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DISPATCH FROM CAIRO

Laborers let kites lift their cares away

Standing on a rooftop in hot, crowded Cairo as the air cools at sunset, even a poor man can feel rich.

September 14, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — They rise through grit and smog, lifting across the Cairo skyline, drifting over the Nile, twirling above graves, filling the desert sky with twine and color. They're flown by marble cutters and mechanics, men who have washed off the dirt and grease of the day and, with their boys, escaped the city's growl by tugging on strings and staring at the sky until the stars come out.

Kites, soaring and diving, tumbling and battling in the summer dusk.

"It is the tradition in poor neighborhoods. You get together and fly kites," says Hani Mahmoud, his blue-and-white kite held together by plastic, palm wood and glue. "It's nice and cool at sunset. There are days when you can't see the sky because there are so many kites, and sometimes we fly at night, tying little lanterns on them."

Mahmoud stands on his roof, reeling out twine. He glances to other rooftops and into the alleys, so many little dramas around him: a woman in a print dress laughs into a cellphone and minds her goat, a couple steals a kiss, boys yell for friends, laundry is hung, girls play tag between satellite dishes, cooking scents spiral from stoves and the shutters stay open in this crowded, hot city, where privacy and secrets are abandoned for the hope of a breeze through a window.

The pigeon keepers are stirring, releasing flocks that gather in formation, whirling around kites, racing beyond clay-mud mosques and skimming the city until a raised rag on a stick or the wave of an arm brings them home.

"Some fly pigeons, we fly kites," Mahmoud says. "Everyone looks for his own bit of pleasure."

He was born and raised in Cairo. His grandfather moved the family here from the town of Asyut. The house used to be wooden, but Mahmoud's father rebuilt it with brick. It is like hundreds of others in this neighborhood, ragged and mortar-rough, incomplete, standing beneath the silver domes and minarets of the 12th century Citadel and alongside Cairo's sprawling cemetery, known as the City of the Dead. Mahmoud lives here with his wife, brothers, cousins and mother.

He's a marble worker going through a bad spell. Construction projects are frozen, financing is scarce. The economy is holding back all who are not already wealthy.

"Five years ago, I worked every day," Mahmoud says. "These days I may work for a week and then I may end up sitting at home for a month with nothing to do."

His brother Ashraf, a husky man with a big smile, parks his motorcycle and ambles up four flights of stairs to the roof. He works in the marble trade too, earning $44 a week. He wants to rewire the home and buy appliances, but his pay disappears so fast that he may as well not own a wallet.

"I quit school when I was 10. I don't know how to read, but I'm pretty smart with computers. You could call me a wizard," Ashraf says. "I have all kinds of pictures and things stored on my computer. I can show you if you want. When I get the house fixed up, I'll marry. Nobody in mind yet. You know anyone?"

Ashraf laughs. Mahmoud lets the kite out a little farther. "See the new city blocks going up over there?" Mahmoud says. "At night, the lights in the park are very beautiful. And, here below us, are the graves."

His kite tugs left, and if the string broke, it would fly in the direction of the Pyramids, distant and faint in the sunset. The sky is turning colors, blue to orange to sandy brown, slipping to gray, and the kites look like the snapping flags of long-ago armies bound for trouble on the Nile. Even if a man is broke, Cairo can make him feel lucky to be standing on a roof, listening to the call to prayer echoing through the marshes and into the desert where it dies.

"The famous actor Youssef Wahbi is buried near that minaret," Ashraf says. "The tomb of the late Queen Farida is beneath those trees. . . . My dream is to open a car mechanic shop. That is the most a man like me can hope for."

It's nearly dark. The kites, shaped like stars, triangles and the hand fans of rich ladies, are in no hurry to come home. They dance. Mahmoud's wife joins him on the roof; Ashraf lights another cigarette. Roosters scratch in the road below, a donkey is put up for the night. A few mechanics are still working, oil-smeared faces peeking from garage lights. A group of boys shares bread and mashed beans from a silver bowl; men with a bit more cash eat minced lamb.

The moon is coming. The last of the women draped in black scurry from the city of the dead; the wind shifts, lifting through the trees and blowing the kites to the ends of their strings.

--

jeffrey.fleishman @latimes.com

Noha El-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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