Neon on the Nile

This article is part of the series Night

© Sabry Khaled

Mahmoud! Eh da ya Mahmoud? Heya el nas de 3ayza menny ba’a eh? (“Mahmoud! What’s this, Mahmoud? What do these people want from me?”)

One of Egyptian star Mahmoud Ellithy’s songs from 2014 comes blasting through a speaker set up at the back of Messi, a boat afloat on the Nile. Passengers crowd the deck while the singer’s voice gets carried away on the water. The river reflects the darkness of the sky, and ripples with fragments of neon yellows, pinks, greens and blues. It’s a Thursday evening – the beginning of the weekend for Cairenes.

Motorboats are docked all along the waterfront, roughly from 6 October Bridge to Qasr El Nil Bridge, awaiting the stream of people making their way down from Cairo’s nearby areas. Many boats have been there as long as most can remember, but few know their story – the system they follow, the people steering them, the role they play within public space.

Further towards the Downtown area, collective sighs from inside coffee shops lament a missed goal by a beloved football team, while shopkeepers try to lure in passersby. Zeina, 19 years old, is a regular customer of the motorboats. Waiting for the engine of her favourite boat to start, she sits on a bench close to the entrance. “On Thursday evenings, one week my mother, brother and me stroll around Wust El Balad, the other we go for a ride on the motorboats.”

A bit further away, on the pavement of the riverside Corniche, sits Rayyes Nabil leaned back in his burgundy plastic chair. The boat he works on today is parked. For 42 years, Rayyes Nabil has been captaining the motorboats at the docks near Abdel Moneim Riyad Square. He seems to be a no-nonsense type of man, with a calm and straightforward appearance. The type who knows what he’s talking about.

“Qasr El Nil is a well-known mooring area,” the 60-year-old captain begins, gazing at the boats lined up starting from underneath the bridge. “There are about 25 sailboats. The motor-driven number around 150,” he continues. Unlike the feluka sailboats, which usually get rented privately by a family or a group of friends, the bigger motorboats, dubbed by the captain as shaabi (local, popular, common), are public and shared. For the price of five Egyptian pounds per person they carry dozens of passengers along the Nile for a 10-minute mini-cruise (with emphasis on the ‘mini’). During Eid and other times of overcrowdedness, passengers are only able to enjoy the refreshing Nile breeze for a brief five minutes – with the half-hour wait for all seats to be taken included in the package.

© Sabry Khaled

More than floating vessels of hurried nightly entertainment, the boats also hold another function, as rare spaces of calm in urban Cairo. “There’s such a crying need for public space [in the city], yet so many spaces are privatised,” says Diane Singerman, professor at Washington DC’s American University and co-director of TADAMUN (the Cairo Urban Solidarity Initiative). “Along the Nile, a lot of places are private, or government or military owned. There are plenty of clubs along the different river banks but a big number of them are occupational, such as the Pharmacy’s Club and the Air Force Club.” These places, Diane continues, have their own sets of rules. “There are all kinds of norms stipulating who can enter them. So even though some spaces exist, there’s the contested issue of who is supposed to be there, at what time and under which conditions. There are so few places where people can stroll and congregate.”

Looking out over the nearby boats, Rayyes Nabil raises his voice to match the roaring and gnashing of the battered microbuses driving along the Corniche, recalling how this marine landmark has evolved over time. “The first sailboats and rowboats came here in the fifties. Then the motorboats came in the eighties, and grew into an enormous number in the nineties. We used gas lanterns on the sailboats at first, feeding them with kerosene. The electric light bulbs and light strings came in 2000.”

Shoka. El Basha. Beksho. Apart from their different names, the motorboats can also be distinguished from each other by their decorations. Bakkar, for instance, has green light strings spelling out allahu akbar – and a colourful, pipe-smoking and hat-wearing bird accompanied by two orange fish. His pipe smoke lights up with each loud beat of the pumping music.

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Zeina is still waiting, although she doesn’t seem to mind. “We chose the boat that played the loudest music,” she yells, her voice drowning in the tunes of an old hit. Steering the boat is Hussein, wearing tired black jeans and a pink shirt. The younger the captain, the more mahraganat – the pounding music genre growing increasingly popular in Egypt – is played, it seems. Both sides of the wooden deck are decorated with floral prints, reminiscent of the type of sofas found in most Egyptian living rooms. So do the fluorescent lamps adorning the boat – pink and blue for the waterfront occasion. Another vessel, owned by another of Rayyes Nabil’s youthful colleagues, reveals the unmistakable secret that he’s an FC Barcelona fan – there’s a big Barca flag next to a threadbare miniature Egyptian one.

Randa, a visible mother-to-be, sits close to the rear. “I’m going to give birth to my first child in two weeks. So we wanted to go out and enjoy the Nile and some fresh air before the baby comes,” she says, holding a red rose her husband just bought for her. As soon as the sun has set, the boats attract more and more clients in need of some distraction. “Cairo never sleeps,” comments Rayyes Nabil. “And people in Cairo like to go out. These boats keep going 24 hours a day. Especially during summer, we work from night till dawn.” He prefers the night he says; the weather gets more pleasant then. But work is work, and has to be done regardless. The boats follow a system that has been officialised over the years. “Most owners have several boats and hire people to work on them,” continues Rayyes Nabil. “Every boat needs to be licensed according to certain standards. Based on that, they come with a crew of four or five members. There’s the captain, two sailors, a technician and possibly an electrician.”

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Diane Singerman sees the boats as a welcome getaway for young couples in particular. “For many, it’s the only space they can go to that’s legitimate and kind of public. There is such little space for this. Couples walk along the Nile, which offers a little bit of anonymity – not like walking in your neighbourhood where everybody can watch you.” The same with the motorboats – they may be places where you can see and be seen, but the darkness offers privacy and no questions are asked.

“Whoever wants to dance on the motorboats can dance. I would be a liar if I told you boys and girls never dance together, or young couples don’t get too close to each other. But the crew act like security guards and try to deal with such situations the best they can,” Rayyes Nabil says, refuting a claim made by one of his colleagues that some boat owners hire dancers. “It’s possible that girls who want to go on the boat don’t have the money to pay for a tour, and owners might allow them a free ride provided they dance. Maybe they think it increases the appeal, since an empty boat doesn’t attract any customers.”

© Sabry Khaled

Apart from being irritated by street vendors who are “only good for leaving garbage and preventing customers from taking the boats,” our captain is far more upset by another part of his job. “It happens sometimes that people with psychological problems try to throw themselves into the river, committing suicide from the bridge or the river bank.” He shakes his head. “We try to save them, but sometimes we can’t.”

In general, his preference is working on the sailboats. “At night, the motorboats attract all sorts of creatures. Some are drunk, or completely crazy. Of course there are lots of good people but sometimes there are bad ones among the clients. Men harassing women, someone getting on a boat with a hidden bottle of booze.”

Besides families, young groups with mostly males make up the main clientele. Others make their living from the visitors. A man sells cotton candy; a woman offers intricate henna tattoos. An elderly lady tries to earn a bit from selling tissues. The youngest dancer on board is hardly one year old and tries to keep steady while moving to the rhythm of belly dancing classic Shik Shak Shok. His father, Adham, says his kids are the reason he rides the boats with his wife on Thursday nights. “It’s cheap. It’s less crowded and there’s no traffic like in Downtown. And my daughter enjoys running around on the deck,” he adds, smiling at a small girl who meets his gaze through a red, heart-shaped balloon she holds firmly in her hands.

Just up from the river, horse-drawn carriages line the street where vendors advertise their tea, coffee and grilled sweet potatoes – or colourful lighters and key rings displayed on the pavement. From the overlooking Qasr El Nil Bridge, the scene is fascinating. The cotton candy seller is back on the Corniche, announcing his presence with a shrill. Meanwhile, Rayyes Nabil sails away, off for the first tour of the evening – to be followed by a cycle of others, continuing until the first beams of morning light penetrate the water, shooing away the reflection of the nightly neon lights. 

© Sabry Khaled

Since this story was written, the Egyptian security forces have begun removing the felukas and forcibly relocating them to Imbaba, as a part of the Nile Corniche Development scheme. Read more about that here.

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