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Egyptian Workers Let Loose on Floating Party Boats

Tourists to Egypt are no doubt familiar with the felucca, a timeless sailboat. Egyptians, however, use the word felucca for another kind of boat on the Nile - a motorboat that blares popular music. Karem Said reports for VOA from Cairo these modern feluccas are a fixture for less-privileged Egyptians who navigate the river by night.

Someone brought a boom box. The popular music sonically lights up this downtown spot along the Nile, where scores of Egyptian youth tread by night. Couples hold hands. Some sit out of sight in wooden gazebos.

A nearby staircase takes couples down to a series of open-air boats, louder than the boombox and brighter than any vessels on the Nile. Multi-colored bulbs blink along metal ribs above the boats, creating a disco space.

Mostly young, unmarried Egyptians ride the boats, but small families come too. A visitor named Wael came with his wife and baby boy.

He says the boats themselves are nothing special. They are really primitive. They cannot make more than these short trips.

He says people come out to the Nile, especially on holidays, the whole Egyptian nation. The Egyptian people are known for this: to stay up the whole night by the Nile and sleep in the morning - the youth. He says people who work come on a Friday, they take their family for an outing.

For many Egyptians, the Nile River is a national treasure. Cairo bridges are lined with the fishing rods of patient hobbyists and families in plastic chairs, eating vendor food like grilled sweet potato, pumpkin seeds, and peanuts.

But unlike other river activities, the boats are controversial amongst Islamists, because women and men often get up to dance for other riders, who clap in unison and shout encouraging phrases.

On a Friday night, three young women, all of them veiled and in tight jeans, got up to dance after the boat left shore. Their hips movements were sensual at times and percussive at others.

One of the women dancing, Shaimaa said she goes on boat rides up to three times a week. She brings different friends with her, and they will go for about four rounds in a night.

She said I really love boats. We come for a change in atmosphere. We make noise, we dance, we listen to music - nice things.

But not everyone on the boat appreciated the spectacle. Wafaa and her cousin May sat, hands folded, with disapproving looks. Wafaa, a law student from the neighborhood of Nasr City, said different kinds of people come to the boats.

She says good people and bad people come to these boats. There are some who come for an outing and there are others who come for dancing. The girl who dances is not respectable. She says the respectable girl comes to sit and watch, but does not come to let people watch her dancing.

Most Egyptians drawn to the Nile are middle-class or low-income. Upper-class Egyptians prefer to frequent exclusive social clubs, cafes and pubs, ironically leaving the most picturesque outings to what is known as the shaab, the popular classes.

The 20-minute boat rides cost about 35 cents a trip, which is affordable for most Cairo residents. A trip in a closed ferry-boat costs slightly less.

A rider named Ahmed, a tourist driver from the low-income neighborhood of Shoubra, said he also rides the ferry-boats for fun.

He says we go to those boats, and we go to a casino, and we like to come here so we can be amongst the poor people, like us, because Egypt has lots of poor people. America also has its own poor people. Every country in the world has its own poor people.

Workers face high inflation and chronic unemployment, even as they see foreign goods flood the country. Wealthy Egyptians easily imitate the fashions found on satellite television. A growing gap between rich and poor has brought with it temptations that most Egyptians cannot afford. They commonly work more than one job just to make ends meet.

A boat worker named Mohsen said the boats give people a chance to let loose.

He says the people of Egypt are fed up, so they want to change their mood through noise. He adds, I like to work here, because there is no work in Egypt. When I started the work, I started liking it. The atmosphere is good.

Later in the boat ride, teenage boys also got up to dance. With closed eyes, one feverishly thrust and rolled his torso in time to the music, jumping up and stomping down, with movements very different from traditional Egyptian dancing.

A plain-clothed police officer named Ahmed Mahdi, from the neighborhood of Haday-il-ooba, said the people who dance are depressed. He does not dance, he said, because he is not depressed.

He emphasized that the beauty of the Nile draws people for different activities.

He says there are people who come from Maadi, from Heliopolis, they come from different parts of Cairo. They fish in the Nile. It is a wealth. It is a wealth in itself. All of the Nile brings goodness. He says it has everything.