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Making ends meet in a fragile Egypt

He walks the streets of the rich with a grindstone on his back and his son at his side.

“Knife sharpening!” Ahmed Hamid yells.

“Knife sharpening!” echoes 5-year-old Yusef.

They stroll through sunlight and shade, past landscapers and junkmen, down lanes where houses peek through flowered trees and palms in dense gardens of privilege. The police watch Hamid, but don’t bother him for bribes anymore, not since the revolution, which changed everything, not all for the better.

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Hamid’s Egypt is fretful and fragile. The economy has yet to recover from the throes of revolt. Labor strikes ring across cities and villages; tourists are scant; prices are rising. Hamid calls out in his musical voice, but fewer knives are sent his way and his grindstone is being used longer than it should.

“Some days are good,” he says, “but many days I don’t have enough money to go home with. Business is down everywhere. It’s not just me. There’s no savings. I’m lucky if I go to sleep with money for the next day’s breakfast.”

Yusef listens but doesn’t understand; he wonders whether Hamid will buy him juice. He gets a juice box for the bus ride home if his father earns more than the usual $5, $6 or $7 a day. They walk a bit and stop in the shade. A man brings them a dull knife and two scissors.

Hamid slips the grindstone off his back. He unfolds its stand, which looks like an easel fastened to a bicycle rim and wooden pedal. He pumps the pedal, the rim spins and a battered leather strap held together by twisted wires rotates the spindle and brings the grindstone to life. The knife flashes in his hands, which are softer and smaller than you might imagine, and hot steel shines along the blade’s edge.

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Yusef stands at Hamid’s elbow. Before they learn too much, boys want to be their fathers. Hamid became his father. Grew up like Yusef, following his old man through the alleys of his hometown, Beni Suef, until the day he lifted his own grindstone and went his way. He married a village girl at 16 and eight years ago moved closer to Cairo and its many knives and promises of opportunity.

But in Egypt, even this new Egypt with its slogans and yearnings, promises of better things are sweetest when they’re imagined.

Hamid is 22 and has three children. In good times and bad he probably will not change from what he is: a knife sharpener. This is the way of things for a young man from the provinces, but sometimes he wonders, especially in this neighborhood, where water flows endlessly through hoses to keep the grass green and the desert at bay, if there were secrets to life that have been kept from him.

Hamid watched the revolution on TV; he still can’t believe what happened that February day when Hosni Mubarak resigned and flew away from the palace. They danced and sang in the streets in Hamid’s district of Helwan. Car horns blared, flags waved and people wept. Hamid hoped that even the fortunes of a man like him would rise and that all of Egypt’s stolen and locked-away riches would be returned to the people.

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“Since I was born this was the life and the country I knew,” he says. “Then it changed.”

But not in the ways he expected. Weeks later Hamid sold the TV to feed his family. Nights now seem awfully long. In the mornings, Hamid and Yusef catch a bus past Tora Prison, where Mubarak’s sons await corruption trials, hopping off at a traffic circle near women with chauffeurs and a market that sells a jar of peanut butter for more than Hamid makes in a day.

“I can’t read or write but I’d like Yusef to go to school so he doesn’t have to walk around carrying a grindstone. They told me it would cost 300 pounds [about $52] to send him to school. I can’t afford that. I hope he doesn’t grow up to hate me or to be mad at his dad for not giving him more than this.”

Hamid’s customer waits. Scissors slide across the stone, back and forth, back and forth, like the flapping of a bird’s wings.

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A big shirt billows around Hamid’s thin frame; a lavender scarf drapes at the shoulders. When it gets hot, he wraps the scarf around his head. Yusef pretends not to be bored, watching passing cars and stray dogs. Hamid speaks of folded away ambitions. His biggest dream wasn’t even that grand: He wanted to buy a car and hire himself out as a driver, to race along the corniche and out beyond the ring road. He never got a license and, besides, a man who sells the family TV can’t afford a car.

“If we ever get justice, Egypt could be the best country to live in,” Hamid says. “Maybe that’s coming. Before the revolution, the police took me to jail four times because I didn’t have money to pay them off. Now, the police just pass and say hi to me.”

Hamid pumps the pedal. A breeze lifts off the grindstone

“I tried other jobs. Waiter. Grocery clerk. Worked in shops. The money was never as good as this. I’m my own boss and I like walking.”

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Elections for a new parliament are to be held in September. After that, a new president will be voted in, a strange phrase in country that has known only one leader for the last 30 years. Hamid is pleased with all this change, although, without a TV and unable to read a newspaper, he doesn’t quite feel a citizen of the new Egypt he should be. “I won’t vote. I’m not educated and wouldn’t trust my own choice,” he says.

The knife is sharpened; the scissors done. Hamid stuffs his pay in a pocket. He folds his stand and hoists the grindstone over his shoulders. He straightens himself, takes Yusef’s hand and balances the weight of the grindstone by leaning slightly forward as if walking into a stiff wind. They move in father-and-son rhythm, Yusef’s arm swinging at his side. They turn down a road of orange and white flowers and long stretches of shade.

“Knife sharpening!”

“Knife sharpening!”

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The afternoon is hot. It will be hours before Yusef knows whether they have earned enough money to buy a juice box for the bus ride home.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.


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