ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Fisher-Children of the Nile

An Egyptian family creates its own warmth on a winter day as its members work and play.

Under a clear blue winter sky, colorful wooden fishing boats speckle the muddy Nile. Most are rowed by robust village wives in loose-fitting, black cotton galabiyas while their husbands stand at the bows stretching nets. Still, it is not unusual to see a rough-hewn skiff filled with fisher-children. In an economy where inflation is always a concern and growth slow, all ages must work for an Egyptian village family to make ends meet.

The children have been out since the chilly dawn. Already they have sent several cartloads of catfish and eels to the Giza and Old Cairo open-air markets. Grimy from mud and sweat dried into their pajamas, exhausted from pulling in the day’s dwindling catches, they throw their net for one last haul. As they pull up a few tiny fish, they cheer, “It’s finished!”

Lithe, sun-blackened Ahmed, barely in his teens, rows toward shore while his sister Salwa straightens up the gear. A similar boat, paint-cracked by years of wear and tear, pulls up beside them. A thin, weathered man, flashing a snaggle-toothed grin, lashes the boats together under the bridge. A robust woman emerges from the crawl space below deck.

Soon her five children cram on deck with their parents to giggle contentedly over warm bottles of orange Schweppes. Mother snuggles her youngest tightly, pressing her face to his cheek and playfully biting two-and-a-half-year-old Nassar. She whispers in his ear, “You are honey, my love.”

In their demonstrative culture, Egyptian children are smothered with hugs, kisses, and affectionate squeezes throughout the day. An Egyptian couple’s love for their children seems to increase with their number. The more offspring, the more one is blessed by God.

Parents might hope their firstborn will be a boy, who will protect his sisters to maintain the family’s honor. Girls are equally appreciated. They lighten their mother’s workload and learn a devotion to the family unmatched by carefree brothers.

As disciplined as the fisher-children were while engaged in the family’s livelihood, after a day’s work they are overtaken by a need to frolic. Ahmed pulls off his clothes and dives over the side. His younger brother Gamal springs through the air after him. Sana and Nassar build a fort of discarded tires and fruit cages on the bank. When a cotton-candy salesman passes by, the children clamor for a riyal from their father. For the twenty piaster coin they receive four fist-sized puffs. In addition to enjoying the sticky sweetness, they collect the accompanying cards printed with pictures of famous Egyptian soccer players and movie stars.

Twelve-year-old Salwa, adept at Egyptian cooking and cleaning skills, stays in the boat to help her mother peel and cut up vegetables for the stew simmering on an oil burner. She scrubs the day’s dirtied aluminum pots and pans with steel wool until they catch the sun’s brilliance. When she finishes her chores, she pulls out an old leather schoolbag. Tomorrow is the first day back after two weeks of winter vacation, and she needs to study her English. “Ir-ri-gation. Mo-del farm. Produce. Trac-tor.” She repeats the new vocabulary words while poring over the sketches of farming methods and equipment foreign to her village. Unlike her mother, who was taught only domestic lore so she would be prepared for marriage when she reached puberty, Salwa is going to school with her brothers.

Knowing that the key to agricultural and industrial growth lies in education, the Egyptian government has made school attendance through sixth grade mandatory for those living within five kilometers of an elementary school. All the villagers within Greater Cairo come under this requirement. Parents are proud their children learn skills such as reading, writing, arithmetic, science, and English, along with the traditional skills of plowing, fishing, and marketing produce.

The main meal prepared, mother calls her children. She hands them bowls of browned vermicelli and rice and places a pot of stewed okra, tomatoes, and water-buffalo meat in front of them on the crowded deck. When her daughter scoops a piece of pita bread into the other side of the pot of stew, she scolds: “Shame on you! Not like that!”

Egyptian parents strictly enforce eating etiquette. Dipping in front of another is considered greedy. Although Egyptian meals look casual to the Westerner’s eye, there are definite rules about handling food. Children with bad manners bring shame on the family.

They end the meal with glasses of hot tea before cleaning up. Soon they row toward their home on a lush, floating Eden between Old Cairo and Helwan. They dock near the village felucca, where other children are helping unload heavy propane tanks for stoves and water heaters. Salwa and her mother stack pots and baskets on their heads. Father and boys hoist the gear onto their shoulders. They trudge up the dirt path leading to their stucco home, passing docile water buffalo, donkeys loaded with alfalfa, and men and women carrying giant milk cans.

Barely inside their home, mother pulls Sana and Nassar into a tiny bathroom and bathes them in a large plastic basin, scrubbing the dirt off with a loofa sponge and government-subsidized soap. Ahmed hurries off to join his friends for rough-and-tumble street soccer. Gamal and Salwa turn on an old black-and-white TV and watch the Friday afternoon movie.

By dark a chill has fallen on the island. The children sit by a kerosene heater on the floor and recite Qur’anic prayers for religion class. It is mandatory for all Egyptian children to study their faith, whether attending public or private school. While the majority Muslim students study Islam, the Christian students study from books approved by the Coptic Church and with a Christian teacher.

Mother sends the children to bed early. Tomorrow they will ride the first felucca out for school in Old Cairo. Later they will again help with the fishing. Ahmed, Gamal, and their father share one bed. Mother, Salwa and the younger children cuddle on another. They doze off to the faraway hand-drumming of a wedding procession, the braying of tethered donkeys, and the breeze rustling the cornfields. Warm and secure, they sleep entwined in each other’s arms.

Lucinda Kidd is a photojournalist recently returned from living in Egypt.

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