Five years ago, Tareq Mohamed Abdel Aal, 25, decided to use his God-given talent for drawing to earn a living.
Having loved art since he was five years old, when his mother first taught him how to hold a pencil, he quickly discovered a knack for sketching.
When he joined the Faculty of Commerce at Ain Shams University, he decided to turn to the streets to earn some money from his art. With a wooden chair and some painting tools, he decided to take to the streets surrounding various universities, making them his headquarters for showcasing his talent.
What drove him to the streets was not simply his love for art; he wanted to establish a source of income, in a country that suffers from a 12.8% unemployment rate, according to a 2016 study from the Brookings Institute. The study states that 30% of the unemployed population are youth aged between 15 and 29, while about 70% of them have certificates of higher education.
This reality has inspired many youth to “invent” new sources of income, albeit a paltry income. Abdel Aal came to this very conclusion. When food is scarce, talent becomes a commodity.
Between Abdel Aal and his corner of the pavement, a bond of affection grew, shared with other youth who took the street as their dwelling day and night. Some of them find rest there, others chase after cars and buses, while peddlers sell crafts, foods, and drinks. Some offer car-cleaning services, or offer to carry people’s shopping bags. Others even sell laughter and jokes for spare change. Such are the streets of Cairo.
Between lectures, Abdel Aal would return to his spot to resume his painting. At times, passers-by would commission portraits, leaving behind pictures of themselves that they would later pick up. Others asked for paintings of their favorite artists or writers.
Abdel Aal struck a deal with a nearby flower shop to leave his paintings and sketches there for customers to pick up while he was away.
“Those who wish to have their portraits painted should be able to pick them up in an environment befitting their passion for fine art. And so, I chose a flower shop,” Abdel Aal tells Raseef22.
The Law of the Land
Ostensibly, the street is a public space available to all. However, in reality, each street is the turf of some “boss”. As such, working there requires explicit permission from this “boss”, along with paying the required “fee”, or royalties, as they are referred to, as though one were requesting an official governmental permit.
“This pavement, for example, belongs to someone. His status is unknown, but he has divided the pavement among the various vendors, and he receives royalties from each to allow them to continue working there,” Abdel Aal notes.
The boss allocates the space for each vendor, amounting to a meter in each direction from where each stands. The boss moreover decides on their activities, to ensure that the area isn’t too saturated with one type of service or good, which would affect the vendors’ incomes. The boss also decides on work hours, ensuring one group works during the daytime, while another works in the evenings.
These royalties, amounting to 20% of his earnings, have strained Abdel Aal. But the possibility of negotiating a deal with the boss is slim to none; fear reigns, and plenty of informants would be willing to sell out their fellow vendors if they were to attempt to evade payment.
Ostensibly, the street is a public space, but Cairo's streets are subject to a complex system of hierarchies and interests
Mohamed Abdel Aal simply wanted to paint people's portraits on the streets of Cairo... he never imagined the price he'd pay
Such was the fate of Metwally Barakat, a man in his sixties with greying her and an arthritic tremble in his hand. Yet Barakat is known for his nimble grace, and the passion that shines through his eyes when he speaks of his art.
Barakat left the area, and took up a small kiosque in Giza Square in Cairo, after years spent painting portraits on the streets. “I lived a long life painting portraits of people and celebrities in the streets and on the pavements,” he tells Raseef22.
But the constant harassment by thugs and their bosses demanding royalties pushed Barakat to abandon the street. He found no solution but to carry his canvases on his back and walk away, heading nowhere in particular. In time, he was able to save up some money and obtained a license to open up a kiosque in which he could pursue his passion, free of any harassment.
He had long dreamed of having his own headquarters, with “a secretary to meet people on his behalf”. For the time being, however, he is happy with his small workspace, which no one can push him out of.
Royalties were not the only obstacle that Abdel Aal ran into. When he graduated, he decided to move from the university to public squares to come into contact with different social segments. But it wasn’t long before he found himself in confrontation with the municipality police, i.e. the authority charged with removing any public obstructions, often harassing street vendors for that purpose.
“I didn’t know that I had to gather my paintings and make a break for it every time someone showed up yelling ‘the municipality’,” Abdel Aal says.
Indeed, the municipality seized his paintings and tools one day, forcing Abdel Aal to waste a week trying to retrieve them by paying off the various fines that had been levied on him.
Such procedures are not specific to Egypt; many countries organize the activities of street vendors. And so, Abdel Aal decided to rent out a part of a shop in a commercial center to work there, liberated from the pursuits of the municipality police and the demands for royalties.
The Street Belongs to Everyone
Today, the street is not just a platform for artists who are trying to earn a living. There are those who use it to express political views through graffiti art, a movement that particularly flourished after the revolution in 2011. Some of them paint murals on the walls, others tag them with political slogans.
Omar Samir, a pseudonym, is no more than 18 years old. He joined the Ultras Ahlawy while he was in middle school, having been drawn by their ideas, and the energy and loyalty they shared for one another.
Five years ago, during the Port Said Stadium riots in which 72 Al-Ahly FC fans were killed following a football match with El Masry club, Samir made use of his artistic talent to express his rage on the walls of Alexandrian streets, where he resides with his family.
“I had nothing to give to the friends who I lost, who were like brothers to be, but to paint their faces on the walls, reminding everyone of them at all times,” he tells Raseef22.
A Dream on the Verge of Collapse
Barakat was able to realize his dream in part; he now has his own workspace, the kiosque, and a secretary, his niece, who graduated from the Faculty of the Arts. She is tasked with handing over customers’ personal photos and portraits after they are completed.
But the rising prices in Egypt following the sharp devaluation of the local currency have meant that, for most Egyptians, such portraits are a luxury that they cannot afford.
“People are suffering from the risings costs; how can they afford portraits? Their conscience wouldn’t allow it under such circumstances,” says Barakat.
Nonetheless, demand for portraits tends to grow during holidays, such as Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, during which Barakat is visited by people wishing to have the likenesses of their loved ones captured.
Abdel Aal suffers from similar conditions. Portraits are no longer as popular as they once were, and so he has been forced to abandon the corner of the shop that he had been renting, returning to the streets and the demand for royalties.
But, unlike Barakat, Abdel Aal has no plans to accept the fate of a small kiosque as the culmination of his life’s efforts. “Despite everything, I still have the capacity for dreaming big, and my dream is to one day rise to the status of a second Hussein Bicar,” he concludes.