|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
25 April - 1 May 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Lords of the ringBefore the fish hits the frying pan, it passes through a whole world of wheeling, dealing, buying and selling. Nevine El-Aref woke up early to smell the fish at Anfoushi, Alexandria's central fish-market
The best Mediterranean fish is that caught in any of the months with a name ending in the letter "R," or so popular wisdom in Alexandria goes. The Alexandrines would know, after all. Fishing is a main source of livelihood for many of the coastal city's inhabitants.
Fishy rituals: as the first light of dawn fills the horizon, fishermonger and buyers look over the day's catch at the fish ring; the bidding begins
(photos: Khaled El-Fiqi)
Well, there's no "R" at the end of this month, but Sham El-Nessim -- the holiday celebrating the advent of spring, in which copious amounts of salted fish are consumed -- is just around the corner. With that in mind, I woke up before dawn to head to the Anfoushi fish ring, Alexandria's central depot for fresh fish.
The city is still silent and dark. Boats can be seen on the horizon, their lights blinking, announcing the arrival of the fishermen and their catch. They seem to be close by, so I quicken my footsteps towards our collective destination. I want to get there before the boats hit the shore, heavy with the night's catch, ready to be loaded into large wooden platters.
In the gray light of dawn, the silhouettes of the fishermen dart around quickly and purposefully. The catch is on its way to the fish-ring, where the men will finally receive the profits for their gruelling night's work.
The life of the professional fisherman is an arduous one. Mohamed El-Shahatt, 55, a fisherman who has been in the business for the last 40 years, describes it as a difficult and uncertain existence. "Many a time I spend two days at sea trying to get a good catch," he said, sitting on a rock after carrying his load onto the beach.
"Fishing is not doing too well in Alexandria these days. The fish harvest is threatened by problems of pollution and corruption," said El- Sayed Mohamed, 60, who works for the El- Banna family, one of the big players in Anfoushi's fish market who are commonly known as "sea lords."
While the fishermen remember the day when every boat brought an average of two tons of fish into the market, they claim that today they barely average 40 to 60 kilograms. "The Nile has upset the sea," they say.
The sewage and waste of the city of Alexandria, both treated and untreated, are being steadily emptied into the sea. The water is slowly becoming an oversized septic tank, especially around the Anfoushi shore where two main sewage pipes dump their waste.
"When you look into the water of the sea, you will never see the light blue colour of the Mediterranean. Instead, you will be faced with a glossy dark gray water," lamented Mohamed.
He told Al-Ahram Weekly wistfully that over- fishing, both legal and illegal, has taxed the water's fish population. "Fishermen are now pulling in both pregnant fish and their young by using tide nets or by dynamite," he admitted, noting that both practices are against the law.
Fishermen are the first to admit that the sea- police and coast guard are lax. "Today, fishermen go on their trip and do whatever they want," Mohamed said, while arguing that to save the profession in the medium-to-long term more supervision and control by the coast guard is a basic requirement.
"Don't ever think that all these many tons of crabs, shrimp, fish and shellfish at the ring are a Mediterranean harvest. Not at all. Much of it is brought in from Suez, Damietta, Port Said and Ismailia," said one of the bidders, who preferred to remain anonymous.
"If the sea lords relied on the fruits of the Alexandrine sea alone, a kilogram of fish would sell for LE100, while shrimps would be LE 300 [more than double their current price]," he added.
The fish barons of the Alexandria fish market are not the type to miss a beat. When sailing is forbidden during the stormy season, they are assured of their supply of produce by assigned a gallab -- a person whom they finance and who takes a share of the profits to bring fish in from the Canal cities.
Going to Anfoushi fish market, situated at the centre of Alexandria's Al-Sayyala district, is a bit like attending a theatrical performance. Eight well-dressed men stand in front of an open area in front of the vacant auction house waiting for the morning produce. These men are the malemin, the fish market's biggest businessmen. They are the sea lords who control the buying and selling. As they enter, each fisherman displays his catch to the particular sea lord under whom he works.
"Nobody is allowed to invade our private world," acknowledged Alaa El-Banna, one the ring's leading malemin. "Our commission ranges between five and ten per cent."
The profit of the malemin make is often sufficient for them to put money back into the business, giving fishermen loans to help repair their boats for example.
At six o'clock sharp, each master starts his separate auction surrounded by his clients, the retainers and the fishmongers. It is then that the fish ring springs to life.
"Crabs, shrimps and shellfish! Who will buy this table? For only LE300. Ala una! Ala dowa! Ala treya! Who will increase the price? Who will say LE305? It is a good catch!" scream the auctioneers. The din of the competing auctions resounds in the now-crowded area while bids and counter-bids fly around.
"All are full of phosphorus! Enhance your mental and physical prowess! No threat of insanity!" said one of the fishmongers. Another told me: "If you don't trust meat, fish and shrimps are the only solution."
And then suddenly, no more than one hour after the din erupted, silence returns to the fish ring. The buyers and sellers soon leave, and only a few peddlers remain -- those who managed to buy a few kilos of fish and are still calling for clients.
When the atmosphere became more relaxing I walked around and tried to find the old centre of the Anfoushi fish ring. Two metres away from the main road, I noticed the big wooden sign marked "Al-Anfoushi fish ring." There I found more than 80 workmen. Some were constructing wooden scaffolding against the old ring's internal walls, others were removing the polish while a third group were busy removing rubble and sand from the old premises.
The old structure is the one-hall fish ring constructed in 1824 during the reign of Kin Fouad. Magdi Kassabe, the official responsible for the ring, explained that the old ring, which had been out of service since late 1950s, is now under restoration and renovation. It had been closed, and the whole area proclaimed a military zone, after the 1952 revolution. In 1973, after the 6 October war, the army withdrew from the ring and handed it over to the Fish Market Cooperation. Now, after a long court dispute with the Alexandria governorate, the ring is to be upgraded, developed and opened to the fish barons -- the lords of the ring -- for auctioneering.
A long history; a lot of work for some, and a lot of money for others. But the Anfoushi fish ring's business continues as it always has. I walked away from the market ready with purchases to make my family a great fish lunch.
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