− Russia, Asia and Africa
Cairo Street Cries 1918
This article appeared in issue no. 1 of the second series of The Kia Ora Coo-ee, subtitled The Official Magazine of the Australian and New Zealand Forces in Egypt, Palestine, Salonica & Mesopotamia. It was published on July 15th, 1918.
PERHAPS the first Arabic a soldier hears in Egypt is that spoken by the street vendors. Although this class of tradesman exists all over the civilised world, I think they are more numerous in Egypt than in any other country. In Italy, where I have seen more than in England, France or S Switzerland, these vendors sell very few articles besides fruits, vegetables and flowers, but in Egypt, while sitting in a cafe, one can buy almost anything, from a book to a carpet, and from a box of matches to a dozen tumblers.
In some parts of Europe a market is held every day, or at least twice a week, in a public square, at which one can buy all sorts of useful articles; in Egypt no such markets exist, instead there are the hawkers one meets with everywhere, particularly at cafes and tram stations. These men render great services to the public, but I do not think the foreigner who lives in European quarters realises the extent of these services, particularly to the house-wife who can neither afford to have a servant to send to the market, or the time to go there herself to make purchases.
The language used by street hawkers is, of course, the spoken or modern Arabic of Egypt. While the natives write one language, the classical, they speak another, the modern. “Ya naseeb. Khud lak waraha’” is cried generally by old men or women, who offer lottery tickets for sale. The exact translation of the words is, “Lottery. Buy a ticket!” These hawkers buy the tickets, from the man who has the monopoly of their sale, at something like P.T, 85 the hundred, and by selling them at a piastre a piece, make a profit of 15 per cent. Another cry of the same vendors is: ‘‘Loteria, ya naseeb, Mit Ginê!” which means, “Lottery (tickets)! A hundred pounds (prize)!” It will be noticed that “lottery” is repeated twice, once in Italian and once in Arabic; “ginê” is the English word “guinea” and here means the pound Egyptian. The women often come close to likely purchasers and say,’ Khud lak waraha! Inshalla tiksab!,” which is the Arabic for ‘Buy a ticket! I hope you will win!’’ Purchasers of these lickets render a double service. The cost price of the tickets goes to charitable societies, and the profit to the poor creatures whose only means of a livelihood is the sale of them.
Not long ago the languages used by street vendors were Arabic and Italian, principally the former. The introduction of the latter language must certainly be due to the days when the Italian colony in Cairo and Alexandria was predominating over all the others. Among the cries in Italian which sometimes strike the ear in Cairo, is that of the man who sells glasses; he cries “biechiere”, which means “glasses”. He uses another word, “crystal”, to signify the quality of the glass; but the word used is French. Now, however, the resourceful vendors, keen on selling their wares to soldiers, have learned the English names, which they mix with some Arabic. The seller of matches now cries “Two bil half, ya matshish” “Bil” means “for” or “at the rate of”, and “ya” in the interjection “O!”. The cry, therefore, properly translated means: Matches, two (boxes) for half (a piastre)!”
One of the funniest cries is that of the sellers of newspapers, who call out about 11 p.m., when people are leaving places of entertainment ” ‘Egyptian Mail,’ to-morrow”. This is perfectly correct, as the “morning” papers go to press about 10 p.m., and an hour later are hawked in the streets. The boys use the word “to-morrow” as an inducement to the public to buy the paper, thinking that it gives the news of the following day by anticipation. Shoe-blacks used to cry out in Arabic, “boya!” which means “blacking”, and still do so in native quaiters. They now cry, when they see Australian soldiers leaving the tram car, “Clean boots, Dinkum!” or, to any British soldiers, “Shine boots nice”.
The seller of canes cries, “Canes, good canes I” to attract attention to his wares. This class of hawkers used to sell the ordinary sticks that civilians carry, but noticing that the military carry a lighter kind, soon procured supplies to suit. Often they “button hole” a soldier, as it were, and say, “You won stick, Sir?” Another class of hawkers who press their wares on soldiers are those who sell oranges. They pronounce the name of this fruit “arrangis”, and often speak of them as being “big ones”, although they may be the size of a tennis-ball. The Arab hawker is fond of praising his goods, whether in Arabic or any other language. He is but doing his almost to make a living by the sale of a few articles, probably bringing him at the end of the day only 8 or 10 piastres.
These are some of the principal cries heard in Cairo. Probably a new set of street cries in English will ultimately be added to those in Arabic and Italian; but none of these is likely to be as picturesque as those often heard in Arabic. As an example of the latter cries, I may cite that of the seller of sugar-cane, who says, “Abyad zay khad el-arusa!”, which means that the canes are “as white as a bride’s cheek!”; and that of the hawker of fruit of the sycamore-tree, “La tihul ly la tin wala ‘enab, ya gimmez sukkar”, which, translated literally, is, “Do not speak to me of figs or grapes, (I sell) cycamoretree (fruit) as sweet as sugar!” This fruit is generally tasteless, and perhaps the very cheapest there is in this country. Generally, boys of the lower classes indulge in it.
Take him all in all, the street hawker of Cairo is a smart, enterprising person, who does his very best to dispose of his wares, although he is often somewhat annoying to the public.