In Cairo neighborhood, good times are over but life continues

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."

An earthquake shook the neighborhood in 1992. Nobody died, but houses and shops turned creaky. Brick and concrete were fortified, and a neighborhood of one- and two-story homes grew into four- and five-story buildings. The sun had to climb higher to brighten the square. Other changes had already started; money was good in the 1980s and people bought things and aspired, but it's been rough for the last decade and neighbors want what they can't have. Dope dealers and thieves linger at the edges alongside men with promises bigger than their wiles.

"People here used to be ignorant to what was going on outside this neighborhood. You could live your whole life here without ever leaving," says Mohamed Hanafy, a balding man with a wispy goatee who has a degree in agriculture and runs a shop that sells paint and plumbing fixtures. "But then people got more educated and they desired more. They started venturing into the manic pace of the city. They wanted to live like they saw on TV."

Satellite dishes clutter rooftops and when the sun hits that blistering point in the sky, the wood-slatted shutters close. Slap, slap, slap. Girls in hijabs trade stories in the shade, waiting to be called by mothers to scrub beans and find brothers. Slap, slap, slap, the wood-slatted shutters close. The woman who fixes bicycles slips away from the sprockets and spokes of her greasy shop, hands clean, like a mystery that makes you think, how? The breeze from the Nile must be lost in the alley; nothing's blowing in the square. The vegetable man winces over his onions, flies buzz like drunks. Slap, slap, slap, the wood-slatted shutters close.

Here comes Ibrahim Ahmed Hassan, jean-clad and slender, walking as if he woke up with more money in his pocket than what he went to bed with. Hassan wants to go to America. He better not marry a foreign girl, not like his brother's friend, who brought home a Russian. That would break his mother's heart.

How do you know? She's right there telling him so, just as he sits down with a pizza that a little kid standing near a stoop is eyeing, but won't have a chance to taste. Hassan eats fast.

Hassan is a business major at the university. He was a soccer midfielder. He once thought, like boys do, that he'd turn professional and play on all the pretty fields around the world. Madrid. London. Rome. Another kid from the neighborhood did that -- Mohamed Abdel Monsef is a big-time goalkeeper and sometimes he comes back here with his wife, an actress. The pudgy man sitting next to Hassan has been quiet, but talk of soccer prompts him to mention that he went to school with Monsef. He leaves it at that.

"I played for three or four youth clubs, but the uniforms and the travel got too expensive," Hassan says. "I had to focus on my future. . . . If I don't get something in banking or the petroleum industry, there's not much else."

A scrim blocks the sun from Gamal Sayed Ibrahim's shop, which sells clocks, batteries, stuffed animals and glue. He makes copies too. His white tunic matches his hair, both perfectly cut; he moves deliberately but in no special hurry. He's a retired janitor and the shop is mostly a way to shorten the hours of a day. His rent is about $38 a month, but in May his profit was only $4. He's not a man who worries.

"Life's not as easy as it was," he says. "I think the bond between us has grown in this neighborhood. You can't afford to have differences in these times. You help someone today, they'll help you tomorrow."

Shoo. He chases away a goat that has slipped under the sheet. The light through the scrim makes an amber glow and you can hear but can't see what's going on in the square.

Ibrahim is like many here when asked about the good times of late. There is a pause, hand scratches chin, lips purse. The good times?

There was that dusk during Ramadan a few years back when commuters out on the Corniche el Nile were trapped in traffic and weren't going to make it home at sunset to break their fasts. The neighborhood cooked and passed out food to strangers. That was a good time. The days on the Nile were good, too, but they seem long, long ago.

"In a way, the Nile has been taken from us," Ibrahim says. "There are private clubs along the shore and the government has confiscated land. We used to go to the river to wash our clothes, fish and barbecue and spend the night. You can't do that anymore. I last swam in the Nile in the 1980s."

Ibrahim walks to see his sister, the one who fixes bicycles. Women in the square are singing and ululating, music pounds from speakers. Boys and girls clap and dance.

In a few days, the neighborhood will gather for the wedding of Hamad and Hadeer, a street cop and his cousin. It's time to prepare. A wooden block in the shape of a bed is laid in the square and women come with cotton, satin, chiffon and lace. They trim sheets, sew comforters, stuff and stitch pillows. The wedding bed is slowly made. Music rises. Then stops.

Minarets crackle with the call to prayer. Men and boys wind through the alleys and past the billiard hall to the mosque. They prostrate. God is great. All goodness is in Him.

Prayers finish and the music begins anew, and out of the mosque comes Saber Saad, machine-gun maker and crooner, swaying in his sandals.

His voice? No, it doesn't work anymore, not to sing, not the way he wants. He points to his throat, rasps a few words. He walks through the alley. Hassan follows.

Saad says things aren't good in Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak. The sick don't get better and the poor stay trapped.

"Ah, you're going to jail now. You mentioned Mubarak," Hassan says.

"I better go pack."

Saad and Hassan laugh and walk farther into the alley and then take a left, down an even narrower alley to Saad's house. He lives on the second floor, his son lives on the third, and on the roof, paradise.

Saad dips under a trellis of hanging vines and sits in a high-back chair that looks as if it had been stolen from an old French palace. It's dusty and, like his voice, has lost its majesty, but you can imagine what it was in its day. Hassan plops next to him.

Saad has nine fingers. He lost one after he smacked it with a hammer at the weapons factory; it became infected and the doctor said, "We better cut it off." He retired in January after 32 years of making guns.

The roof is his place. He keeps 20 homing pigeons in a big wooden pen rising on stilts above the trellis. Egypt has a bird flu outbreak and the government has forbidden the domestic raising of pigeons, geese and ducks. But that's one edict Saad is not likely to honor.

"I've loved pigeons since I was a boy."

Voices drift up. Singing women, shrieking children, men coming home from work. He listens and smiles on this rooftop with a view of cliffs and the Nile.

He tells stories, and by dusk the music below has quieted and there's a wedding bed in the square with tucked linens and heart-shaped pillows.

It seems to have fallen from the sky, but it was made by hands and will sit a little longer, until the women fold the linens and gather the pillows and deliver them to the small neighborhood flat where Hamad and Hadeer will begin their lives together.


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

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