The revolution has not yet come to Milad Zari’s bakery.
Cairo is raging in protest. Tanks rumble past buildings aflame. But down an alley, just beyond the city of the dead, where the poor live scattered amid forgotten graves, Zari bakes bread. He works from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m., earning less than $90 a month to pay the rent and raise six children.
It has been this way for 20 years, his hands, quick as sparrows, feeding flat dough into an oven.
“How can I go into the street and protest?” he says. “I can barely survive.”
The mass demonstration sweeping this nation is a strike against years of repression, unemployment and poverty. Many of the poorest, though, have not lifted their voices. They toil at the edge of revolt, listening to the echo of gunshots, staying near their shops and meager jobs.
It is a rich man, they say, who can take a day off in a pretty dream of bringing down the government.
Follow the little girl with the silver tray through the alleys in Zari’s neighborhood, zigzagging around mosques and buildings that have survived desert winds and revolutions past. She arrives at the bakery’s courtyard, where 30 people, mothers and old men, wait for government-subsidized loaves. They laugh, worry, argue, press their faces up to the metal bars, looking in, wondering what’s taking Zari so long to bake another batch.
The girl with the silver tray slips through a metal door, where more children wait with trays and wooden racks, which they stack with the puffy hot bread that comes out of Zari’s oven. They balance them on their heads to make deliveries, passing the stonecutter and the imam, the scent lingering.
Bread is more than sustenance in Egypt. It is a bond between people and state, a centuries-old promise that whatever else fails, there will always be bread. Egypt’s deadliest riots in decades erupted in 1977 when the government cut bread subsidies. They were quickly restored.
“Bread is like the soul to us,” says Mohammed Salheen, the bakery’s manager. “It’s the cheapest, most filling part of any meal. The government wanted to raise the price on the bread we bake three months ago. They said the price would go up but so would the quality. But they wouldn’t increase quality. The people got mad. They didn’t raise the price.”
Sunlight pours through a hole in the bakery’s roof. Zari, standing barefoot in spilled flour, tells young boys to hurry and stack.
Eid Ebeid takes a break from kneading. He left a farming town south of Cairo when he was 16 after his father told him the land alone would not provide. He came to the bakery and mailed money to his parents when he could, but he can’t anymore. He is 34 with wheat dust in his thinning hair.
“I used to be able to send something home,” he says. “I make 20 pounds [$3.45] a day. That’s good enough for cigarettes. There’s only one thing I really want in this life, to marry a woman. But I’m barely feeding myself. How could I afford a small wedding or new furniture?”
He looks away, and then to Zari’s hands, which seem hypnotic.
“I’ve got seven kids,” says Seif Ahmed, his silver tooth glinting, his tunic billowing from his belly like a small tent. “I have my two sons working here with me for extra income. I just want to live like a normal man, but now, I can only put meat on the table once a year.”
He grew up in this neighborhood, in a time when the desert rimmed closer to the city’s heart and the banks of the Nile weren’t so crowded. Cairo is a big city now, but it is intimate, like a sprawling family carrying shared stories. He knows all the faces waiting for bread.
“I hope people out there in the streets don’t start fighting one another,” says Ebeid, to no one in particular.
Zari says, “I hope they end without much damage.”
“Is Zari going to join the protests?” someone asks.
“If he does, who will bake our bread?” Salheen says.
The men laugh. The boys do too.
Salheen, a heavyset man in a gray sweat suit who wears a mustache in need of tending, walks from Zari’s oven toward the metal door. Faces from the outside press in. People want bread. It’s coming, he says. But the 50 sacks of flour the government delivers every day have not arrived. The protests are causing delays in the lives of people who can see burning buildings on the horizon but rarely wonder if life will get better.
“They have one worry: the bread on their table,” he says. “They don’t care about politics. All they know is that they have to line up here every day.”
He opens the door and pushes them back.