Egypt: Family that fishes together survives

Mohammed Abdel-Hameed and his family ply the waters of the Nile. 

CAIRO, Egypt It was not looking like a good day for the skipper and his family the crew of Boat 578.

From shortly after sunrise, Mohammed Abdel-Hameed, his wife and two of their daughters had shared duties rowing along the Nile, casting the net and hauling it in.

By midday the return on their labor was soda cans, plastic yogurt containers, cigarette packs and one eight-inch Nile perch.

"Are the fish away today?" Abdel-Hameed shouted to another fisherman with a cigarette clamped in the corner of his mouth. He, too, was having no luck.

The Abdel-Hameeds are among the legions of poor in this city of 18 million.

Living on their 23-foot boat, so humble it doesn't even have a name, they're at work seven days a week, fishing in the shadow of some of Egypt's most expensive hotels, villas and high-rises a symbol of Egypt's vast and potentially explosive economic divide.

"It breaks my heart," Abdel-Hameed said looking up at the skyline. "We are overjoyed when God sends us fish. But what can we do when we have nothing? Should we put God on trial?"

Abdel-Hameed is 38. His wife Laila, 31, is a fisherman's daughter. They have five children. Daughters Doa'a, 11, and Sabreen, 9, are part of the well-disciplined crew. Two-year-old Tariq, the youngest, scrambles around the boat wearing nothing but his T-shirt. He often falls into the dirty Nile water and has to be pulled out.

Rehab, the oldest at 13, spends the school year in the family's village home north of Cairo in the Nile Delta. She's there to look after her brother, 7-year-old Shareef, the only one of the children in school.

From antiquity, fishing has been a staple on the great river bounded by vast deserts. But fish stocks are dwindling in the waters that split metropolitan Cairo.

Abdel-Hameed professes no sentimental attachment to fishing, and would, he says, never look back if he found another job.

His wife agrees.

But it may be just talk. Abdel-Hameed proclaims himself a fisherman from birth, and proud of being above the corruption that permeates Egyptian life. He likes to quote a hero of Egyptian folklore: "Honest men are always poor."

Scattered about the boat are what keeps the family alive sugar, bread, cooking oil, onions, a kerosene stove and blankets. They wash their laundry and themselves in the river, and drink from it.

"We boil it, so don't be afraid," said Abdel-Hameed, offering a visitor tea brewed in Nile water. To make the point, the children gulped down unboiled water scooped from the river in metal cups.

The net brought up a memento of the other Cairo, far beyond Abdel-Hameed's reach the skeleton of cell phone. Little Tariq claimed it. "Alloo, salamu aleikom!" he kept yelling into it. Hello, peace be upon you.

For all the family's hardships, in a crowded, polluted urban nightmare, there's a feeling of great family happiness aboard boat 578.

Abdel-Hameed tells of his love for his wife of 14 years: "She knows she has a very special place in my heart."

He gave her two gold bracelets and a gold band when they wed. She, 17 at the time, has since sold them, along with a pair of earrings she brought to the union.

No regrets, she said. "We needed a boat so we can start our life together."

"I am so tired," groaned Doa'a as she pulled up the anchor.

"I love television, but I rarely watch it," the curly haired girl said. "I dream of being able to read."

It is not unusual for female children in Egypt not to attend school, but Abdel-Hameed felt bad about it.

"I pray to God to forgive me because I did not send the girls to school," he said, "But it's tough. Our days spill into the nights and we seem never to stop, just so we can survive."

Then he stops griping, saying: "It's humiliating to complain to anyone but God."

President Hosni Mubarak promises political reform and economic betterment, but so far has not delivered. Not that Abdel-Hameed pays much attention to politics, having little access to newspapers or television.

He says he goes by instinct, and instinct, at a time when riot police are beating up pro-democracy protesters on the streets of Cairo, tells him that, "Keeping quiet these days seems to be the best thing to do.

"First you are oppressed, and when you complain about your oppression, they oppress you more."

The Abdel-Hameeds' luck changed as the day wore on and grew hotter. The mother hauled out a 5-pounder, a Nile variety called a bayad, followed by several more perch.

"You brought us luck!" she told the visitor.

Abdel-Hameed decided to cut the working day short.

He sent Laila hurrying to the fish market to sell the day's catch, take the money and head to the delta to fetch the other two children a 60-mile bus ride each way.

At about 10 p.m., their boat moored on the western bank of Cairo's upscale Zamalek island close to rows of yachts and speedboats, they ate dinner cooked by Laila and went to sleep, ready for another day on the Nile.