The buildings are tall, with very small foot prints. There very few right angles; buildings lean higgledy-piggledy against one another or alarmingly over curving and twisting alleys. Ironwork is all graceful curves and arabesques (and suddenly the etymology of a word becomes obvious). Every window has an arch filled with intricate openwork. Every now and then the top of a tree drapes over a tall wall.
The shops are small, often only tables with goods under an awning in front of a small niche just big enough for the man inside, sprawling on a nest of cushions with a thick wad of qat in his cheek.
We are walking down the curving streets in the last golden light of the afternoon. We turn away from the commercial district, and almost immediately stop in amazement in front of a dark doorway. Inside, in a tall room not more than 10 feet square, a camel lashed to a large wooden pestle is walking impossibly tight circles around a wooden mortar about 2 feet in diameter. One man controls the process, speaking softly to the camel, adding powders to the mortar, scraping down sides. Nothing in the room except the man's plastic sandals is of the 20th century, let alone the 21st. A family, man, black-covered woman, 5 year old, and infant, stop in the doorway and watch with us. They take a jar from a plastic bag, empty it, and give it to the man to fill. Money changes hands. They walk away happily. We have no idea what is being made, and lack the language to find out.
We are walking in the heat of the afternoon. The streets are quiet, with many stalls shuttered for the siesta. One stall is hopping, with a crowd of young men picking over what's on offer as intently as any grandmother at the Alemany farmer's market. Edward is tall enough to see over the crowd. "He's selling qat," he tells me. The crowd sees our interest, and presses qat upon us. There's no way to avoid it; we have to chew. It has an interesting flavor, but we haven't mastered the art of packing our cheek, chipmunk-like, to savor the juices. An old woman pulls down the veil to show me what to do, but it doesn't help. We don't know what to do with the mess in our mouths, and escape down an alley to find a place to spit and rinse our mouths.
Fresh mango juice, mango and sugar in the blender, at 50 to 75 cents a cup, for sale everywhere. Just look for the hanging mangos in a shop front. I will miss the mango juice.
The women are more covered than I have seen anywhere else: not only do they cover their hair, necks, and bodies in black, but most women cover their faces as well, leaving only the eyes visible. Some cover the hands as well. Many cover even the eyes. I did not know I was coming here, and though I cover my head and arms with an Ethiopian scarf, my trousers feel vaguely indecent for the first time on this trip.