If you’re a fan of Cairo’s street food and frequent downtown, then you probably have seen Um Amira smiling behind her food cart in Tahrir Square.
A few meters away from Talaat Harb Street in Cairo’s Downtown, she toils behind two deep fryers, serving a hungry crowd. Halima Mohamed, who is 47 and who is known as Um Amira, arrived to Cairo 25 years ago with her husband and two daughters from their hometown in Aswan.
She barely knew her neighbors, and Um Amira never asked for help from anyone, even when her husband suffered from a sudden heart attack she carried him on her back to the hospital. After he lost his job, Um Amira became the breadwinner of the family.
She began with selling biscuits and tissues, and then started street cooking. “Every time people suggest a meal, I’d add it to my list.
I used to cook lentil soup and then fried potatoes,” recalls Um Amira. Today Um Amira is the queen of the fried potato sandwich which, although simple, attracts not only Downtown dwellers but customers from all over the capital. Fast, cheap and filling, Um Amira’s baladi bread sandwiches are overstuffed with piping hot chips unembellished with any toppings, salad or seasoning—and cost just LE 4.
“I have to feel for others who are also working to make their living,” says Um Amira, whose daily routine starts at 1am, when she checks the butane gas cylinder, buys potatoes and bread, and pours the frying oil, which she says she “changes regularly.”
Her food cart draws lines of customers early every morning for what’s become known as “the rocket” breakfast because it is so filling.
“I have never seen such a large amount of potatoes in one sandwich,” a man waiting in the line says, describing the sandwich as a “blessing.” Diners usually stand in two rows to be served the mouthwatering meal, a tradition set by Um Amira who says she is always watchful for pickpockets and harassers sneaking into the lines. Although Um Amira has had to double the price of her sandwiches (last year they cost just LE 2), customers are not complaining.
Um Amira smiling behind her frying cart as she serves queues of hungry crowds - Egypt Today/Ahmed Hussein
“Nowadays, one might pay a lot for such sandwich if bought elsewhere. This filling could make five sandwiches. No kidding!” says another man waiting for his order. But last year’s pound flotation and price hikes have taken their toll.
Visiting her cart a year ago, Um Amira barely had a second to speak to us what with the large crowd of on-thego customers lining up for their “rocket” breakfasts.
Today, lines have shrunk by half. “People are still coming to my cart. They are the reason why I returned to sell fried potatoes after I gave up for three months due to economic worries,” says Um Amira who exlains she used to unpack 10 to 20 frozen potato cartons per day. “Now, I cannot afford cartons, so I substituted them with sacks of local potatoes, each weighing 70kg. They are affordable and sometimes they are overfilled with extra potatoes.”
Um Amira recalls how those three months out of work were not easy for her or her loyal customers. “I couldn’t pay my debts and it was hard for me to raise prices; my customers liked my sandwiches as they were affordable,” she explains.
A documentary film featuring Um Amira’s story and life struggles after becoming the breadwinner of her family and which was screened at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2014 cut short her three-month hiatus from work.
The film was seen by a Saudi businessman who decided to pay off her debts and buy her supplies. “I have never seen this man, and never heard from him. I wish I had the chance to thank him,” says Um Amira who was hesitant about resuming work as she would have to raise her prices.
But it was her customers who encouraged her. “They told me it should be fine as price hikes are a general issue everyone is suffering from, but [the customers] still can afford my sandwich.”
“We are happy she is back because her sandwich is indispensable,” one of her customers tells us. In the last three years, Um Amira lost her husband and her daughter Amira, 21, who suffered from heart disease. Her second daughter Basma, who just turned 22, was kept out of school for three years due to a financial crisis facing the family.
Today Um Amira and her daughter live on a daily wage of less than LE 100, besides a government pension of LE 360 per month, which “is not enough and mostly goes for Basma’s private tutors,” Um Amira says, outlining how she has failed multiple times to rent a shop because she cannot afford the average LE 5,000 rent.
“How can I get all this money? If I were a drug dealer, I would not have collected all this money each month!” Her cart could be removed anytime due to lack of licenses. Since 2014, the government has expelled hundreds of street vendors from Downtown, relocating them in established markets in a bid to ease traffic congestion.
Um Amira receiving payment from customers who consider her sandwich is an indispensable meal- Egypt Today/Ahmed Hussein
Like many vendors, Um Amira laments the new relocation as “far from the pedestrian flow” and from her home, making her hesitant to apply for a license, and preferring her current, unsecure location.
Despite her suffering, Um Amira has always kept a satisfying smile on her face while serving customers along with her assistant Hany, whom she playfully likens to Turkish President Erdogan, swearing there is a resemblance.