Few takers for 'bala'
As people start buying new clothes to celebrate the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, things have remained quiet in Port Said, writes Osama Kamal
The world of bala, a variation of the English word "bale", or trade in secondhand clothes, is as immense as it is labyrinthine. In the Suez Canal city of Port Said, a hotbed of the bala trade, customers can find all sorts of used-clothes shops on Al-Hamidi, Al-Tegari, Al-Rawda and Al-Amin streets, as well as in the area around Mawqaf Domyat and the area surrounding the train terminal.
However, while in the past Port Said was the favourite destination for many people wanting to buy clothes, whether new or secondhand, today shop owners in the city say they miss the good old days when people came in greater numbers and had more money to spend.
Probably the largest concentration of bala shops in the entire country is located on Al-Nasr Street in Port Said. The neighbourhood is officially known as "Al-Kuwait", in recognition of the fact that it was built by the Kuwaiti emir Sabbah Al-Salem following the 1973 War. However, members of the older generation still call it "Al-Qanal Al-Dakheli" (the Inner Canal) because it had a waterway running through it until 1982.
In 1994, the governor of the city moved merchants from Al-Tegari and Al-Hamidi streets to Al-Qanal Al-Dakheli, a decision based on the risk of fire in the overcrowded streets. Since then, Al-Qanal Al-Dakheli has become the land of bala. While customers for new clothes continued to shop in Al-Tegari and Al-Hamidi Streets, merchants dealing in secondhand clothes in Al-Qanal Al-Dakheli began to make a fortune.
Yet, where there were once fortunes to be made, today the mood is a despondent one. Hassan El-Etr, a shop owner in the area, says that business has been slow since the January 2011 Revolution, and things got worse after the football tragedy last February, in which Ahli fans were attacked after a match between the Ahli and Masri football clubs, resulting in the deaths of more than 70 and the injury of more than 1,000 people.
Fears of crime, robbery and car thefts in the city have all also worked to bring trade to a virtual standstill.
According to El-Etr, all classes, rich and poor, used to enjoy shopping for used clothes, since by no means all bala items are old. Many manufacturers getting rid of old stock may sell it as bala, and shoppers have often therefore been able to buy brand new items at cheap prices.
Even celebrities have come to the district looking for bargains, he says, giving the examples of singer Ahmed Adawiya and actor Mohamed Ragab, who bought clothes from nearby shops.
The most expensive item in El-Etr's clothing shop costs LE50 ($25), while the cheapest is LE10 ($1.5). The bala often comes from well-known centres in Europe, such as in Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy. The trade is highly organised, with workshops in Europe specialising in sorting out items of used clothes, most of them manned by Egyptian and Arab workers.
"It used to be the case that we would sometimes find pleasant surprises in the clothes, such as money or jewellery," El-Etr said. "But after the European sorting centres started employing Egyptians and Arabs, we no longer find anything."
A few stores away sits Ashraf Shanan, 43, the proud owner of Al-Kabatin, one of the biggest shops in the area. Shanan said that the bala trade started out as a kind of "social subsidy" from the European countries. The bala used to go to churches and charity organisations, but over time it turned into a commercial activity and various Port Said shops took it over.
The best-known shops for bala in Port Said are Khodeir, Qaddura and Al-Arabi Abu Sir, said Shanan, who often travels to Brussels, Antwerp and Liege in Belgium to buy supplies. He does his best to buy bala that contains a high percentage of designer clothes, such as Zara, Gucci and Victoria's Secret. Sometimes, he finds real gems -- perhaps an overcoat in good shape that could be worth up to LE1,000. In general, though, the items he sells range in price from LE5 to LE200 ($1 to $33).
Mohamed Abu Risha, 80, is one of the oldest bala traders in Port Said, and he looks like the living embodiment of Abul-Arabi, a folk hero of the city. "Abu Risha", which means "man with feather", acquired his nickname because he had a feathered hat on when he was interviewed on the popular radio show Ala Al-Nasia (In the Corner) in the 1960s.
"I started working in bala in the early days of the free trade zone in 1976," he says. "I made so much money that I bought two shops in Al-Rawda Street, though later I neglected the shops and went back to work as a bambuti [peddler operating from a small boat and trading with passing ships] and let the shops deteriorate."
According to Abu Risha, "the bala trade is like life. It is open to everyone, and brings happy surprises, as well as pain and sorrow."
This is a statement that Mohamed Alista, owner of a bala shop on Al-Nasr Street, also thinks is true. "Since the beginning of Ramadan, I haven't made a single sale. No one comes to the shop anymore," he complained.
Alista doubles as an actor whenever the opportunity comes his way, and he played a supporting role in Awlad Al-Leil, a television drama set in Port Said. He has also appeared in films like Abul-Arabi and Gharib Al-Dar (The Stranger), the events of which take place in the free zone.
"I have sold huge amounts of bala and made loads of money, but now I cannot make one penny from the trade. It drives me crazy to see so few people coming to Port Said these days," he said.
In Alista's view, the government should organise travel groups of shoppers to Port Said in order to help the city out of its economic fix.
Meanwhile, dozens of merchants sit in front of merchandise they have put out on the pavement in front of the train station. They are dreaming of the hundreds of visitors who used to come to the city on every train. Now the visitors are few, and the sales are fewer.