Outside my bedroom window, I hear a shrill voice calling out.
I pull back the curtain and see a man with a donkey and cart. There’s a boy with him, too. The boy is about twelve years old, so he’s close to my age. The cart is piled with odd things: a broken chair, an old water heater, some plastic pipes, and lots of dusty old books.
This is the robabikya man, who passes through my neighborhood to collect all the old things that people don’t want anymore. He buys it all for a few pounds, and finds a way to make use of it again or sells it to a merchant for more money.
The boy looks up at me and smiles. What’s his name, I wonder? Does he like this job?
Just then, Mom comes to the window and tells the robabikya man to wait. She has some old china plates that she doesn’t need. She goes downstairs with the plates, and I hurriedly put on my shoes and follow her. I’m curious about the boy and this is my chance to talk to him.
Up close, there are lots of other interesting things on the cart. There’s an old radio and a wooden clock that has one hand missing, an old computer keyboard, and some beautiful picture frames with black and white photographs in them. I wonder who the people in the photographs are.
The robabikya man looks at Mom’s plates and says they are worth twenty-five Egyptian Pounds. Mom says that’s fine, and he gives her the money.
The boy is looking at me.
“What’s your name?” I ask him.
“Hassan,” he replies.
I notice some old comic books on the cart, and I pick one up and flip through it.
“I can read, too,” says Hassan, and he begins to read another comic.
“You’re very clever, Hassan,” says Mom. “Do you go to school?”
“But I help my father with his job, too. I do very important work.”
“What do you do?” I ask.
“I sort the things we collect,” Hassan replies.
“Some are very valuable, like these picture frames. My father sells them to antique dealers.
They are worth a lot of money.”
Then Hassan’s father says something. “When Hassan grows up, he won’t go around on this cart collecting things.”
“Why?” I ask.
Hassan looks very shy, but he smiles and says, “I learn many things going around on my father’s cart. I’ve read many of the books that people throw away, and I’ve learned about antiques and about using wood and metal scraps and electrical wires to make things, and Father has taught me how to buy and sell and make a bargain. So I want to do something with all the skills I’ve learned. Maybe I will be an antique merchant, like the ones who sell things in Khan el-Khalili to tourists, or maybe I will be smart enough to learn how to fix electrical appliances or even computers.”
Hassan’s father is smiling now. “I am proud of my boy,” he says. “My father and my grandfather before him were robabikya men, but I think it is maybe time to change. Robabikya is a dying trade.”
What a funny, mysterious word! It sounds like something a magician might say to cast a spell. Abracadabra! Hocus pocus! Robabikya! It doesn’t sound Arabic, it doesn’t sound English, so what does robabikya even mean!
Robabikya is a word that comes from the expression roba vecchia which means “old stuff” in Italian. Before the Second World War, there was a large population of Italian expatriates living in Egypt, particularly in Alexandria, and this word is one of the influences they had on the language.
Many of these Italians would give away items that they no longer needed, and some of them were very valuable. The English name for the robabikya man is the “rag and bone man.” This is because these men used to collect mainly rags and bones to sell to traders who recycled them.
What does “expatriate” mean?
The word expatriate comes from two Latin words: ex (which means “out”) and patria (which means “native country”). Together, the phrase “out of native country” means people who have moved out of their country to work and live in another land.
In the early twentieth century, Egypt had many expatriates (or just expats for short). There were Greeks, Italians, Armenians, and more. Some of these expats had lived in Egypt since ancient times, like the Greeks. They worked in businesses, banks, and charities.
What are “antiques”?
Have you ever seen an old writing desk that has thin wooden legs and lots of little drawers? Perhaps you’ve seen a big armchair with carved arms and legs painted gold. It looks a bit like a throne, doesn’t it? Or maybe you’ve seen a huge brass chandelier with lots of pointy light bulbs? Your grandparents might have furniture like that in their house, or maybe you have some in your own. You might think this style of furniture is very old-fashioned, but many people like owning old things!
Furniture and belongings that are a hundred years old or more are called “antiques.” They were made with a lot of care and skill by experienced craftsmen. The pieces took a long time to make because the craftsmen used hand tools and not machines. This makes them very special and valuable.
People who like old things can buy them at an antique dealer’s shop. An antique dealer gets antiques from different places. He might buy old, interesting ornaments from the robabikya man. Sometimes he buys things from people who sell all the old furniture in their house to get new, modern furniture. Antique dealers may also buy antiques from auction houses, which are places where special items are sold to the person who can pay the most. The antique dealer buys them from the auction house and then sells them again for a higher price in his own shop.
Some auction houses in America and Europe are very famous. They sell things like paintings or sculptures by great artists, or the clothes and jewelry of a king or queen. The oldest and best known auction houses are Christie’s and Sotheby’s, both of which first opened in London in the mid-seventeenth century. The items sold at these auction houses are much more expensive than the things sold by the robabikya man! Famous paintings by an artist like Van Gogh can cost a buyer millions of US Dollars, Euros, or Sterling Pounds.
Tell me more about Khan el-Khalili
In the heart of old Cairo, there is an enchanting marketplace called Khan el-Khalili. It’s like something out of an Arabian fairy tale, with its narrow winding alleys, archways, and old buildings. It has traditional cafés and lots of little shops selling many colorful Egyptian things: leather, brass, wood, cotton, spices, papyrus, and gold. Many shops sell antiques, too. If you ever go there, you will feel as if you have stepped back in time hundreds of years. And, in a way, you have, because Khan el-Khalili was built in the fourteenth century, and is Egypt’s oldest surviving bazaar. Khan el-Khalili attracts tourists from all over the world. They come to relive the magical past of Islamic Cairo and to find some beautiful Egyptian souvenirs to take back home.