From heel to toe, Egypt puts its best foot forward

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

November 24, 1992|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

CAIRO, Egypt -- Forget about the Pyramids. Forget about the Sphinx and King Tut. In Egypt, the most dazzling shrines are to shoes.

Bright monuments to shoes are everywhere in the city: store windows filled with them, illuminated all night just to be admired. These stores do not only sell shoes. They put them on a pedestal of worship.

There seem to be more shoe stores in Cairo than any city in the world. To walk down a city street is to pass one window after another filled with shoes.

One two-block stretch on Telaat Harb Street in the center of Cairo, for example, contains 34 shoe stores.

Their wares are never offered on a simple line-up. The shoes are carefully positioned on lavish displays, tilted just-so to catch the brilliance of the spotlights trained on them.

Other store windows gather an inevitable coat of Cairo's dust, but not these altars. Many nights, long after other stores are closed, shoe store proprietors can be seen toiling in their shops, removing each shoe for a gentle dusting, and lovingly repositioning it.

This is not a quick chore. These stores mock the modest stock of U.S. shoe stores. These are museum collections of staggering ++ variety, awesome in their selection.

There are shoes with bangles, spangles, buckles, bows, jewels, chains, chiffon and flowers.

There are loafers and wingtips and sandals and boots and moccasins. There are tie-shoes and strap shoes and toeless shoes.

And high heels to fit any fashion or fantasy, from sensible half-inch heels to sinful 8-inch spikes in blazing red.

There are cobra shoes, crocodile shoes, lizard shoes, suede shoes, leather shoes, velvet shoes and plastic shoes. There are shoes in a rainbow of colors. There are shoes with gold leaves, with rhinestones, draped with silver thread, with corsages and tiny figurines.

One eye-straining count of the shoes in a typical corner window produces the following totals: 210 models for men; 613 models for women; and a few hundred children's shoes and sneakers.

That does not include handbags, wallets, belts, socks and other accessories offered by the store.

It is not so many, says Tareq Ali, manager of a small shop with about 500 models. "Lots of the big shops have 1,000 or 2,000 models of shoes," he says.

1% Why, in this relatively poor coun

try, are there so many shoe stores?

Everyone has a different explanation.

"Egyptians are just queer about their shoes," says a British woman married to an Egyptian. "If you want to flatter an Egyptian, man or a woman, just compliment their shoes."

Or there is the Cold War theory. When the former Soviet Union was helping Egypt build the Aswan Dam, according to this account, Egypt had little money for repayment. It did have cheap labor and leather, and so it repaid some of the debt in shoes, building an industry that has outlasted the Soviet Union.

But the most common explanation is that the shoes don't last long. "You get about six months out of them, and then you have to buy a new pair," says an Egyptian woman who admits only to owning "a dozen or so" pairs.

The shoes are inexpensive. The most costly model in most stores is about $60, and most sell for under $20.

Essam el-Beheiny, who runs a shoe store in the fashionable Zamalek district, denies the shoes are cheaply made, but "if a person does more driving than walking, they do last longer," he offers brightly.

"There are so many shoes, because shoes are like a way of showing your standards," he contends.

Indeed, most of the shoes are fancy dress styles. The sturdy, functional shoes seen on the feet of European and U.S. tourists are rare. And there are no fuzzy slippers.

Mr. el-Beheiny says he has regular customers who "come in every 10 days or so. Even if they don't buy, they come just to see what is new."

"Here people do care very much about appearances," says Ala (( Hammouda, a 25-year-old shop owner wearing sneakers. Shoe shop proprietors tell stories of rich Saudi or Kuwaiti sheiks who wandered into their store and bought 100 pairs.

But most count on late-winter sales before the Muslim holiday Ramadan.

"Then, everybody has to have new shoes," said Mr. Hammouda. "We may sell 2,000 pairs a day. It's better than your Easter."

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