A few days ago, while I was walking along the Nile Corniche, a cheerful-looking old man dressed in a galabeya approached me. He asked if I was interested in a felucca ride on the Nile. Incidentally, that had been just what I was looking for. Hopping onto the boat, I did not expect to have the fruitful conversation we ended up having as we sailed along the river.
The story he told me started six decades ago, in Beni Suef, a governorate nestled in the Nile Valley. There and then was a man who had three children named Antar, Abla, and Shayboon, inspired by the 1945 popular classic Egyptian film ‘Antar and Abla’. The man’s profession consisted of spending his days on a boat in the Nile, transporting goods from Minya to industrialized Cairo, and back.
As his baby boys, Antar and Shayboon, grew into young men, they became his companions, sailing their days through the river in the shadow of their father.
Fast forward about 53 years to the Maadi Corniche in Cairo, and one can find 63-year-old Rayis, or captain, Shayboon sailing one of the boats within the cluster of the commercial feluccas residing on the Nile.
Rayis Shayboon had a bright and warm energy, rendering him an easy companion to converse with. And so, we ended up chatting about his home, his love for the Nile, and how the political landscape and COVID-19 have affected his livelihood. Once he settled onto the long rectangular couch lined with fabric built into the curved walls of the sailboat, he began telling me about his past.
“I’ve been working on the Nile for 40 years; [for] this job it has been 20. But I’ve actually been on the river my whole life, since before I was 10,” he narrated.
He went on to explain that the demand for shipping through the river became scarce over time, prompting his decision to relocate to Cairo where he knew there would be a lot of opportunities to make a living off sailing.
“I own nothing but my knowledge of the river,” he said.
And after spending 30 years handling items across the river like his father, Shayboon moved to Cairo in 2001 to pursue a livelihood in the more commercial side of sailing: one focused on the movement of people rather than goods, for touristic purposes along the famed river.
True to his assumption, the felucca business was flourishing with tours and rides, day and night. The merry Rayis said that the business had been lucrative until it was interrupted by the political upheaval of 2011, beginning the country’s long journey with heightened local security tensions and severe fluctuation in the performance of the tourism sector. He said that during more harmonious times, the felucca tours would often go on all night. Nowadays, there is a strictly imposed curfew at nine in the evening.
“Revolution, coronavirus, everything has impacted us. There is no tourism, and foreigners don’t come. If I told you I spent the last three months at home without making a single pound, you would not believe me,” he lamented.
By home, Rayis Shayboon means Beni Suef. His work schedule is irregular, requiring him to spend 20 days of every month of the year living within the confines of his small sailboat.
“I spend 20 days on the boat, day and night. Even in the winter, we just place a plastic cover over the boat and no rain comes in, and we sleep.” On the remaining 10 days, he goes back home where his wife lives, because he can’t afford to set up a home in Cairo.
“I would love to live at home, but [I have to] work. You only leave your home because you don’t have work. I barely sleep. As you can see, for food we have to walk for half an hour in Maadi. For showering, we have to find a ghafeer willing to let us into his room,” he continued. (A ghafeer is the term often used by local dialects of the Nile Valley to describe what is commonly referred to in Cairo as a bawab, or doorman. “It’s not ideal,” he added as an afterthought.)
When I asked him whether he would like his sons to follow in his footsteps, he said: “No, God willing never.”
Although he metaphorically described the river as the artery of life and the entirety of his own existence, he wanted his boys to live a different life, one with an education and where transportation occurs on land.
His two boys live between Cairo and Beni Suef, working as delivery boys for a restaurant and a pharmacy. Three of Shayboon’s daughters married and moved to live in Cairo on a more permanent basis, where their husbands secured jobs as bawabs, living and working as gatekeepers, maintaining and guarding the building. His fourth was divorced and lived with her mother in Beni Suef.
“It’s fate,” he commented, with a slight, barely noticeable, tinge of disappointment.
In a reversal of roles, he asked me about my marital status, with genuine curiosity, and listened as I explained pursuing other things first. He nodded slowly as I spoke. I asked him if he agreed that times have changed, and he shook his head.
“Not for us. It is not like that back home. The most important thing for us is for a girl to turn 18, so that she can legally get married. Some people get married around 15 or 16, but it is kept very secret. The maazoun [Muslim cleric] takes some money under the table and agrees to do it.”
I asked him what he thought about girls getting married at such a young age. “It’s good. She has some kids early, they help out the mother and father.”
He must have noticed the disappointment briefly cross my eyes because he chuckled and explained how most girls in Beni Suef don’t have an education, so marriage is their safety net.
“A very small number of girls back home are educated. I have four, I didn’t teach them. That’s why they marry young.” He said he simply couldn’t afford it with his living wage, which took a large hit over the past decade. On a good day, before the lockdown, he would get three hours worth of pay, maybe four if he worked hard.
The good days were usually the weekends, when the weather was good. On other days, there was often very little to no work. The average hour is priced at 150, often higher, but Rayis Shayboon gets a fixed EGP 20 hourly rate per tour regardless of price paid. The boat owner keeps the rest. He tells me he mostly relies on tips, and it was usually foreigners who tipped more.
In an unexpected interjection, he suddenly glanced at my phone and said, “You know I’m in your device? You can find me. You know Hamza Namira? It’s me in his song Insan.”
He describes his involvement in a 2011 music video, where he was filmed sailing his felucca. It was almost as if no time had passed. His eyes seemed to glimmer with pride, or maybe it was the sun, and he smiled at the river, clearly more than just a body of water to Rayis Shayboon.
“There is nothing more beautiful in the world than the Nile. You know, I was born in the Nile, inside it. Animals, humans, plants, they all come from water. Without water we couldn’t live. My life began in the Nile, and will most likely end here, God willing.”
“I know this Nile like the back of my hand,” he continued. “It’s very easy for me to just take a boat and sail it all the way home by myself. As long as I have my cigarettes, my things, I’m good. I go in the early morning and will arrive around sunset.”
Rayes Shayboon told me he relished these solo journeys, which normally take about 10 hours. I made a comment comparing his lifestyle to that of bedouins, and how he could really be described as a bedouin of the Nile; living his lifetime along the river and knowing its winds by heart.
His face broke into a smile, lighting up at the concept, and he said, “exactly. They have their desert; I have my Nile. It’s how I spend my life.”
We contemplated how peaceful it was to be in the middle of the river; how the air flowed differently and the weather was cooler. As our time came to an end, we discussed our appreciation for the quiet, and how the brisk nature of Cairo’s streets could be heard only faintly from a distance.
As we were parting ways, I thanked him for a great morning.
“You have to come again and bring breakfast,” he said. “I like fool sandwiches.”