I don't," I reply. "My country isn't very religious."

"He wants to know what you believe," Ayman says.

I hesitate. The subtleties of atheism and secularism may not translate well, so I lamely reply that I don't really believe in anything. This throws the young man for a moment but he quickly regains his stride and an animated discussion with Ayman ensues, while I watch like a spectator at a tennis game.

"What's he saying?" I ask.

"I'll tell you after," Ayman replies.

It turns out the young man was urging Ayman to try to open my eyes to Islam. Ayman, in turn, was telling the guy to bugger off.

This being unvarnished Cairo, unexpected things, such as encounters with young proselytisers, will happen. You won't get it at the pyramids but you'll get it in the alley.

A few weeks later I visit old Mohamed again. The tools and sand piles are still there. Nothing has changed. Mohamed makes some sweet tea and I ask him how the renovations are going. With Ayman translating, Mohamed says it will probably be another two or three years.

Ayman looks sceptical. "I don't know," he says. "Maybe it will take 100 years." We drink our tea. Nobody seems terribly fussed.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The most direct way to Cairo is with Singapore Airlines ($1683) with a change in Singapore, or with Emirates ($2233) with a change in Dubai. (Fares are low-season returns from Sydney and Melbourne, not including tax.) Australians require a visa; $40 for a stay of up to 30 days.

Staying there

The tentmakers' alley is on Sharia el-Qala but most taxi drivers won't know it. Instead, ask to be taken to the corner of Bab Zuweila and Sharia Khayyamiya. From here you can explore the whole of old Islamic Cairo. Peregrine Adventures includes the alley in one of its Egypt tours. A gem of a hotel close by is the Talisman Hotel de Charme, 39 Talaat Harb Street. Phone +202 393 9431. Rooms from $US200 ($216) a night.

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