As he speeds across the Mehwar, the highway that runs between Giza and 6th of October City, Mohamed Hassan reflects on his life.
“No one grows up intending to become a microbus driver,” he says. “See how life just goes around in circles?”
Hassan was married twice before and had three children, but he says both wives left him for financial reasons.
“The worst thing in the world is the feeling that you’re working hard, that you’re working to build a castle for someone, and suddenly they’re gone,” he says. He believes that women are only satisfied when their pockets are full.
Hassan has no one to go home to now except his Upper Egyptian roommates, with whom he has little in common. He also has no one to care for him, apart from a few of his microbus colleagues, whom he considers brothers.
Hassan bought his first microbus in 1995, the same year his first wife left him. He had just come back from Saudi Arabia and spent all the extra money he had on it.
When Hassan leaves his home in the morning, he goes straight to the garage where his microbus is parked. There he greets his colleagues, Nasser, Gamal Abdel Hameed, Harby, Ahmed Fatehallah and Hamada Sedky.
They all take the same route every day, eat together, look for gas on the black market together, and get into fights. Everyone in the group comes from different backgrounds, and their ages range from 65-year-old Hassan to 23-year-old Sedky.
Hassan is closest to Nasser. They’ve been through a lot together, including three years in jail. Hassan says he went to jail in place of his brother, who didn’t have the money to pay a check for his microbus and was sued.
“In prison,” Hassan says, as he takes out a cigarette from his pocket, “you can buy anything for a cigarette. You can buy a human being for a cigarette.”
The average workday for Hassan consists of going back and forth between Giza and 6th of October City. Each ride brings in about LE40, with each customer paying about LE3. As he drives closer to Giza, Hassan begins pointing out buildings.
“This is the university,” he says, pointing to Cairo University. “And these are the dorms.”
Hassan and the rest of the group are not calm drivers. They try to finish as many rounds as they can before going home in the morning. Usually Hassan will finish eight rounds back and forth from Giza to 6th of October before finishing his shift and returning home at 6 or 7 am.
Taking turns is the most sensitive issue for the drivers. “Most of the drivers here have weapons with them. Some even have guns, and they get into heated fights over whose turn it is to load the bus,” says Sedky.
Usually the drivers will not bring out weapons immediately, though. Harby, for example, yells and starts screaming out a stream of curses.
Sedky studies tourism and hotel management at a small college. His father is now too old to work, so Sedky has been driving his father’s microbus on the side for a year to provide for his family.
The worst feature of the microbus world, Sedky says, is the lack of organization. There are no real stops, just random messy ones.
Thirty-year-old Ahmed Fatehallah, however, says the biggest problem is gas. He spends more time looking for cheap gas than he does actually driving his microbus, and in the end, he ends up having to buy it from the black market.
“The price of gas is going up, and the owner of the bus doesn’t care,” says Fatehallah. “He just wants his monthly payment.”
Other drivers, such as Harby, don’t mind how conditions are for microbus drivers now. At least no one talks to them as much, he says. Before the revolution, policemen would do what they could to get money out of the drivers.
“We had to please them or keep them quiet by giving them LE10 or LE20 every now and then,” says Harby. “Especially those of us who don’t have licenses, like me.”
When they finally hear the call for the maghreb prayers, Hassan and the rest of the drivers sit together and share a meal of potatoes, rice and chicken. There are very few people on the streets next to the Hosary Mosque roundabout, and no customers are there at the moment.
Most people have family gatherings for iftar, a traditional feature of Ramadan. However, the working conditions of most microbus drivers do not allow for the comfort of enjoying iftar at home.
“It’s the 10th day of Ramadan and I haven’t had iftar with my family twice,” Fatehallah says. “It’s sad, but how else will we make enough for the monthly payments of the buses we rent?”
Soon people begin to crowd the streets once again and business starts for the drivers, who take turns filling their buses. Hassan fills his bus and starts again with the usual routine, from 6th of October to Giza and from Giza back to 6th of October.
Egypt is a massive living organism, a web of ticking clocks, each set to a slightly different millisecond. Doctors, valets, belly dancers and beggars. Cairo keeps 18 million cogs in one of the world’s busiest wheels. The “Cogs in the wheel” series takes a magnifying glass to one person, a representative of a job that keeps the city ticking. For more stories in the series, visit www.egyptindependent.com/