CAIRO — He dances in the alley when the music's right, remembering the days when he made machine guns during the week and in his off hours slipped on a satin shirt and black-and-white shoes and gathered a band of horn blowers to play weddings along the Nile.
He was the singer, a high-rise hairdo and a voice to match. The neighborhood knew him, but the neighborhood pretty much knew everybody; still, Saber Saad felt special, microphone in hand, his two-tones tapping in the lights, the wind carrying his music through marsh grass and out to the desert, dying somewhere beneath the stars.
Age, he says. It takes. The horn blowers have scattered. His hair has turned gray, and his voice is as scratchy as sand against paper. But twice a day, when he pulls the mosque key from his pocket, the neighborhood can hear Saad, like a song from a half-tuned radio, call men and boys to prayer in the cool shadows past the billiard hall. God is great.
The neighborhood is small. Tora is its name. A brick and shutter pocket of alleys and a square, bounded by the Nile to the west and Cairo's heart to the north, Tora is stubborn and enduring and, like Egypt, struggles from first light to long after the last working man wanders home. With sparse shops and women peeking down from windows, the square is a dusty stage of entrances and exits, some boisterous, others hushed and hurried.
The Nile teases Tora. Flowing beneath jacaranda and sycamore, the river is cut off from the neighborhood by a highway, fences and private clubs. It was once easy to walk the grassy banks, and people still do, but the Nile is not theirs anymore. The alleys are. They winnow and widen and winnow again. You wouldn't find them unless you were from here or tricked by a map.
Saad recognizes every face he passes. When he climbs the four stories to his roof, where he keeps homing pigeons and a goat, he can see chalky cliffs in the distance, and if he listens he can hear from below the cicada-like prattle of voices and stories he's known for more than half a century.
He'd have to be 15 floors up not to hear Fahima Ibrahim. She booms. A husky woman, with loop earrings and a smooth face, she keeps money in a tin can and runs a small grocery on the square. She sits beneath an overhead fan; gossip collides around her and she peers from the shade like a blackbird waiting for a trinket to drop.
There's no sneaking past her, minding things near the cola cooler and burning incense from Sudan to fend off envy spirits. She chats about past and future and makes a face at Abdelaal, the taxi driver, who's yapping about matters he shouldn't.
"I was born here 54 years ago," she says. "My family was here before that. We're from Cairo. I have four sons and four grandchildren. The people in this neighborhood, we can't afford fun, except to go out and stand by the Nile."
She breathes in incense. The melon man passes through the square, followed by the clattering of the boy with a crooked-wheeled cart selling propane gas in canisters that look as if they might explode. Round the corner, two women, close friends, argue over why one didn't invite the other to a wedding. Tunics billow.
"Fifteen years ago, charities with foreign money used to come into the neighborhood to help people," Ibrahim says. "I don't think they do that anymore."
The silver rack in Ahmed Morsy's laundry shop across the way holds two hangers. There would be more, but times are not so good and people do their ironing at home rather than bring it to him, a thin man with a cigarette dangling over the Singer sewing machine his grandfather, once the neighborhood's tailor, sat at. Through the sunlight in the square he is a shadow, his iron cool and turned up like a pyramid.
"It happened gradually, every year we lost a little bit of business," says Morsy, who charges the equivalent of 12 cents a shirt. "I used to iron 70 pieces a day, now I'm down to about 20. I'd like to buy new dry-cleaning machines and make a proper laundry, but not now."
In the doorway is a big man with a voice good for whispering secrets. He once worked for the Ministry of Intelligence. He keeps a second house in another part of the city, but he's partial to Tora, even though it's changed since he was a boy. Yes, he knows time moves on, and that childhood, even a poor one, often seems sweeter than it was when measured against the present. But still, the old days were better.
"When I was young it was beautiful," says Sayed Adly. "We lived together and whoever was cooking fed the neighborhood. We were a big family. If a groom was coming to propose to a girl, the girl's father would come around and ask us about the guy. 'Is he a good man? Can he be trusted?'
We've lost our closeness, though. We sleep with our doors closed and locked."