x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

I like everybody, everybody likes me

From where I stand Hagg Ahmed Ibrahim el Digui is a felucca owner in Cairo.

Hagg Ahmed Ibrahim el Digui, now 85, started working at his father's felucca dock as a boy.
Hagg Ahmed Ibrahim el Digui, now 85, started working at his father's felucca dock as a boy.

Hagg Ahmed Ibrahim el Digui is a felucca owner in Cairo. My name is Hagg Ahmed Ibrahim el Digui, but everyone knows me as Dok Dok. It's the nickname my mother gave me and also the name of my felucca business. Feluccas are the sailing boats Egyptians traditionally used for transporting people and goods up and down the Nile. In Cairo, people hire them for parties, and I also take many tourists sailing. Mine is now the oldest felucca dock in Cairo. I own eight boats and have worked on the Garden City corniche, in front of what is now the Nile Plaza Four Seasons Hotel, since 1960. All the big pashas, movie stars and ambassadors know me.

I'm 85 years old and I was born in Cairo, in the Saida Zeninab district. My family originally comes from Aswan and worked in feluccas since 1819, but my father moved to the capital when he was young to earn more money. When I was born, he was already a rais, the captain of a private steamboat that belonged to a prince of the Egyptian royal family. He saved enough money to buy four feluccas and hire men to run a dock; I started working for him when I was a boy and never went to school.

In 1935 Umm Kulthum was invited to sing at King Farouk's birthday party on an island in front of Shoubra Palace, and I got to row her over to the island and back. I remember the palace ordered a beautiful red uniform for me to wear on the occasion, instead of my usual galibiyya. What did Umm Kulthum wear? I can't tell you. I suppose it was a dress. In those days, Cairo looked very different. There were no high-rise buildings and no big bridges as you see now. Each year the Nile flooded, and you could sail all the way from the Shepheard's Hotel in Garden City to Mena House by the pyramids. All along the shore was farmland.

When I was 30 I started working on the Nile cruise ship, the SS Sudan on the 10-day Aswan to Assiut run. I launched my own felucca business in Cairo in 1959 when my father died. I still operate one of his boats, the Mahrousa, which was built in 1940 and is one of the few left in Cairo that is made of wood. Others are made of fibreglass. The river bank used to be very muddy, but after [Gamal Abdel] Nasser built the high dam, the river stopped flooding, and it was possible to make the Corniche nice as you see now, with trees, terraces and staircases down to the water. In the time of [Anwar] Sadat, big hotels were built, many more tourists started coming to Egypt, and I made lots of money. In my father's day, travellers came on their own to the felucca docks in a horse and buggy. Now tourists come in big groups on buses, and tourism companies send them out on the big belly dancing cruisers, like the Nile Maxim, which cut into my business. Cairo people still like to organise private felucca parties with their friends and bring food and drinks, but two years ago the government imposed a midnight curfew because some parties - not ours - were getting out of hand. Good and bad people were affected equally.

Egyptians have a reputation for asking for baksheesh, or tips but I never did that. My policy is if you treat someone well, so will he treat you. I've been successful because I like everybody and everybody likes me. Saudi men even ask me to hug their wives and pose with them for pictures. I've met many famous people over the years. The Israeli military leader and politician Moshe Dayan sailed with me once and asked if he could take the tiller.

I stopped taking people out on the water myself about 10 years ago. To furl and unfurl the sail you have to be able to climb the mast but I had a stroke, and now my arms and legs are weak. In winter I am at my dock everyday from 9am to 7pm and I sleep here at night during the summer. I had four sons and one daughter, but only son, Mohammed, is still alive. He works with me here, as does my 20-year-old grandson Abdullah. I used to speak many languages - English, French and even Hindi - but now I am becoming forgetful.

The strangest thing that ever happened to me on the river occurred in 1940. A Greek lady hired me to sail to the University Bridge. When we got there, she handed me a letter and said: "Give this to the man who refused to marry me" and jumped overboard. I grabbed a rope and jumped in after her. I felt for the top of her head in the strong current, grabbed her hair and pulled her back into the boat. She fought and bit my hand because she was furious that I rescued her. A soldier on shore saw the incident but he thought that she had jumped because I tried to assault her, so he ordered us both to go the Giza police station in our wet clothes. Luckily, she had also left a suicide note for her parents so everyone believed me when I said that I was only trying to save her. Even now, I always look into the eyes of my customers to make sure they're really interested in sailing.