CAIRO, Egypt — A man descends the steps of a jetty where feluccas — Cairo’s flat placid pleasure boats — lie docked. Anchored a little further off is a cluster of more utilitarian crafts: fishing boats.

He calls out to the small vessels nestled together in the pink and silver morning. 

“They have great fish,” he says. He has come to buy.

For as long as there has been a Nile there have been fishermen who lived on it. But now, for those in Cairo at least, many say what has been a family business for generations is coming to an end.

The city of Cairo straddles the river Nile with a number of small islands in between. While sitting in traffic on a bridge in central Cairo, it is not uncommon to see a family of fishermen on their boat in the middle of the river.

“There are no fish like there were before,” says Um Mohamed, 36, who works alongside her husband. “It’s not enough to live on. It used to be enough, before we didn’t need anything from anyone.”

Um Mohamed has raised four children between two boats, each no more than 12 feet long. Born in a fishing village in Menoufia in the Nile Delta, she moved to Cairo when she was 19 to get married, to a fisherman. She has never slept a night on land.

“I’ve never seen another way of life,” she says.

But in an increasingly interconnected world, life on a boat can be isolating.

“We don’t go up,” says Um Mohamed, “except to buy food. Why would we go up?” Neither she nor her daughter has ever used the internet.

They watch a small grainy television connected by a long cord to a plug on land. Sometimes they hook the TV up to a car battery — “then we can go as far from land as we want.”

Paintings of a dove and a forest scene adorn the inside of the boat. A brown and tan carpet lines the bottom.

None of her children have been to school. “I wanted them to have a better life than this.” She gestures around her, “but … I don’t want my daughter to marry a fisherman. There’s no future.”

Um Mohamed, originally from Menoufia in the Nile Delta, has lived in this boat with her husband since they were married 17 years ago.

That is a sentiment expressed by a growing number here on the river. Her daughter, 17-year-old May, says she wants to live “above” — this is how the fishermen refer to the land.

“I’m not comfortable here,” she says. One thing she doesn’t mind though is a fish-heavy diet: “It’s our favorite food here,” she says, smiling.

There’s very little privacy. On a boat, domestic lives are lived in public space. On a vessel nearby, a young woman in a pink galabeya combs and smoothes her hair.

“We make a kind of tent in the middle of the boat and change our clothes there,” says Um Mohamed. She says there is a garden nearby and those who own it allow her and May to use the bathroom there.

Rashad Hamad, 39, also comes from a long line of fishermen. He fled his native Assiut, in Upper Egypt, 17 years ago due to violence there. He lives in a fishing community on a tiny island in the Nile in central Cairo. Unlike Um Mohamed’s family, his five children take a ferry to school every morning.

“I don’t want them to be fishermen. Fishing is not a profession. It has no future,” he says. “I didn’t go to school at all, because of that I want to educate my children.” He says his two girls are particularly good in school and dedicated to their studies.

He says that his wife used to stay at home but now, because of “the circumstances and having children in school,” she goes to the market to sell his catch.

Rashad Hamad, a fisherman, with his son. Originally from Assiut in Upper Egypt he now lives in Cairo on an island in the Nile.

One of the causes of the fishermen’s woes, according to those who live on the river, is that there is simply not enough fish. 

"In the 1980s there were about 400 boats registered to fish on the Nile, now there are more than 4,000," said an official with the Authority for Fishing Resources Development who declined to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to journalists.

“Life on the water is hard, but what are we going to do, steal?” asks Hamad.

As he talks he folds a net he has made himself out of delicate turquoise line.

On the island itself, most of which is covered in fields away from the din and dust of urban Cairo, life is quite pleasant: “We’re all like family,” he says, “we have no police here.”

But when asked about the future he sees for himself, he says, “Zero. I share one room with seven other people. What future?”

Abdu, who doesn't live on the river himself but ferries tourists around on his sailboat, agrees.  

“I wanted to be a fisherman but I couldn’t do it,” he says. “Their life is too hard.”

Um Mohamed and her daughter May in one two fishing boats owned by their family. Her husband and two sons have taken the other out fishing. They watch as sailboats, rented out by tourists, goes by at sunset.

This story was updated to incorporate comments from the Authority for Fishing Resources Development.

Related Stories