Tiny noisy terrors of neighbourhood

Young boys are abandoning their education for a steady salary behind the wheel.

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CAIRO // Yusuf Kamal's bucket-sized stereo system fits easily into what could be called the boot of his tuk-tuk. But Yusuf prefers his music loud - so loud, in fact, that if he could install the stereo's speakers inside his skull, he would.

"The girls really like the tuk-tuk," bellowed Yusuf, whose own stature seems more suited to the truncated taxi he spends all day, every day, driving around the blighted Cairo of Imbaba. "They take it a lot, and they always ask me to raise the volume on the stereo."

Yusuf is on a roll, for at the tender age of 16 he already drives like the self-anointed king of his impoverished dominion. But Yusuf's tuk-tuk cannot swagger, it can only swerve, and Yusuf does just that: into opposing traffic, into farm animals that loiter in filth on the side of the road and, most of all, into packs of young girls strolling home from school. Yusuf loves to watch them leap out of his way.

In short, Yusuf and his tuk-tuk ilk are the tiny terrors of Imbaba and dozens of other Egyptian neighbourhoods like them. They are the plucky youths of Egypt's ever-expanding tuk-tuk universe - the latest ball-bearing in the seamless, well-oiled interface between the grudges of low-paid work and the characteristically Egyptian pleasure of public loitering.

At a cost of EGP14,000 (Dh9,000) to 15,000, the tuk-tuk diminishes the barriers to entry that block many small-time entrepreneurs. It was Yusuf's neighbour who approached him three years ago with the spark of an idea. The neighbour would buy the tuk-tuk, and Yusuf and his friends would take turns with eight-hour shifts. Each young man pays the owner EGP35 per shift, which Yusuf says allows him to pocket about EGP30 from each shift.

That is not a bad salary for a young man who has no education (Yusuf is "home-schooled", he said) but the future - and its inevitable trappings of marriage, home life and child care - may not be so rosy. Yusuf maintains that he is studying to pass the major state-wide leaving exams, after which he hopes to license himself as a professional driver for private sedans or a taxi. But the system has failed Yusuf, said his father, Kamal, an auto mechanic whose own education ended when he was eight years old. Mr Kamal blames the government, particularly its ongoing effort to privatise Egypt's bloated state-owned sector, for unemployment, which has reached as high as 25 per cent for young men.

"In the past, things were good. There was real education. When I was a kid the schools bought us notebooks and pens," said Mr Kamal, whose own freelance mechanic work earns him about EGP1,500 per month on average. "All those things have disappeared, and education is now really hard. If you want an education, you have to put your kid in private school."

Yusuf's reasons for leaving school are perhaps more complicated. Bullied and harassed, he dropped out three years ago in order, he said, to pre-empt the principal's intention to have him expelled.

"School is overrated," said Yusuf from inside his tuk-tuk, the windshield of which is festooned with so many mirrors it recalls the eye of an insect. "Studying is only useful to get a degree, but I'm not going to work with one. This is a good way to spend my time. It's a good job."

Such a good job that the youngest boys in the neighbourhood are gravitating towards it in droves. Yusuf should know: he has trained several boys younger than ten in the motoring arts, many of whom are bona fide drivers whose presence on the streets is angering neighbours and menacing motorists.

"It's very bad. Many of the drivers are children. It's just masked unemployment. People who have advanced degrees aren't working with them," said Ayman Howeifi, the owner of an Imbaba ceramics shop that specialises in ornate toilets. "The tuk-tuks provide money so the families don't care what their kids are doing all day, as long as they get money. They don't send them to school."

Perhaps ironically, much of Mr Howeifi's tuk-tuk polemic, which included a complaint that the tuk-tuk was making women lazy, was difficult to hear. The ever-present hip-hop music and honking horns emanating from hundreds of tuk-tuks - a vehicle that would have been nearly unthinkable here just five years ago - drowned out his speech.

For those like Mr Howeifi who hate the tuk-tuk, their battle appears to be lost.

"We took these tuk-tuks from India. But India is now a technological leader," he said over the din. "But what did we Egyptians get from India? We got their tuk-tuks."