Waiting for work
It's nine am. In the leafy boulevards of 1960s suburb Nasr City, the traffic is moving slowly around the long, narrow green islands in the middle of the road. People are going to work, in cars, taxis or microbuses. The islands fill the middle of every large road, and are well maintained by gardeners who water the flowers and cut the grass. They serve a double function: they prevent the sudden wayward U-turns which would bring traffic to a standstill, forcing drivers to continue to designated turning points. At the same time, they're a crucial green space for those who cannot afford the parks or private clubs. Later in the day, when the sun is overhead, poorer locals will come here to eat their lunch or take a siesta in the shade.
|Nasr City, Cairo, in the morning.|
At this time the air is still cool, despite the white sun in the bright blue sky. Sitting in a long row on the low wall between the traffic and the grass, leaning against the railings, are around thirty men. The younger ones are in jeans and short-sleeved check shirts, the older ones in galabeyyas, the long traditional shirt which has come to signify a low income in modern Cairo. All wear flip-flops.They are chatting, laughing, catching up, smoking. Some have bought black tea in grubby glasses from a young boy with a giant thermos flask.
This is the local unofficial labour market. Between 8 and 11 in the morning, contractors, builders and any others who need workers will come and pick up those they want. They will work for the whole day brick-laying, moving concrete or doing odd jobs for anyone who needs them. Some bring their own shovels or tools to increase their chances of selection.
The day's wage for a labourer is usually fixed at around LE40. In addition, they receive lunch and usually some Egyptian cigarettes while they work. If they work well, a few may be chosen to work for as long as the building project continues- maybe a couple of weeks, although the tendency is to replace tired workers once they need a day off. (It's difficult to establish a living wage in comparison with the UK, but I would guess a single person can live in reasonable conditions for LE80 per day (reasonable for Cairo- a delicate matter- maybe the living wage should be set at LE200 but that's currently unimaginable). A smaller wage may still be useful income in a big household where several people work.)
By 10.30 or 11am, it is clear that those who are left will not be employed that day. More tea is consumed, and the rejected men move to the business of the day: earning a living off their own steam.
Three European perspectives I have heard:
'When they see a white person, they expect money. They think we're all rich.'
'People are always ready to help. You can get anything and have anything done for a little baksheesh.'
'In Europe, the unemployed stay at home. Here if you don't have a job, you buy a multi-pack of tissues and sell them one at a time. People in Europe should show the same initiative.'
Beggars can't be choosers
In Egypt, some children, older women and disabled people beg directly in the street. It is much rarer to see a man of working age doing the same: instead, the process of asking passers-by for enough money for one's daily bread is codified in a complex manner. Islam, and Egyptian culture more generally, expects the well-off to give to the destitute, yet this is itself is no guarantee of making a subsistence wage. To the European traveller, these codified methods can initially seem demanding, even extortionate.
Two man stand in the street outside a small shopping mall. They share a large thermos of tap-water, a necessity in the midday sun, with the roadside florist. Cars filled with shoppers headed to Starbucks or the supermarket pull in crosswise to the pavement, tightly squeezed in. As spaces fill up, more cars double-park in the traffic lanes. When you get out of your car, a man greets you with the day's rate: maybe two or three Egyptian pounds, five in DownTown. He says the price as though it were 'official'. Some people pay, others don't. When you return to your car, the windows have been wiped over. Your car has been guarded against thieves. The man, now with his three pounds in his pocket, walks confidently out into the busy road and holds up his hand like a traffic cop to halt a lane of traffic while you back out. He guides you, ensuring you don't graze the Landrover to the side, even if the driver of the Landrover has refused to pay his own parking tax. If you have been blocked in, he motions you to get in the car while he pushes the offending car out of the way, aided by others who have materialised out of nowhere.
Some self-nominated parking attendants take their payment afterwards. This way, they have even less guarantee that they will receive anything. It's impressive to see a seven-year old boy, who has never been behind a wheel and probably never will be, demonstrate his knowledge of the complex angles required to reverse into a multi-point turn on a Nasr City highway. It's tragic to see the Mercedes driver wind his window up automatically afterwards, refusing to give thanks in case that enables the boy to demand his pennies.
That's not the only work created in Cairo's infernal traffic. Young men stand at the crossroads where microbuses pull in. They fetch tea and coffee from the nearest cafe, or maybe a can of Sprite, a bowl of koshary, some illegal painkillers, so the driver can set off again immediately on his next round. They might fill up the radiator again with water to cool the motor down. On his return, the glasses will be collected from the dashboard and returned to the cafe. Some merely sit on a corner and count the passing buses. Every fifth drive-by, the driver pays a tax: 50 piastres, or maybe a pound. In return, the corners will be kept clear of parked cars. Many of these young men used to drive microbuses themselves, but have lost either their licences or their nerve.
When traffic comes to a complete standstill at a busy intersection, more experts materialise, giving directions and shouting orders. Here they must be careful not to tread on the toes of the red-capped, fluo-jacketed traffic police, so they they cautiously wave forward one car at a time, alternating the flows of traffic to clear the blockage. However, drivers tend to obey them more rapidly than they do the police these days, and sometimes their modest tips come from the frustrated, underpaid cops themselves.
Children in the street
Children park cars and manage traffic too. But young children begging is not stigmatised here, so the smallest kids wander together through traffic, knocking on car windows or pushing packs of tissues into passer-by's hands. In the tourist areas they can summon a collection of phrases in other languages: the first one they learn in English is 'Welcome in Egypt', but they also know 'Dollar?'. Some wipe your windshield with an ancient rag. Many are controlled or looked after by older people, who might be watching from across the road.
It's difficult to know which of the women and children in the street at night are in the sex trade. There are certain known corners where pretty young boys march up and down, hand on hip, or where women walk in twos or threes, with the modest black dress and exaggerated makeup that signifies their trade. Cairo tolerates a certain number of hotel / brothels, of varying standards and prices, but popular rumour tends to imply that many of the people in the street are also selling sex. A normal price for street sex might be LE 20 or 30, with food, a joint or some alcohol. A foreigner always pays from LE200 to 300, more if he's from a Gulf state.
A man with a small paint box paints 'I love Egypt' with a little flag on your windscreen. If you don't give him any change he walks on to the next car, muttering angrily about you.
Further on, an organised bunch of half a dozen men sweep a fearless net through the traffic, leaning into car windows. They buy their wares from the same suppliers every morning, choosing together what they will be selling in order to buy in bulk. One day it's Spongebob Squarepants balloons, the next day hand-held battery-powered fans, made in China. Around Valentine's day it was individual artificial roses, and in the weeks between Western Christmas and Coptic Christmas they sold Santa hats.
Outside another mall is a man with a large wooden cross, made of two planks nailed together, slung across his shoulder. From the horizontal hang hundreds of bags of bright pink candy-floss, each the size of a large orange. Candy-floss costs LE1, or two cigarettes. The more enterprising street vendors run a side trade in hashish, or in Tamols, the illegal painkiller hated by the police and used as a mild stimulant by many of Cairo's poorer workers. One Tamol costs LE3.
Shoe shine men charge around LE5 for a polish. They squat on the pavement in groups, with the tools of their trade and some new shoelaces and polish laid out for sale. In a hellish comparison, they are luckier, because they own the tools of their trade and know what they will be doing tomorrow.
Like the shoe shine men, knife sharpeners also carry the tools of their trade. Usually the grinder is large, made of wood and iron with an old bicycle wheel which turns a rubber band. They're homemade from bric-a-brac. However, the city still has a real demand for clean shoes. In an age of serrated stainless steel, housewifes and servants no longer run out into the road when they hear the knife sharpener's call. One might add that there are fewer housewives, and fewer servants. The grinder is large, heavy and cumbersome. This is a redundant trade, used to hide the shame of begging directly, and householders seem to recognise that. I've never seen a knife being sharpened in Cairo, but I've seen many people, including the impoverished doormen of tenements, stop to give a coin.
Where there are tourists, there are two kinds of jobs: selling things and translating. Here the people who work in the street are even more multilingual. They guess your nationality from a hundred metres.
'Jolie madame, arretez-vous!'
'Allamagna? Guten Tag! Berlin? Munich?'
'How now brown cow! Lovely jubbly!'
'Espagna? Hola, Senora!'
There's constant pressure to stop and look: you don't have to buy. Men and children sell concertinas of postcards, bleached in the sun. They know someone with a papyrus factory, one hundred percent handmade. Would you like a carpet? All European travellers have had this experience of mild, friendly pressure, non-stop talking, one which nowadays is fraught behind the smiles: there are fewer and fewer Westerners in Cairo.
Meanwhile, when you decide to buy, another self-employed worker comes forward. He is the linguist and translator. He lived in the UK for six months, or his brother did and he can list the things he saw, or he drove a taxi in the States. His job is to translate both the sales pitch and the prices. His salary is a percentage of the mark-up, which could be more than 100% for a western tourist. The rest of the day, he sits by the entrance of the market, waiting to be called. If there are no tourists, he earns nothing. For this reason, when he succeeds, he will increase the pressure. He knows an honest taxi driver who will take you to the Pyramids. His friend has a reputed carpet workshop. You would like to eat? He knows a place. His job is to know what tourists want, and he can tell you the exact exchange rate to dollars, riyadh, euros or sterling or anything you want to buy.
These men, and they are always men, seem aggressive and over-bearing to newly arrived tourists, while ex-pats with the linguistic skills to shop independently avoid them. Shops circumvent them by hanging a 'Fixed Prices' sign in the window and giving arbitrary discounts instead of haggling. Their English is not enough to work in a call centre or a hotel. Their job seems to me and other travellers frustrating and old-fashioned, yet the stall-holders in markets rely on them. And they have a delicate task- to encourage purchase without becoming the stereotyped fantasy of the greedy Arab merchant, the one which tourists learnt from Aladdin and carry with them on their journeys to the East.
It's night-time, but in the busy squares frequented by tourists: around Khan El Khalili market and the great mosques of Islamic Cairo, and anywhere someone wants to run a roadside stall, there is one more important job to do: sleeping. As the merchants pack up, their places are taken and guarded by Cairo's more fortunate homeless, who cover the stalls, pack up the boxes and unroll their meagre bedding on the floor. In the morning, these prime selling positions will be retrieved by their owners, who pay LE5 to the sleeper if they can take back their space without problems. The sleepers take their money, roll up their blankets, and go to work.
I was considering finishing this post with an impassioned defence of what remains of the UK's welfare state, but I think that is no longer necessary.
[£1= around LE10.
$1= just under LE7
The prices in this post come from friends and acquaintances who either do this work themselves, or pay those who do. They may however not all be accurate for all Cairo.
For more information on Cairo's street children, read http://nellyali.wordpress.com/. They are officially estimated by the government at 5,000. Many think this is a tenth of the real figure.]