I decided to take the subway to the Nile to take some pictures, but found myself on the river bed by chance. I met three children who lived by themselves on the bank of the river. In my broken (some would refer to it more as ‘shattered’) Arabic I managed to spark up a conversation with them and it’s one that has stayed with me, I feel it will stay with me for some time. Mohammad, Nasser and Ahmed are aged 8 to 11 years old. They spend their mornings fishing in the shallow bank of the river Nile just under one of the Nile bridges. The fish they catch (they showed me one or two of them) are tiny and looked barely edible, but they were quick to point out that they catch them for food and not to sell. They also dive for muscles from the river bed (or were they cockles? I’m not that good with shellfish) which they eat raw, or sometimes baked in their shell on a raw flame.
I thought these children were just trespassing when I first spotted them. Coming from London where the Thames river is fairly well guarded and patrolled and to some extent unaccessible, I was a little shocked to find three small boys fishing without a care in what is probably the world’s most famous river. Using nothing more than a stick and a wire they were stood knee high in the greeny-brown water, arms stretched out, bopping the stick up and down in what seemed to me an extremely amateur attempt to catch anything.
I shouted from the bridge “Bita3mel eh?….3iseen samak?” (which was my Arabic version of what are you doing? – fishing?). They seemed to understand and gave me a thumbs up. I used hand signals to gesture that I was coming down and they replied in the same way that the way down was to my left.
When I got to the river bank after nearly falling and breaking my neck I greeted them. The two smaller boys were cheerful and welcoming. The older of the three seemed ver apprehensive and refused to join in. He continued to fish. An old man was sat on an abandoned row boat which was turned upside down. By the look of it and the growth of debris around it, it had been there for some time. “assalamualaykum” I greeted him. “You’re Muslim?” he asked – he seemed alive at the prospect. “Thank God” I replied and smiled. The conversation went on with me enquiring about the boys of whom he told me that he was not the father, rather a guardian. I later found this not to be completely true. He was a nice enough man, skinny and worn out with an almost leather like skin, like most of the poor in Cairo. He smiled a toothless smile, but it was comforting and safe.
“Anna Hassan wa howa esmo Ahmed” the youngest of the three charged in introducing himself. Smiling broadly he offered for me to join him in the water. I declined politely. “Where do you live?” I asked him. “Here!” he shouted and dived off a ledge on the upside down boat. I had to step back to escape the splash back and nearly lost my footing again. They must have thought I was drunk the way I kept falling over. Ahmed laughed. He had a huge smile and perfect white teeth. His face though, was somewhat aged. You can see him in a picture in the gallery below holding the shellfish. “You live here?” I asked again in disbelief. He nodded and pointed to the tall bushes at the far end of the bank. Sure enough, plain as day I could see a makeshift habitation of sorts and some shabby belongings. “Where’s your mother?”. In retrospect he should have told me to go swim. How rude was I to get so personal? But he didn’t. He lifted his hand to his brow to shade his eyes from the glare of the sun and his grin broadened. He shrugged his shoulders and said something I could not understand. “wa Abuk?” (your father?) “la mandeesh” he said and suddenly burst into life with an idea he had for me. I was still contemplating what he had said. He was around the same age as my eldest daughter, who is not even allowed to go to the shops by herself. And here he was, fending for himself, catching, cooking and eating by his own hand. “la” means no and “mandeesh” means I don’t have any.
His idea was for me to take a picture of him from down on the bank while he climbed back to the top of the bridge. I agreed but only because I didn’t really understand what he meant. That is why I don’t have the picture. It came as a shock when he jumped over the bridge into the water. I nearly dropped the camera I thought he would surely die. He didn’t. Mohammad the eldest boy, despite pretending to ignore me, had listened to everything. I could tell. By now he was beginning to realise I meant no harm. And offered to dive with Hassan to collect muscles for me from the sea bed. I tried to tell them I didn’t eat muscles but they insisted.
I offered them some money before I left. I didn’t have any change so I gave Ahmed a large note to share between them. “Kulukum?” (everyone?) the old man asked. “Mish Anta!” (Not You!) Mohammad shouted back sharply. This is when I discovered that the old man didn’t take care of them at all. In fact he was a sort of….hanger on… and they argued a lot in the past. I dropped another note in the old man’s hand as I left to solve the issue, but Muhammad didn’t see that and was still going strong when I took my last picture back at the top of the bridge. If you look closely you can see Ahmed holding up the note with pride, whilst Muhammad and the old man continue to argue.
“Allah Maakum!” (God be with you) I shouted from the bridge. “La illaha ilallah” (there is no God but God) they shouted back. We had begun to cause a bit of a scene. Other people crossing the bridge were staring at this odd partnership. A black man in a suit jacket and some poor river children shouting pleasantries at each other. I imagined my three children living like that and my heart sank. Strangely though, they seemed so happy and vibrant that in a strange way I was happy for them. “Muhammad rusul Allah” I answered, quietly to myself and began to walk back to the subway entrance.