For Cairo's forgotten fisherwomen, life on the Nile is not an easy one

Umm Reda was raised on the river's banks - while Umm Youssef came to fishing late to overcome her criminal past

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From the banks of the Nile, during the early hours when Cairo’s normally congested streets are empty, the Egyptian capital’s forgotten fisherwomen take their skiffs out for the day.

For decades, these women’s days have been the same – they wake at the crack of dawn while wisps of condensation still cling to the surface of the river’s waters, have a quick breakfast of foul and falafel from a cart and make their way to the Giza dock where they spend most of their waking hours.

“I first came down to help my father on his boat when I was 12 and I’ve been here ever since. I am a daughter of the sea through and through,” says Umm Reda, 55, referring to the Nile by the Arabic word for sea, a common custom among her kind who think of no other water bodies but Egypt’s great river.

She begins the day’s journey by cleaning her small boat of mud and algae left over from the previous day’s catch before rolling metres of netting into a circle at her feet. She scans the surface of the Nile before grabbing her wooden oars and making her way from the riverbank into the murky green midstream.

Born in Giza, about 100 metres from the dock where she takes her boat out every day, Umm Reda says her family have been fishing for generations, which is how her self-proclaimed love affair with the Nile began.

“I know it must seem unusual for people to hear that women can do such a physically taxing job, but if you visit any of the many docks along the length of the Nile, odds are you will find a woman taking out a boat,” she says.

“Many of them, like me, inherited the trade from their parents who inherited it from their parents. Others are newcomers to the trade.”

One such newcomer, who leaves from the same dock as Umm Reda every day, is Umm Youssef, 53, who upon being released from prison in 2016 decided she would try her luck at being a fisherwoman.

Umm Reda was born in Giza, about 100 metres from the dock from which she takes her boat out every day. Mahmoud Nasr/ The National

“I came down here five years ago after I got out of prison for murdering my husband’s mistress,” she says. “It’s nearly impossible to return to your life after going to prison for 15 years. Your friends and loved ones have moved on and many of them don’t even want to associate with you any more.

“I had some friends who fished in the Nile and they welcomed me among them. It was a fresh start for me.”

Many of the women rely on the day’s haul to make ends meet. But Umm Reda says that over the years, as tourism took more of a central role in Cairo, making a decent wage on fishing alone has become more and more difficult to do.

She says she watched from the deck of her skiff as Cairo developed around her.

The majority of boats working in the capital are used for recreational trips for tourists, she says. Over the years, the serenity of the Nile has been diminished by an influx of motor boats, which are popular with tourists because they are faster.

“Thirty years ago, none of the buildings were this tall and the banks of the Nile were clear and so quiet,” she says, motioning with her hand towards a row of high-rises on the island of Al Manial in central Cairo, “None of these cafes or nightlife venues were here either.”

She says on the days when there are no fish in her nets, she has to resort to collecting rubbish from the Nile, sorting it and selling it to recycling companies.

“It’s not an easy life. But being on the water makes it all better for me. And the best part is, if I don’t have money for food, I know I can take my boat out and catch enough fish to fry up for my dinner,” she says.

Many of Cairo's fisherwomen have worked on the Nile their whole lives. They delegate some physically taxing aspects of the job to day labourers who come down to the docks looking for work. Mahmoud Nasr/ The National

Umm Youssef runs a small coffee stand just outside the dock, on one of Giza’s busiest streets. She says she makes most of her money from her coffee stand, but she continues to fish every day because that’s where her new family is.

“I don’t really have any family left. My parents died when I was in prison and I don’t speak to my brother,” she says. “But this is life, it takes you wherever it wants. I met some really kind people here. They are my family now.”

Many who fish in Cairo aren’t from the capital. Hailing from neighbouring provinces, entire families move to Cairo in search of better prospects.

“Many of them come from places on the Nile and they can fish there, but where they are from, a kilogram of fish sells for much less than it does in Cairo, so they come here to earn more money,” says Umm Youssef.

Umm Reda says she has helped several women give birth in small boats in the Nile.

“They don’t have homes to return to here, so their whole life happens on the water,” she says.

A male-dominated profession

She says fishing is a male-dominated profession because of how physically taxing it is, while the amount of time those in the job spend outdoors is seen by some as inappropriate for Egyptian women.

She says she does not take the comments personally.

“Every once in a while, you get some young guy who complains about working with me because it offends his ethics,” she says. “To him, I say, there is no work for you here and I send him on his way. After 40 years of doing this, my hands are not smooth like a woman's hands. My back is strong and I am as good at my job as any man out there.”

Over the decades, Umm Reda has observed that fewer fish are coming into Cairo’s stretches of the Nile. She attributes this to the narrowing of the Nile, which happened gradually to accommodate construction projects.

She says she encounters only a handful of smaller fish species, many of which like shallower waters.

“Outside Cairo, the Nile is wider and deeper, which is a perfect environment for bigger fish,” she says. “But I make do with the ones I find in the city.”

She hopes to be able to save enough to buy a motorised boat that will take her further out to find the bigger fish.

Updated: December 23, 2021, 4:24 AM