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On the Nile, Egyptian fishermen saw a nation adrift

Two who grew up on the water say they don't know much about politics, but they know that fish were scarce under Hosni Mubarak.

April 01, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Egyptian fisherman report bad catches nowadays.
Egyptian fisherman report bad catches nowadays. (Amro Hassan )

Reporting from Cairo — Oars skim the marsh grass and men slip their nets upon the water.

Two fish are in a bucket near the prow, a meager catch for a morning's work, but the Nile is stingy in this stretch, not like when Mohamed Hassan was a boy and fish as long as your arm raced through the moonlight of the unfinished city.

Forty some years ago, it was. Before Hassan had ever heard of a man named Hosni Mubarak. The river, like the country, grew meaner and less forgiving after he became president. And now with Mubarak overthrown and living a rich man's banishment, Hassan rows along the banks and hopes the nation will heal and the big fish will return.

"My father and grandfather were fishermen. I wouldn't know how to do anything else," he says, his bare feet propped near an anchor. "I hope the revolution will help the poor. But any sort of change in Egypt has never been good for people like me."

His 12-foot-long wooden boat glides to shore and eases into the mud. His partner, Sidawy Eissa, drifts in beside him. Eissa lights a fire in a tin can and dips a small kettle with a clothes hanger handle into the river. Spoons, tea glasses and a sugar jar are laid out; the empty nets are pulled in and piled in the stern.

"Fishermen exist between the water, the sky and God," says Hassan.

"I'd take another job if the opportunity arose," counters Eissa.

The men live and sleep on these narrow boats. They sell their catch daily. After about a week on the water, and with about $30 in their pockets, they head to their families in Fayoum, about two hours south of Cairo. Mostly, though, life is the ticking rhythm of currents and oar strokes. The city rises above and around them, ancient and sprawling, sleepless and screeching, a madhouse capital of brick and dust.

If a man is the sum of his tasks, Hassan has found his worth on the river. It inspires, lolling beyond the pyramids, squeezing through the city and fanning north through the delta, rolling past farm fields to the sea. He and Eissa seem specks upon it; dressed in tunics and white turbans, quiet beneath the traffic and the lovers on the corniche, they could have floated in unnoticed and unaware from centuries past.

"I hear about what's going on in Libya and across the Middle East, but I don't follow politics. I can't say what will happen," Hassan says.

They stayed off the river during Egypt's 18-day revolution. It didn't seem safe. The news now unfolds far from the edges of their nets. Mubarak and his family are under investigation for corruption; once-powerful tycoons and ministers sit in prison whites. Leaked state security files lay bare the sins of the elite. Tanks in the streets, soldiers in the squares.

The men don't think too long about such things. They prefer bygone eras when leaders were heroes with indelible visions and the river was crowded with boats.

"Anwar Sadat was a good man," Hassan says of the late president who made peace with Israel and was assassinated in 1981. "He was a patriot who cared about the people."

"Mubarak was not a good man," Eissa says. "We've all suffered."

"Years ago," Hassan says, "there were so many boats on this water that we bumped into one another. We had our customers. Private buyers and people from restaurants. They don't come so much anymore. The younger fishermen have left. They have time and chance to become something else."

Fish weren't as plentiful under Mubarak. The state didn't restock the river as often and plans to "modernize the corniche," as Hassan says, changed the character of things and forced many fishermen to sell their boats. Hassan and Eissa endured. Like many of this nation's poor, though, their prospects since Mubarak's downfall haven't changed. They do what they know and say they leave the rest to God.

Hassan sips tea, squints into the sun.

"None of my sons will be fishermen," he says. "I kept them in school."

Up on shore, past the cancer hospital, fix-it shops, mosques and girls in white hijabs, people gaze at a burned police station. Mobs set it aflame weeks ago, or maybe it was the police; no one really knows. Criminals escaped and guns went missing. New men want to be leaders. You can hear them in the capital, making promises.

Hassan and Eissa, both in their 50s, don't stroll the city much. It is bigger, more daunting than when they were boys and the starlight shone white above the water, not diminished by traffic and the glow of buildings. Sometimes, though, on a special night, the sky still holds that ancient brightness when they lie in their boats and look up.

They are many years beyond the boys their fathers taught. Hassan is a contemplative, heavyset man with thick hands and a mustache to match his girth. Eissa has a sly smile and a smooth face. Their net men, thinner and younger with black hair, sit in the sterns, mending rips, tying knots. They have been working together so long that no instruction is needed, each man quietly at his chore.

The fishing shacks that once lined the marshes are gone. The fins and silver-white bellies have vanished too. There is less blood in the water. Hassan's biggest catch — he thinks it was in the 1980s — was an 11-pound bayad. Today, he says, the two fish in his bucket wouldn't make a meal.

"Everything was perfect years ago," Hassan says. "The Nile gave all that we needed. It was overwhelming. On some days we couldn't even sell all we had caught. But you can barely live on being a fisherman now. That's injustice."

The prows slip out of the mud and into the current. The oars find their rhythm. The nets slide along marsh grass. The boats head under a bridge and toward wider water to the north, where in the city and towns beyond, the name Mubarak is being scrubbed from schools and highways christened long ago in his honor.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Amro Hassan of The Times' Cairo bureau contributed to this report.

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