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cairo nights: the cave of the motors

Hirafiyeen is an area in Cairo just past the airport where they dismantle and sell car parts and parts of cars. I say this advisedly as one is assaulted at once by stacks and stacks of fronts and backs of cars sitting in the dust waiting to be welded onto a vehicle missing just such a huge and vital piece.

We were there to buy an engine, the second engine in a week no less, a Honda civic engine of the type D16Y6 no less, I had done my internet research and thought I knew what I was looking for. The first engine had been bought by a mechanic and turned out to be wrong, the mechanic was fired and now it was all down to me. The one before that, the original engine, had been destroyed by an over eager driver employed by us to take the kids to school who had poured water (the driver did this not the kids) onto the block to cool it down. You shouldn’t do that I told him and then the engine blew up. He was so embarrassed he fired himself from the job the next day.

I was there with my brother in law who is a judge, though rather young and not at all judge-like in demeanor, but that’s the Code Napoleon for you, and a faithful, if inept, Mr Fixit called Ibrahim who has been with my wife’s family off and on for twelve years now. Ibrahim is also known to be going mad. He talks to himself as he drives and provides a running commentary of any difficult driving manoevre he might make, “turning left, avoid that truck, turning into the entrance now…” It is all said sotto voce and appears highly nervous rather than mad, though everyone says he’s got worse. He supports a large family on meager wages earned teaching welding and doing odd jobs like buying engines for our family. Ibrahim is the only one who knows the labyrinthine dust roads stacked with car parts that is Hirafiyeen.

Yet he is soon lost and we are reduced to asking the way at all the brightly lit parts shops. Some owners barely acknowledge us and others speak excellent English and are very helpful. There are intelligent folk down here who fly to Japan and bring back container loads of spare parts to be cut up and sold. This is recycling at its realest and most efficient. I find it funny that we think it new and efficient in the West to recycle- it’s been going on forever in the mysterious East. For a start , instead of crushing all the good parts in a car the Egyptians take everything out and then cut up the body into reusable bits too. More complicated technology means that whole units are now discarded- our engine would have been rebuilt- twenty years ago- now that is too difficult and costly – better to replace the engine with one from Japan with a guaranteed less than 100k km on the clock.

So they say. Who can you trust here? I am assailed with feelings that were once very common and now only slightly less so, that everyone in Egypt is out to rip me off high and dry. This is very far from the case as I have found time and again. The problem starts though with both parties: the rip off merchants and the honest chaps behaving in the same casual manner. Both bad and good mechanics will talk glibly of fixing things only to achieve a veneer of realism once a few hours have been spent under the bonnet. Both good and bad will rarely explain what they have to do, will be reluctant to source spare parts and seem just too.. damn casual for something as awe inspiringly important as the all sacred automobile…but hold on I think as I stride through the dust glumly maybe I am the one who is wrong, I am too uptight, I should enjoy this, cars just aren’t that important…easy to say.

Finally Ibrahim and my brother in law settled on a slick talking chap whose English was good, incidentally, and who said he had just the engine for us in the cave of the motors a short distance away. He didn’t call it the cave of the motors but that’s what it was. After a confusing journey through more pitch black labyrinthine streets, on foot, through dust and tripping over stones, we arrived at what looked like a deserted tower block. The groundfloor was all shuttered up with rollup metal shutters. There was one street lamp across the street shining like the single glowing bulb you see dangling in front of a luminescent deep sea fish. Men, I now saw, we sitting on the walkway in front of the shutters, in front of them was a dismantled…something…oil reflecting the light from our mobile phones. For that is what we had been reduced to- entering Aladdin’s cave armed only with the pathetic light of a mobile screen. The shutters rolled up and our guide threw a switch and light illuminated the horde- a huge expanse of engines, pile upon pile of them as far as the eye could see in the gloom, the lights being unsurprisingly rubbish inside as well. We walked along aisles of black and greasy engines with wires strewn all over them looking for our model. Ibrahim periodically got down on his knees with my phone (the brightest) to read off engine numbers. In the end we settled for one that was not quite what I had intended but everyone said it would work.

Would it? 10 at night surrounded by darkness and metal and not knowing what to believe. In the end the slick seller suggests that if it doesn’t work he will take it back. I say that he better as my brother in law is a judge. He doesn’t act scared or that impressed. We buy with my sweaty roll of money that has been bulking out my jeans for the last few hours. Four hundred sterling pounds.

Ibrahim will pick it up the next day. He drives us home around the ring road, scene of many horrific accidents. We are all slightly lightheaded after the experience. Ibrahim mutters away to himself and I think- hey, you just bought your first engine.

A month on, engine dropped in and running well, and apart from a strange light that no one can turn off everything, Inshallah, is going very well.


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