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I remember my mother at the age of 45, who had just learned to drive a car in Cairo, zooming passed a horse and cart with a load of water melons, suddenly stopping, reversing in a zigzag motion and breaking abruptly to a point where the horse’s muzzle nearly went through the rear window. She leaped out of the car and spent half an hour bargaining and forcing the vendor incessantly to cut open bright red watermelons, telling him that, “marriage is like a watermelon- its either pink or red!” until finally she was satisfied that she had the most succulent watermelon in town.
Businesses on wheels are a unique manifestation of an ancient form of commerce. One can’t help but notice an abundance of bicycles, tricycles, carts or man-made contraptions with wooden wheels or re-used car tires, on every street, in all shapes and sizes, weaving through the traffic in Cairo. Horse-drawn carts carry heavy steel rods, vegetables and people; supermarkets deliver a service on wheels and the rag and bone man (rubabikiya) on his tricycle removes old bathtubs or rubble. Tradesman build their carts or bicycles from scraps of metal, recycled wooden cases, unwanted pieces of machinery with mangled tires or rusty-rimmed wooden wheels from disused carts, which transform magically into a moving machine. The wheels of these ambling contraptions make remarkable shrieking noises from the treadmills and thundering sounds, grinding over potholed road surfaces, ferrying people, moving furniture or bricks or selling watermelons. As the horse trots forward, the cart sways side to side, moving to a rhythm in unison with the hoofs of the animal, towing its load on tires that have seen better days.Cyclists, with faces and hands smeared with grease, pivot and swivel on their wheels, squeezing through available gaps between parked cars, overtaking pedestrians, who amble on the streets; the riders pull ahead of enraged mini-bus drivers who drive their vehicles like tanks on an offensive. The cyclists seem to experience a great sense of accomplishment as they ride their bicycles, tasting a form of freedom and emphasizing their rights to the public road spaces. A common sight is a baker carrying a rectangular flat crate over his head, with piles of bread laid-out flat on top. He holds the edge of the crate with one hand, while the other grips the handlebar tightly. He flows through the traffic, propped on his seat, in perfect balance like a tightrope walker at the circus. Human obstacles on the street move spontaneously to the side allowing the bearer of bread to reach his destiny.
In the more affluent districts of Cairo, the waste pickers or zaballeen survive by collecting rubbish and sifting through and re-cycling waste. The zabal, with his cart and donkey, once descended in the early hours of the morning to collect the rubbish; nowadays, he sneaks through the buildings at odd hours, so as not to be heard or seen. The wheels of the cart rock backward and forward as the load gets heavier with rubbish stacked in heavy- duty sacs that look like accordions as they expand, getting taller and taller. There is always a need for moving commodities and people, and much more so for locations for small businesses. Motorised transport, be it truck, van or car is extremely expensive and consequently transport on non-motorised wheels is the only possible way for low-income earners to transport goods and people.Tradesmen such as these, with no other means to survive, represent the economic reality of the society. Unfortunately, the drawback of these modes of transport (or shops in motion) is that they are a nuisance to the local traffic and pedestrians; they block pavements, high jack intersections of narrow roads creating gridlocks, culminating in theatrical shouting matches with microbus and car drivers. This alternative system of transport in Egypt and the creative process of fabricating these machines draw deeply on human ingenuity and resourcefulness. The inventive re-use of discarded materials and the time and attention given to these materials epitomize creative processes based upon harsh realities. These are the kind of real world activities that have inspired a wide spectrum of modern artists from Picasso to the Arte Povera Movement to Joseph Beuys and more recently to Damien Hirst. Artists such as these set out to challenge our preconceived notions of aesthetics, taste and value. In a very different context, the non-motorised zaballeen and traders of Egypt robustly challenge the ‘bubble’ of modern day affluence and convenience.In a city such as Cairo, that manifests such a flagrant imbalance between wealth and destitution, these handmade modes of transport provide a service that is constant and essential, always at odds with modern life, yet striving to satisfy basic human needs.