giovedì 14 aprile 2011

Outings of the old days

Giuseppe Acconcia takes the ferry
Public boats, the haloed "Nile bus" that used to be among the most popular middle- class attractions, regularly link the two sides of the Nile.
They are yellow and green, usually parked by the river in front of the Radio and Television Union building. The ticket to this form of public transport is still very cheap: 25 piasters from Abu Feda to Imbaba, and LE2 from Tahrir to Giza. The trip is far more comfortable than its counterpart in a small and crowded microbus; the view is obviously better.
It took a while to discover that the best public boat crossing the Nile goes from Tahrir to Qanater, once a popular outing spot. There is just one trip per day, at 10 am. This isn't the exact time of departure: the trip starts once the boat is full. But at what price? It only costs LE10 for the round trip.
This trip recalls the 19th-century Senna cruises which inspired those Impressionist paintings made en pain air, such as Dejeuner sur l'herbe or Les Moulins de la Galette. The boat is divided into two parts: a roof side, covered by colourful tents, and an indoor side full of orange chairs. There are families, children, veiled women and foreigners, often seen on the prow gazing at the landscape. The bullies from popular districts and the amorous couples are seen inside. They look like they are waiting for something, moving from a place to another.
Young men play dominos, cards or board games the ground. Children run and jump on the prow, sliding down. A photographer peddles a photomontage with singers and artists for LE15- 20. Suddenly, the music starts. There are even two DJs. First of all, the bullies try dancing. Zamalek and Agouza go by on the left side. But when the boat passes the low Imbaba bridge, everybody is obliged to crouch to avoid the iron.
Slowly the boat leaves behind, on the left, the neighbourhood of Mazallat. "We are from Maadi and we take this boat sometimes, just to enjoy our weekends," Yakoub and Mayar tell me. "I work as an accountant and she is a student. This short trip is a kind of holiday for us".
The trip continues. The cruise lasts two hours passing trough the districts of El-Gezira El-Hurra, among others. On the right side the chimneys of Shubra emit smock. "We are from Kobba, studying engineering at Cairo University," two girls and two boys seen at the bottom say. They look at the landscape and seem not so interested in music and dancing. Nevertheless the atmosphere and the mood of all the passengers continue to improve. The dances go on without any interruption. The girls look calmer than usual.
In his cockpit, the old and serious captain smokes a cigarette. He does not seem very interested in his work. Without a word he points to the big chimneys emitting white and blue smock. I ask what they are. Only the ticket collector answers, telling me they are the new and old electricity factories. Then: "I work ten day per week as a ticket collector on this boat and for the rest of the month as a tailor."
Now the landscape changes suddenly. There are no more skyscrapers or buildings. The ground is covered in green, banana fields, cows, small houses or big villas, fishermen with their cargo. A young Egyptian in a Mexican shirt is posing for a fake photo with his favourite artist while a Yemeni man discusses his holidays in Egypt.
Finally we are in Qanater. People disembark. Some start riding horses, others rent motorbikes and bikes. Some walk along winding path of trees and animals. There are birds, a merry-go-round, cafeterias, mostly closed, and a long bridge. We cross the dam, built by Muhammad Ali in the 19th century, in the old English style, with stones and towers. Restaurants serve fresh fish from the Nile, the two varieties known as bouri and bolti.
Inside and outside the boat the place looks like a "country of playthings" (Paese dei balocchi), as in Collodi's famous tale of Pinocchio. While the boat heads back to Cairo after three hours, the dances and the children's games continue with more vigour. Everybody goes everywhere, forgetting where they were before. In the end, the boat is the poor man's land of freedom.
Seven young men are sighted looking very serious on one side. "We are Indonesian students at the Al-Azhar University," they say, turning their faces from the landscape to the dancing, which infects everyone. Finally the boat arrives at Tahrir. The green has given way to Cairo's busy streets again.
Al Ahram

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