Viewing life from the roof

Alia Qotb and husband Ahmed Gaballah have spent decades living atop a building in Cairo. Their makeshift hut has no running water. "It's horrible. Rain. Heat. Insects. There's no toilet up here," Gaballah says.
(Asmaa Waguih / For The Times)
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Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

She comes up the stairs slow and heavy, almost heaving; she steps on the roof past the surly dog and the man she married. He hasn’t been right since the war, walking around slumped and lost, but what can she do up here on the roof, living in a hut made of scavenged wood, waving to the neighbor, the one perched on a higher rooftop who looks down with pity on the broken sinks and battered couch that long ago was brocaded and ornate, in the French style.

Funny how lives end up. Alia Qotb was born in the basement of this building and now she’s living on its roof. In between she bore seven children, visited a fine Beirut hotel, kept house for a Saudi princess. Her first husband stole her heart. By day he painted walls, at night he took his easel to the bridges over the Nile and made portraits. He willed life into art, and a man who can do that is a man she’ll remember. But he’s gone. They came together long ago, after that day she sewed him a shirt and he asked her brother for her hand in marriage.

She was 12.

Every rooftop has a story. Mostly poor ones. If you’re up on the roof, you’ve missed something -- the decent job, the lucky break, the well-connected cousin. Cairo is a city of rooftop stories. Qotb can hear them, if she listens, amid blowing laundry, the scratch of a broom, the hum of a satellite dish. She knows what the neighbors are cooking, she can smell the garlic and coriander, hear the stirring of pots, a tin symphony beneath her.


The poor like Qotb make up nearly half of Egypt’s population of 73 million. Most of them live on less than $2 a day. They share an overcrowded Cairo, where for generations many have raised families on rooftops and in parks, graveyards, median strips and shanties hammered along the Nile. Millions are barely literate; they survive on pirated electricity, donations and collecting and selling junk that moves in tides through back streets and boulevards.


Qotb’s identity card says she was born in 1939. Her father punched tickets for the bus company. He died without a lot to his name, except the basement, which he left to the family. She went to work sewing and mending in the alley alongside butchers and fishmongers. Men in tunics slipped past, selling glasses of tea, hawking vegetables. That’s when he appeared. Mohammed Fahmi. He was a man, she was a child.

“He paid me 3 pounds for a shirt. I guess he must have decided I wasn’t a loose girl. He asked my brother for permission to marry me. I agreed because by that time my father was dead. I was happy with Mohammed. He gave me money. I was elegant. I wore heels. He used to leave me money in the closet when he went off to paint, sometimes to Alexandria. He painted people on the beach.”

The babies came. She teetered between girlhood and responsibility.

“After my first and second daughters were born, I’d take them to the park and put them under a tree, and then I’d go off and play myself. Mohammed and I stayed together for 10 years. We divorced when I was 22. He left me. He married the widow of his brother. Mohammed died a while ago. I don’t know how. I hadn’t seen him in a long time.”

She was a single mother in 1960s Egypt, but things were good, or better than they had been, and she, with her seamstress hands, went on an adventure to Lebanon with an Egyptian merchant who bought ladies’ clothes to sell back in Cairo.

“We’d go in small groups with the merchant and his wife. We’d stay in a hotel in Beirut for three days while he made his buys. He told us not to go out. He said women could be turned into prostitutes if they were on their own. I never left the hotel. I only saw Beirut on my way to and from the airport.”


Such stories drift through Qotb’s afternoon, sometimes echoing up to Samia Mekkawy, the widow who lives above her on the rooftop across the alley. Mekkawy is like her in many ways. She was a girl from the Nile Delta, a rice farmer’s daughter married off at 16 to a village boy, but the union didn’t take, so she remarried a mason who brought her to the big city. He’s dead, and she lives on the roof for a rent of $3.63 a month; she receives some charity but won’t talk about that.

“Discomfort. Disenchantment. That’s what I’ve noticed after 25 years of living on this roof,” she says. “Coming from the village to the city was supposed to be a big achievement. But my second husband brought six kids from an earlier marriage and I had to take care of them up here while leaving my own two children back in the Delta. I’d like to run away to any other place now. The apartment below me costs 35 pounds [$6.35] a month rent. I can’t afford it. I do visit rich houses, you know. I’ve been in poorer houses than mine too.”

She is a heavyset woman in a paisley robe. She’s 54 and lives in a shed, with a room added. It feels like a doll’s house inside, but it’s neat and clean and there’s a TV, which she doesn’t watch much to save on electricity. Mekkawy steps to the raised brick wall at the edge of her rooftop. She hangs her laundry here, and, if she peeks over, she can see Qotb and the scattered, busted things below. She whispers:

“I look down and pity her. She has it worse.”

Worse. A 12-year-old bride with a painter for a husband doesn’t anticipate that word; its meaning accumulates between babies, one who died of an intestinal disease, and expectations not met, those things that happen when no one is looking. She sits in her room, scrap wood walls, cardboard and plastic sagging overhead. No running water. One light bulb, hanging naked, illuminating soot, a box of pills for her hypertension, a picture of her daughter (now divorced) on her wedding day and a poster of a fair-skinned baby that reads: Lovely Smile. It papers over a hole in the wall.

Her eyes are bright, her face brown but nearly smooth, the wrinkles around her eyes as thin as fine thread. A tight purple and green scarf, not the embroidered hijab so many women wear these days but a maid’s scarf, hides her hair. Her hands have thickened with age and they go to her heart when her breathing is heavy, like now when her husband comes in, looks around and decides not to sit on the three-legged chair leaning against the wall. It’s as if she keeps that chair on purpose, knowing a person can only balance so long before they get up, leaving her alone, which these days is not so bad.

Ahmed Gaballah’s handshake is dry. He is a thin man in a gray tunic; his hair is white and like wire, but combed back neatly. His sandals are clean. He seems, with dark glasses hiding his eyes, like a musician who can’t find the notes the way he once did. He’s 57. He comes from a family of carpet makers, and he was 9 when he started in the trade, but he joined the army in 1967. He served for five years and was discharged, only to be drafted in 1973 to fight Egypt’s war with Israel.


“He saw his friends get blown up right in front of him,” Qotb whispers from her chair.

Gaballah pulls a paper from his pocket. He unfolds it. It’s from the government. It says there’s something wrong with him.

“I have a nervous disorder,” he says. “It’s what I saw during the war. Please don’t make me remember.”

He looks around and thinks what someone who doesn’t live here might be thinking.

“We’ve been on this roof almost 30 years,” he says. “It’s horrible. Rain. Heat. Insects. There’s no toilet up here. We have to use the one on the second floor. We have no money. People help us with donations. But do you know there are people in Cairo who can’t even afford bread?”

She looks at him as if she wants him to go away. But where? It’s small up here, and he has his own hut catty-corner to hers. He has a TV; he spliced into someone else’s cable. She married him twice. She divorced him decades ago and left her children with her family to try to find a new way in a new place. A lot of Egyptians were doing this back then, flying off to the Persian Gulf with a suitcase and the hope of a job.

“I worked as a servant in a princess’ house in Saudi Arabia. It was a two-story villa. I served the princess’ mother. I was young, I felt terribly sick. I cried until I lost my voice. I said, ‘Send me home so I can die among my children.’ ”

She returned to Cairo and married him again. She doesn’t want to talk about it. She just did it because sometimes, well just because. . . . The roof got more crowded. Her two sons are here with one of her daughters. She built a third hut and now it feels like a tiny neighborhood of scattered tables and crumpled carpets and things that when they were hauled up here seemed valuable but are now worthless, and no one feels like carrying them back down to the street.


It’s almost dusk. She sits outside the hut. The moon is over there somewhere, just a faint thing, really, and the stars, it will be a while before they appear in the hard autumn sky.

This in-between time is nice, like a sigh between the noises of the day and the noises of the night. Music comes from a radio in a window across the alley. She mentions Mohammed Fahmi. She mentions him a lot. Perhaps it was the heels, and the stockings, and money left in the closet for a girl, a girl who did the mending.

“I remember . . .”


A world is going on below her. Those who have jobs are coming home, rushing through the traffic and the call to prayer. Women are sitting on stoops, talking and peeling beans, their laughter jostles along the walls as keys scrape and children run and cats slip into doorways. A man is fixing his car, and the air is scented with grease, tomatoes, perfume, incense, dust, sweat and the last sheep carcass cut from the butcher’s hook.

There’ll be a wedding soon. Men are stringing blue and yellow lights in the alley, and around the corner and past the barbershop, a wedding dress, sequined and draped in plastic, hangs in the window of the dry cleaner.


Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.