We’d been out in the glaring sun for hours, exploring the back streets of Cairo, when we reached the remnants of the old city walls. In the shadow of the massive mud-brick fortifications an animal market was winding down. Men in desert-colored robes tended a few tired looking donkeys and horses. Cabbage leaves and bruised tomatoes lay on the ground nearby, the last traces of a morning vegetable market. Passing through a wide gap where the old gates once stood, we found ourselves in the abattoir, Cairo’s meat slaughtering district.
Dark skinned workers with blood stained aprons lifted entire cows from open trucks. Row of sheeps' heads, impaled on sharp metal spikes, decorated wooden tables laden with lamb shanks, recently shorn. Glistening strands of something white—like skeins of wool dipped in rubber--hung in clumps everywhere. Tendons? Cartilege? Intestines? I was never quite sure, but it was nothing I'd seen at the markets back home. A donkey cart passed, piled high with a cargo of fresh viscera. The sharp mid-day sun glinted off the shiny surface of the mound of organs, creating an impression they were still pulsing. Chopping blocks made from huge tree trunks, along with hundreds of knives, cleavers, scrapers and saws were on sale nearby. The sound of metal whacking against wood provided a background rhythm, its beat irregular.
Revolted but fascinated, I felt far away from the plastic wrapped beefsteaks of an American supermarket. We’d seen lots of animals in Cairo—a flock of sheep around the corner from the Nile Hilton, a few scraggly goats passing by the mosque of Ibn Tulun, a lone camel tethered near the busy Nasser metro stop. The bloody, raw images of slaughtered meat seemed a natural part of this teeming metropolis, where the line between rural village and cosmopolitan city is blurred.
Far from our hotel--totally lost in fact--we finally waved down a cab. Exhausted by our long walk and the confrontation with so many carcasses, we exchanged salaams with our driver and settled into the back seat of the taxi to relax. Suddenly a familiar voice rang out from the radio. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me” It was Aretha, the Queen of Soul, in Cairo! As surprising as it was welcome, it made the ache in my legs disappear. “Whip it to me!” The voice soared higher, but reached deeper, down into the gut, the viscera, where the true meaning of the song exists. As we sped by the last of the slaughtered animals, Aretha's raw gospel sound wafted out the window, like a farewell paean. “Sock it to me, sock it to me!”
--Jim Johnston, May 2010
Aretha Franklin at Obama's inauguration
Click HERE for more Aretha