Street cries of the world

Street cries were once a popular subject of songs and literature in Britain, continental Europe and elsewhere. Each month from 2018 onwards I'll be scanning and transcribing publications to build this collection.


The following is an extract from Chapter XIV of Edward William Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, first published in 1836.

BREAD, vegetables, and a variety of eatables, are carried about for sale. The cries of some of the hawkers are curious, and deserve to be mentioned. The seller of “tirmis” (or lupins) often cries “Aid! O Imbábee! Aid!”[1] This is understood in two senses; as an invocation for aid to the sheykh El-Imbábee, a celebrated Muslim saint, buried at the village of Imbábeh, on the west bank of the Nile opposite Cairo, in the neighbourhood of which village the best tirmis is grown; and also as implying that it is through the aid of the saint above mentioned that the tirmis of Imbábeh is so excellent. The seller of this vegetable also cries, “The tirmis of Imbábeh surpasses the almond!”[2] Another cry of the seller of tirmis is, “O how sweet the little offspring of the river!”[3] This last cry, which is seldom heard but in the country towns and villages of Egypt, alludes to the manner in which the tirmis is prepared for food. To deprive it of its natural bitterness, it is soaked, for two or three days, in a vessel full of water, then boiled; and, after this, sewed up in a basket of palm-leaves (called “fard”), and thrown into the Nile, where it is left to soak again two or three days, after which it is dried, and eaten cold, with a little salt.

The seller of sour limes cries, “God make them light [or easy of sale]! O limes!”[4] – The toasted pips of a kind of melon called “abdalláwee,” and of the water-melon, are often announced by the cry of “O consoler of the embarrassed! O pips!”[5] though more commonly by a simple cry of “Roasted pips!”[6] – A curious cry of the seller of a kind of sweetmeat (“haláweh”), composed of treacle fried with some other ingredients, is, “For a nail, O sweetmeat!”[7] He is said to be half a thief: children and servants often steal implements of iron, &c., from the house in which they live, and give them to him in exchange for his sweetmeat. – The hawker of oranges cries, “Honey! O oranges! Honey!”[8] And similar cries are used by the sellers of other fruits and vegetables, so that it is sometimes impossible to guess what the person announces for sale, as when we hear the cry of “Sycamore-figs!” O grapes!”[9] except by the rule that what is for sale is the least excellent of the fruits, &c., mentioned; as sycamore-figs are not so good as grapes. – A very singular cry is used by the seller of roses: “The rose was a thorn; from the sweat of the Prophet it blossomed.”[10] This alludes to a miracle related of the Prophet. – The fragrant flowers of the hennà-tree (Lawsonia inermis, or Egyptian privet,) are carried about for sale, and the seller cries, “Odours of paradise! O flowers of the hennà!”[11] – manners_and_A kind of cotton-cloth, made by machinery which is put in motion by a bull, is announced by the cry of “The work of the bull! O maidens!”[12]


As the water of the wells in Cairo is slightly brackish, numerous “sakkàs” (carriers or sellers of water) obtain their livelihood by supplying its inhabitants with water from the Nile. During the season of the inundation, or rather during the period of about four months after the opening of the canal which runs through the metropolis, the sakkàs draw their water from this canal: at other times they bring it from the river. It is conveyed in skins by camels and asses, and sometimes, when the distance is short, and the skin small, by the sakkà himself. The water-skins of the camel (which are called “rei”) are a pair of wide bags of ex-hide. The ass bears a goat’s skin (called “kirbeh”); so too does the sakkà, if he have no ass. The rei contain three or four kirbehs. The general cry of the sakkà is, “O! may God compensate [me]!”[13] Whenever this cry is heard, it is known that a sakkà is passing. For a goat’s skin of water, brought from the distance of a mile and half, or two miles, he obtains scarcely more than a penny.

There also many sakkàs who supply passengers in the streets of the metropolis with water. One of this occupation is called “sakkà sharbeh:” his kirbeh has a long brass spout, and he pours the water into a brass cup, or an earthen kulleh, for any one who would drink.

Sakkà sharbeh

There is a more numerous class who follow the same occupation, called “hemalees.” These are mostly darweeshes, of the ordfer of the Rifá’ees, or that of the Beiyoomees, and are exempt from the income-tax called firdeh. The hemalee carries, upon his back, a vessel (called “ibreek”) of porous gray earth. This vessel cools the water. Sometimes the heamlee has an earthen kulleh of water scented with “móyet zahr” (or orange-flower water), prepared from the flowers of the “Náring” (a bitter orange), for his best customers; and often a sprig of náring is stuck in the mouth of his ibreek. He also, generally, has a wallet hung by his side. From persons of the higher and middle orders he receives from one to five faddahs for a draught of water; from the poor, either nothing, or a piece of bread or some other article fo food, which he puts in his wallet. Many hemalees, and some sakkàs who carry the goat’s skin, are found at the scenes of religious festivals, such as the moolids of saints, &c, in Cairo and its neighbourhood. They are often paid, by visitors to the tomb of a saint on such occasions, to distribute the water which they carry to passengers; a cupful to whoever desires. This work of charity is called “tesbeel;” and is performed for the sake of the saint, and on other occasions than moolids. The water carriers who are thus employed are generally allowed to fill their ibreeks or kirbehs at a public fountain, as they demand nothing from the passengers whom they supply.


When employed to distribute water to passengers in the streets, &c., they generally chant a short cry, inviting the thirsty to partake of the charity offered them in the name of God, most commonly in the words, and to the air, here following:–

Sabeel Alláh

and praying that paradise and pardon may be the lot of him who affords the charitable gift; thus –


There are numerous other persons who follow occupations similar to that of the hemalee. Among these are sellers of “ ’erk-soos,” or infusion of licorice, mentioned in a former chapter. The “ ’erk-soosee” (or seller of this beverage) generally carries a red earthen jar of the liquid on his left side, partly supported by a strap and chain, and partly by his left arm: the mouth having some leaf (or fibres of the palm-tree) stuffed into it. He also carries two or more brass or china cups, which he knocks together.


In the same manner, many “sharbetlees” (or sellers of sherbet) carry about for sale “zebeeb” (or infusion of raisins). The sharbetlee commonly bears, in his left hand, the glass vessel of a “sheesheh,” filled with zebeeb; and large tin or copper jug full of the same, and several glass cups,[14] in his right hand. Some sharbetlees carry, on the head, a round tinned copper tray, with a number of glass cups of “teen meblool,” or “belah meblool,” which are figs and dates steeped in water; and a copper vessel,[15] or a china bowl, of the same. Sahlab (a thin jelly, made of water, wheat-starch, and sugar, boiled, with a little cinnamon or ginger sprinkled upon it, or made as a drink without starch,) is likewise carried about in the same manner; and “soobiyà”[16] (which is a drink made of the pips of the ’abdalláwee melon, moistened and pounded, and steeped in water, which is then strained and sweetened with sugar, or made with rice instead of the pips,) is also vended in a similar way, and carried in vessels like those used for zebeeb; but the glass cups are generally placed in a kind of trough of tin, attached, by a belt, to the waist of the seller.

It has been mentioned before, that many poor persons in Cairo gained their livelihood by going about to clean pipes. The pipe-cleaner (“musellikátee”) carries a number of long wires for this purpose, in three or four hollow canes, or tubes of tin, which are bound together, and slung to his shoulder. A small leathern bag, full of tow, to wind round the top of the canes or tin tubes. The musellikátee generally obtains no more than “nuss[17] faddah” (or about a quarter of a farthing) for each pipe that he cleans.


A very great number of persons of both sexes among the lower orders in Cairo, and many in other towns of Egypt, obtain their subsistence by begging. As might be expected, not a few of these are abominable impostors. There are some whose appearance is most distressing to every humane person who sees them; but who accumulate considerable property. A case of this kind was public here a few months ago. A blind felláh, who was led through the streets of the metropolis by a young girl, his daughter, both of whom were always nearly naked, was in the daily habit of bringing to his house a blind Turkish beggar, to sup with him. One evening, he was not at home; but his daughter was there, and had prepared the supper for his Turkish friend, who sat and ate alone; and, in doing this, happened to put his hand to one side, and felt a jar full of money, which, without scruple, he carried away with him. It contained the sum of a hundred and ten purses (then equivalent to rather more than five hundred and fifty guineas), in kheyreeyehs, or small coins of nine piasters each. The plundered beggar sought redress at the Citadel, and recorded his property, with the exception of forty kheyreeyehs, which the thief had spent; but was interdicted from being in future.

Children are often seen in Cairo perfectly naked; and I have several times seen females from twelve to twenty years of age, and upwards, with only a narrow strip of rag round the loins, begging in the streets of this city. They suffer little from exposure of the bare person to the cold of winter, or the scorching sun of summer, being accustomed to it from infancy; and the men may, if they choose, sleep in some of the mosques. In other respects, also, their condition is not quite so bad as their appearance might lead a stranger to suppose. They are almost sure of obtaining either food or money sufficient for supplying the absolute wants of nature, in consequence of the charitable disposition of their countrymen, and the common habit which the tradespeople have of eating in their shops, and generally giving a morsel of their food to those who ask for it. There are many beggars who spend the greater part of the day’s gains to indulge themselves at night with the intoxicating hasheesh, which, for a few hours, renders them, in imagination, the happiest of mankind.

The cries of the beggars of Cairo are generally appeals to God. Among the most common are – “O Exciter of compassion! O Lord!”[18] – “For the sake of God! O ye charitable!”[19] – “I am seeking from my Lord a cake of bread!”[20] – “Oh how bountiful Thou art! O Lord!”[21] – “I am the guest of God and the Prophet!”[22] – In the evening, “My supper must be thy gift! O Lord!”[23] – On the eve of Friday, “The night of the excellent Friday!”[24] – And on Friday, “The excellent day of Friday!”[25] One who daily passed my door used to exclaim, “Place thy reliance on God! There is none but God!” and another, a woman, I now hear crying, “My supper must be thy gift! O Lord! from the hand of a bountiful believer, a testifier of the unity of God! O masters!”

The answers which beggars generally receive (for they are so numerous that a person cannot give to all who ask of him) are, “God help thee!”[26] – “God will sustain!”[27] – “God give thee!”[28] – “God content, or enrich, thee!”[29] – They are not satisfied by any denial but one implied by these or similar answers. In the more frequented streets of Cairo, it is common to see a beggar asking for the price of a cake of bread, which he or she holds in the hand, followed by the seller of the bread. Some beggars, particularly darweeshes, go about chanting verses in praise of the Prophet; or beating cymbals, or a little kettle-drum. In the country, many darweeshes go from village to village begging alms. I have seen them on horseback; and one I lately saw thus mounted, and accompanied by two men bearing easch a flag, and by a third beating a drum: this beggar on horseback was going from hut to hut asking for bread.

1. “Meded yá Imbábee meded.”
2. “Tirmis Imbábeh yeghlib el-lóz.”
3. “Y&aacute ma-hlà (for “má ahlà”) bunei el-bahr.”
4. “Allah yehowwinhè (for “yuhowwinhà”) yá leymoon.”
5. “Yá muselli-l-ghalbán yá libb.”
6. “El-libb el-mohammas.”
7. “Bi-mismár yá haláweh.”
8. “Asal yá burtukán ’asal.”
9. “Gemmeyz yá ’eneb.”
10. “El-ward kán shoók min ’arak en-nebee fettah.”
11. “Rawáyeh (for “rawáëh”) el-genneh yá temer hennà.”
12. “Shughl et-tó yá benát.”
13. “Yá ’owwad Allah.”
14. “Kullehs.”
15. “Satleh.”
16. Or “soobiyeh.”
17. A corruption of “nusí.”
18. “Yá Mohannin y&aacute Rabb.”
19. “Li-lláh yá mohsineen.”
20. “Anà tálib min ’and Rabbee ragheef ’eysh.”
21. “Yá ma-ntà (for “má entà”) kereem yá Rabb.”
22. “Aná deff Alláh wa-n-nebee.”
23. “ ’Asháya ’aleyk yá Rabb.”
24. “Leylet el-gumm’ah el-fadeeleh.”
25. “Yóm el-gum’ah el-fadeeleh.”
26. “Allah yesá’edak” (for “yusá’edak”).
27. “Allah yerzuk.”
28. “Allah yaateek” (for “yoateek”).
29. “Allah yeghneek” (for “yughneek”).