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The Drag-Racing Horse Carts of Cairo

[Photos by David Degner]

On a dark road in Cairo’s working class Shubra district, horse-drawn wagons crash down the avenue, narrowly missing cars, motorcycles, microbuses, and spectators. Young men sit on the sidelines on wooden carts and plastic chairs, passing small wagers back and forth as the riders pass. Relentless Mahraganat electronica music belts out of speakers, as foul language flies and the jockeys beat their horses to push them forward. A three-wheeled motorcycle taxi drives through the raucous scene, and seems swept up by the surrounding energy, swerving back and forth, narrowly missing the crowd and several of the carts multiple times. A car tries to overtake a horse cart, coming dangerously close to a wagon before the riders start beating the car itself with their riding whips. This is Cairo’s race of the Arbageh.

Around fifty years ago, a group of Arbageh, which roughly translates to “horse riding salesmen”, began meeting on a street in Shubra to run their animals on a kilometer-long track of road. Since then, Cairo’s Arbageh race has grown to a circuit event held four days a week, spanning three different sections of the city: Shubra, Abbasiya, and Giza. “There are never fights, but people get heated” said Mina, a street vendor who sells tea and coffee at the races. The riders have “nothing to win or lose but pride.” Like most public gatherings in Egypt, the street races are themselves host to vendors selling everything from pudding to expertly hand-tooled horse bridles.

The Arbageh are a class of urban nomadic merchants who have existed within Egypt for centuries. They travel throughout the country’s major cities, buying and selling everything from fresh produce to broken water heaters and old televisions. Stand on any corner in Cairo for long enough, and sooner or later you’ll hear their call, “Bikya,” a derivative of the Italian phrase, “roba vecchia”, Italian for “old clothes”. It’s a call for Cairenes to come forth with their used items to sell or trade. The Arbageh work long days, traveling from the Cairo hinterlands on rickety horse-drawn wooden carts; riding on six lane highways; dodging reckless drivers; bearing the interminable dust, smog, and noise.

An entire area within Cairo is dedicated to the business of harvesting salvaged parts of used electronics.

Because Cairo is massive, unregulated, overpopulated, and poor, a unique set of jobs exist to profit off of the sheer rate of consumption of over 20 million people. The Zabbeleen, a large network of trash collectors, run a highly efficient waste disposal and recycling system that far outshines the government’s inefficient fleet of garbage trucks. An entire area within Cairo is dedicated to the business of harvesting salvaged parts of used electronics. With the whole city as their marketplace, the Arbageh have a nearly endless supply of used appliances to refurbish and resell as well as ever-growing consumer base for their wares.

Amr Hanafi wakes up before dawn six days a week to feed his horse and prepare it for the long day ahead. At sunrise, he wakes his son, Mohamed, hitches the wagon to the family horse, and the two set off. For the rest of the day, until well into the night, Amr and his son will roam everywhere from downtown Cairo to the outlying districts of Heliopolis, Maadi, and throughout neighboring Giza, buying and selling the refuse of the megalopolis. Every Thursday after work, Amr and his son drag their horse, a small but healthy grey gelding, to this strip of road on the Nile in Shubra. “I go to show off my horse and try to have a little fun”, says Amr, lounging on his sturdy wagon, which is painted in the loud yellows, greens, reds, and whites of the Arbageh.

During the race, there are no official rules, just a meeting place, a route, and a challenge to go faster than the other driver. “Tonight, it’s about how fast I can go and how many people I can fit on the cart”, says Ahmed, an Arbageh originally from the Middle Egypt town of Minya. As his cart, essentially two axles from an old car lashed together with salvaged wood, whips around the corner during the race, I count six passengers, three of whom are standing.

On the sidelines, older, more subdued men stand in groups, watching and commenting to each other. A massive, muscular brown horse trots down the strip as the crowd whistles and hollers. The race also serves as an open market for the horse trade. Shortly after races began decades ago, landowners started traveling from the countryside to stand on the sidelines and bid against each other for the premium horses, the Rahawanat. Visitors from the Gulf and other neighboring Arab countries still frequently attend the races to scout out the stock.

The rider whips his struggling horse, loudly cursing it and questioning its sexual orientation.

Riders pack their wagons with bags of sand and as many people as they can before lurching onto the track. Some try to infuriate their horses, goading them to run faster: a pair of motorcycles chaperones one horse cart up the track, both revving their engines as close as possible to the horse’s head. Another cart rides by without wheels—skating on its axles, metal scraping on pavement—as the rider whips his struggling horse, loudly cursing it and questioning its sexual orientation.

I ask some of the riders about the safety risks—to horse and man—of running a race on such a busy road. “I love my horse and hold him in great respect”, says Omar, a small business owner who took up the racing as a hobby. “They’re animals” says Haitham, another Arbageh, with a shrug. Unlike many of the mules and workhorses in the city, the horses are slim but not emaciated. They have full, healthy coats and as far as I could see, only eat vegetables. In Cairo, it’s common to come across a horse lashed to a cart, face first in a heaping pile of garbage, but most Arbageh seem to have a deeper relationship to their animals.

For riders and spectators both, the race of the Arbageh provides a momentary respite from Cairo’s relentless, sometimes crushing, urbanity. To an outsider like me, the races can seem as loud, dangerous and sweaty as the rest of the city, but for many of the Arbageh, it a sweet reminder of old traditions, and of life in the Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta villages from whence they came.

Max Siegelbaum
Max Siegelbaum is an American freelance journalist and producer, follow him at @saxmiegelbaum.
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