At dusk in Cairo, flocks of friends gather for 15 minutes on a Nile boat, their ages ranging between 20 and 30 years old; an array of young men, with a few families, and a couple of lovers.
Many sway back and forth to the fervent beat of the popular Mahraganat songs, while the rest remain seated. Veiled women are caught up in the dance, indifferent to the catcalls and comments.
A husband and wife sit on the boat with their infant, unphased by the uproar, yet they do not dance. They sit and watch, smiling.
A professional dancer shows up, dressed in a sequined black gown, to grace the passengers with a small dose of entertainment.
For a short while, the young men’s voices rise as they cheer and woo the dancer, until the boat once again arrives at the shore, and the trip is over. The dancer and the driver remain aboard, awaiting the next group of customers.
Amid skyrocketing prices in the Egyptian capital, and the inability of many people to provide the basic needs, including food, residence, healthcare, education, and clothing, Cairenes' taste for leisure has been all but crushed. Their only means for amusement on these entertainment Nile boats, which cost EGP 10 (about $0.5), a relatively affordable sum for the middle class and the poor.
However, poverty in Egypt exists on several scales. A sizable segment of the population exists on next to nothing, living well below the poverty line. It is to this segment that these Nile dancers belong.
They are the destitute “street girls”, renting their services out to boat-owners by the hour to entertain passengers.
Mayyada* lives on the streets, and works as a dancer on a boat. Dark-skinned and in her mid-20s, her face bears scars from the knives of the men whom she claims wished to “discipline” her across the years she has spent on the streets.
“We dance on these Nile boats. Our work starts at 8:00 or 9:00 pm, and ends at 3:00 or 4:00 am,” she tells Raseef 22.
Mayyada’s work with her fellow dancers sometimes involves late Nile trips, or the private rides. Other times she works to entertain families during a boat ride.
When the destitute become the source of amusement for Cairo's poor
Driven to the streets by abusive families, these Cairo girls dance on boats to scrape together a living
Raseef22 met with Mayyada in the Nour El Hayat Association for street children. The association, located in the low-income neighborhood of Imbaba, offers temporary shelter for the homeless women of Cairo at daytime.
Mayyada says that whenever she wants some warmth, she spends her days in the association, and despite the harshness of the life she chose on the streets, the association remains a better option than her aunt’s house, which she ran away from.
For her, dancing on the Nile boats is no crueler a fate than what she has witnessed on the streets. “"It's a kinder job that comes with no abuses or debasement,” she notes.
It was after her father’s death that Mayyada left home and took up residence on the streets. Her mother remarried and travelled with her husband abroad, leaving Mayyada with her aunt.
Unable to bear her uncle’s constant harassment, she decided to leave and live on the streets when she was only 14 years old. There, she lived with the other “street girls”, who had also abandoned their homes due to incidents of domestic violence, whether in the form of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, while others left due to poverty or familial disintegration.
These young women and girls gather under highways and bridges in the capital, as well as in deserted areas that many fear approaching. They take to the streets selling tissues or begging, before returning to spend the night alone in metro stations or public parks, as well as deserted areas or buildings if they are in groups.
There are no official statistics for the numbers of homeless women and girls, as they are not registered under any authority. Nonetheless, their numbers are constantly increasing due to cases of domestic physical and sexual assault, driving constant streams of girls and young women into the streets on a daily basis, according to an official at the Nour El Hayat association, who chose to remain anonymous.
Left vulnerable and without protection on the streets, these young women are often exposed to the worst forms of exploitation, such as being kidnapped and held hostage for long periods, often for the purpose of raping them. This was confirmed by three different women with whom Raseef22 spoke.
Dancing on a Boat
The Nile boat-owners often improvise docks on the Nile, setting up a wooden crossing to allow the customers to cross the iron fence that the state has built by the two banks.
Many street girls go to the Nile Corniche, near Downtown Cairo, which is littered with upscale hotels, and boat docks frequented by tourists. They toil to sell tissues and sometimes flowers, and if they manage to earn some cash, they turn to selling bottled drinks.
It is there that they meet the boat-owners and agree on the wage. The work does not require much by way of qualifications; all they need to do is agree to the wage and know how to move to the music.
When Mayyada began working as a dancer 10 years ago, her wage was EGP 20, or $3 according to the exchange rate at the time.
Today, she is happy that her wage has tripled to EGP 60. Prices everywhere have increased, she says, and not just her wages. Even the cost of a boat trip has tripled, having previously set customers back only EGP 3. However, in reality, Mayyada’s wage has only risen by $1, in light of the significant devaluation of the Egyptian pound.
“When I first took to the street, 15 years ago, life was very tough. Now it’s more like a jungle,” says Nesreen*, whose life is in constant flux, exposed to the surging prices that have pushed some people onto the streets and, according to her, exacerbated aggression between strangers in public places.
Nesreen also occasionally takes up residence at the Nour El Hayat Association. She is in her late 20s, with pale skin, and dresses in a colored gown and head scarf. On the left side of her face appear burn marks from an old accident.
Nesreen says it’s becoming impossible to protect herself from the daily incidents of beating, rape, and harassment. One of the workers at the association confirms this, noting that she regularly hears such stories.
“Dancing on the Nile boats is one of the least distressing things that we endure. We just get in, dance for a few hours, earn a few pounds, and leave,” adds Nesreen.
She says that this is one of the most decent jobs she has had, allowing her to maintain a sense of dignity and physical safety. She and her colleagues dance in their black gowns, in a public setting where no one is permitted to cross any lines. The job entails inappropriate comments from some customers, but this, she says, is manageable.
“When you live on the streets and are accustomed to getting raped and assaulted, it is ludicrous to get annoyed by these verbal comments. We simply try to stop the harasser, nothing more,” she concludes.