This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2015.
Aish baladi, like the Nile, is a source of life. The handmade bread is an Egyptian staple, which at one point existed in 82 varieties. In Cairo, its ubiquity is made possible by the network of agalati—bread carriers—who deliver the bread to the restaurants, ful (fava bean) carts, and street stands of the metropolis. The coarseness of the bran and wheat turns the bread into a magnet for dust and the city's airborne toxic elements, but that doesn't stop anyone from eating it. The art of the agalati is in carrying large trays of bread on their heads as they maneuver through the manic streets of Cairo on a bicycle, like lunatics sailing into the tempest on arowboat.
At Regala, a Downtown Cairo bakery illuminated only by a few fluorescent bulbs and the flame of the oven, the floor is covered in bran, which is almost indistinguishable from sawdust. Some of the eight men who work there choose to work barefoot, teasing each other and only turning to me once they have mustered the boldness brought on by their camaraderie. Others, like Mahmoud, try to follow the conversation over the shaabi music blasting from their headphones.
Inside the bakery, the dough is tended to with delicacy, but with the swiftness of a fast food joint. Regala bakery produces 24,000 loaves a day, equivalent to 1.5 tons of flour. Ali, a 24-year-old man who holds a technical degree, dreams of quitting the job. His long eyelashes are fringed with flour, as if he himself had recently come out of the oven. "I don't like standing all the time and taking no breaks," he complains, as one of the guys prostrates next to him for a rushed, two-minute prayer.
"The subsidized bread is not enough for everyone," says Ahmed, the owner of Regala. Egypt is the world's biggest consumer of bread and importer of wheat, with Cairo spending $3 billion a year on imports. The government's costly subsidy system has been in place since the 1960s to keep bread prices low. Today, a loaf of subsidized aish baladi is 5 piastres (less than one US cent) and reaches roughly 50 million Egyptians. Recently, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi implemented a smart card system to hold bakeries accountable and eliminate graft at the ground level.
Cheap bread is considered a human right for more than 80 million Egyptians. "Bread, freedom, and justice" has been both a rallying cry and the yeast fermenting social unrest in Egypt for the last half a century—from President Anwar Sadat's attempt to lift the bread subsidies in 1977, to the inflation of food prices in 2007 to 2008 and the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. If people can't have their bread, they take to the streets.
In Egypt, aish is the word for bread, but it is also the word for life. When Egyptians are under stress, people say akl el aish murr—"eating bread is bitter"—a proverb that more accurately tries to say: Unemployment is high, economic opportunities are scarce, corruption is ripe, marriage and food are expensive, traffic is unbearable, etc. But Egyptians are not ones to complain.
For Ahmed, who sells bread at market price, bread tastes bitter. "I make about 10 percent profit," he says about his bakery. "The price of gas and flour are too expensive." A subsidized, 50-kilogram sack of flour costs eight Egyptian pounds, but 162 pounds for Ahmed. A tank of gas—taller than Ahmed's youngest worker, 13-year-old Mustafa—is between 80 and 90 pounds.
At 7 PM, the men are swarmed with work. The time is just after the Maghreb prayer, and the demand for bread is running high with many Cairenes hunting for dinner. Customers materialize in front of the bakery, extending one pound and leaving shortly after with four loaves of bread. A taxi driver parks in front, pays 25 piasters and sets off with his loaf; the engine never stopped running.
"You are riding in a sea of death," said 22-year-old Mahmoud, one of the agalati responsible for satisfying Cairo's vital bread demand. The bread delivery boys transport the loaves through the city's infamous traffic, mass of pedestrians, and narrow back-streets of downtown Cairo on trays up to 2.5 meters long and weighing between 30 to 35 kilos. They do so by balancing the trays on their heads, with one arm stabilizing the tray and the other maneuvering the bicycle.
The job of the agalati is extensive and crucial. Without them, bread would not be available on every corner and forsaken fast-food stand. The men must fight to keep their balance and hold their ground among the sea of vehicles. "There is no respect from the cars," says Ahmed, who at 39 still does bread deliveries. The risk of the agalati never reaching his destination is always present, but death is the least of his worries. Ahmed is confident that drivers try to be careful "because they know the bread is all we have," he said with a tinge of complacency.
"We learn how to bike by watching others," explained Ahmed, an approach that applies to every worker at the bakery regardless of his task. "It's up to your eyes and your mind," he said.
Ultimately, bread deliveries are a daring game of dexterity. When asked how long it takes to gain the skills of the agalati, Ahmed shot the question back at me with disdain: "Well, how long do you think it takes?" The agalati's journey to the double-decker, 30-kilo tray is gradual. It may take a lanky Egyptian teen up to a year to reach such mastery—and countless falls, after which he brushes the dust off the bread and places it back on his tray.
The agalati have specific routes and average between 50 to 80 bread deliveries a day. The journeys can take anywhere between ten to 30 minutes, back to back. "Carrying the bread is painful," said Ahmed, pointing to the back of a worker named Ramadan to illustrate the pain that travels down to the middle of his spine. But someone has to do it.
For Ahmed and the agalati, little has changed since the Revolution. "People who steal still steal. People who take bribes still take bribes. Everything is still the same," said Ahmed.
"Bread is still the basis of Egyptian life," he continued. "Even when you don't have money, you eat bread."