Up on the Roof

In Egypt, young people without train fare often “roof,” or bum rides on top of trains. On this roofing journey, reported by Sherif El-Hosaini, our guide is Karam, 16 (and his 13-year-old sidekick, Mohammed).

Do you roof a lot?
Yeah.

This is our first time. What advice do you have?
Watch out for the bridges . . . sit in the middle, between us . . . don’t look around too much . . . stay focused on the train, and what’s in front of you . . . don’t panic.
(We climb on the roof and sit in the gap between the first two cars. The train starts to move.)
Are you ready?

Yeah.
Then do what I do.
(Karam pulls himself up onto the window of the locomotive and then scrambles onto the roof. We follow him and start crawling on the roof. This feels dangerous.)
Just keep your eyes straight ahead. As soon as you take your eyes off the train and you look at the sky or the scenery, it’ll feel like you’re falling. My first time I was just lying down on my back with my eyes closed.

You didn’t stand?
I was on my back. It’s crazy to try to be a hero. The most important thing is to just stay calm, and stay low. Otherwise, you could end up losing it, and taking us down with you. Panicking up here is like drowning.

I heard there’s a six-month jail sentence if we get caught.
Yeah, but it’s hard to get caught.

Why?
You can only get caught on the platforms. In between stations there’s no platform, so there’s no law.

But the driver saw us climb up.
The drivers don’t talk. They’re on our side. They’re poor like us . . . Get down for the bridge.
(We lie down on our backs. The bridge shoots by about one meter above our heads.)

Have you ever seen accidents up here?
Once there was this kid called Ashraf. He was an amazing roofer, but a crazy daredevil. About a year ago, we were coming back from Mahala in the evening. You see those air vents over there? (He points to small boxes on top of the train about six inches high.)

Yeah.
Well, Ashraf stands up and says, “I’ve got to pass this bridge standing on the air vent.” It was a really low bridge, and we didn’t have time to stop him. He just stood up straight, facing the bridge as it came. He didn’t even flinch. He got hit right in the middle of his forehead.

What happened?
I grabbed hold of him when he fell.

Was he OK?
There was blood spilling out of his head, so I grabbed him and I put him on my back. Thank God we were close to a station. I carried him down to the platform and a guy with a motorbike drove him to a hospital.

What happened in the hospital?
I heard he took ten stitches in his head.

But was he OK?
He didn’t die.

Do you pull stunts like that?
We aren’t about that. If I did that, Mohammed would grab hold of me and make sure I was down. We’re together, and we look after one another. We’re scared for one another like brothers.

So why do you ride on top?
Because we don’t have money. And also, when the train is packed full of bodies, you can’t breathe inside.

People smell?
Especially when it’s hot. It’s nice to get out. There’s more freedom on top. Freedom is important to me. I left home when I was 8 years old.

Why?
It was better for my family. I have a lot of young brothers and sisters, and I wanted to help out my parents.

In what way?
We sell sandwiches at the station. Every two months I go home to my father with about 100 pounds ($30).

So you don’t roof just for fun?
No way. We know where we’re going. Some kids will do it just for fun. Not us.

Do you have a good time roofing?When I’m with my friends. We sit and tell jokes. We tell stories, we sing songs.

Have you ridden in first class before?
No. People like us aren’t able to.

You’re not good enough?
Of course I’m “good” enough. Anyone can ride anywhere, so long as they have the money. What I mean is we don’t have the money. It’s 15 pounds or something.

Would you prefer first class to roofing?
If I was a king, I’d roof.

Reprinted from Alive magazine, first issue 1996.

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