A devilish grin spreads across Hassan Arafa’s face. “Watch this,” the fifteen-year-old whispers as he strikes a match and holds it up to a string of firecrackers dangling from his clenched fist. The fuse ignites, and Hassan tosses it under a nearby dumpster. He crouches, hugging his knees in giggling anticipation. A few seconds later, a series of deafening bangs is heard, and a dozen stray cats come flying out of the dumpster, clearly terrified. One stunned cat lands on the windshield of a parked car and, regaining its senses, goes running off into the night. Hassan, his brothers and friends roll around on the ground, shrieking with laughter.
Far more impressive than the combination of fireworks and felines, is the young vandal himself. “Your turn,” he smiles to two younger boys, handing them a packet of explosives each. They promptly reach into their pockets and hand over their money to Hassan. Watching the scene unfold, it becomes clear why Hassan is, considering his age and resources, the most successful entrepreneur on his street.
For the past four years, Hassan, has been selling fireworks to the kids in his neighborhood on every occasion for which explosive entertainment is required, namely, the two Eids. And while the ‘bigger’ Eid el-Adha is widely considered to be the main cause for celebration on the Islamic calendar, it is the shorter Eid el-Fitr, due to start at the end of this week, which constitutes Hassan’s most profitable season. “More people will buy fireworks for the big Eid,” he explains. “But the same kids will buy fireworks all throughout [the month of] Ramadan, in anticipation of the Eid.”
“Eid and fireworks go hand in hand,” Hassan says, taking a short break from his explosive, and evidently effective, sales pitch. “Kids like to make noise, they like to blow stuff up.” Despite leading the cat-propelling shenanigans a few minutes earlier, when talking about business, Hassan comes across as a surprisingly mature, not to mention business-savvy, young man. Throughout the conversation, his eyes rarely stray from the merchandise sitting a few feet away, and several times he interrupts himself to yell orders at his older brothers. “Fireworks have always been an essential part of Eid festivities,” he resumes the conversation after watching his brothers make a sale. “This is how people celebrate. It’s simple, but it’s fun.”
The son of a neighborhood bawab, Hassan doesn’t think there’s anything particularly smart or original in what he does. Instead, he claims he just realized an opportunity, and took advantage of it. “Everyone wants to buy fireworks during Eid, even adults,” he says. “There was nobody selling any in this area, and every Eid, the rest of the neighborhood kids and I would have to go a long way to get any.”
Hassan then discussed the idea with his brothers, Karim and Mahmoud, and the three of them went to work, building a cart out of pieces of scrap wood they found in the street, and even painting it a dazzling array of bright colors, and stapling strips of aluminum foil to it in an attempt to “hide its ugliness, and the rotting wood. It didn’t look good,” Hassan smiles.
Over the following months, the three siblings saved up any money they made from their daily chores and summer jobs, and eventually found themselves fulfilling a dream commonly shared by most young boys: they bought a staggering amount of fireworks. So many, that, according to Hassan, their cart collapsed the second they rolled it off the sidewalk.
Four years later, and Hassan and his brothers no longer need their cart. Their operation has grown to cover an entire corner at the end of their street. Behind a display of toy guns, fake cellphones, plastic dolls and soap bubble kits, the boys sit in the shade of a large tree, party hats and twirlers hanging from its many branches. Their business is clearly doing well—in the brief time Al-Masry Al-Youm spends with them, the boys make an impressive LE75. “We usually bring in between LE200 to 300 a day,” explains Arabi, the brothers’ cousin who, two years ago, joined the budding family business.
“Our biggest sellers are the Bazooka and the Manifesto,” Arabi says, presenting Al-Masry Al-Youm with the former, a palm-sized package containing several little yellow sticks. The Manifesto, when ignited, spins around on the ground, shooting sparks in every direction. It does not, as Arabi critically points out, fly through the air. For that, you would need the appropriately named F16, which the boys are keen to demonstrate. They light the fuse and almost immediately, the F16 shoots upwards, darting around in random directions, before exploding inches from a ninth-floor balcony.
“Yeah, people will complain sometimes,” says Hassan. “Either about the noise, or about fireworks scratching up their cars or whatever.” He points out that these complaints are rarely made to him, with residents usually directing their anger towards either children who have already bought the firecrackers, or bawabs who seem to be held responsible for keeping such vandalism away from their respective buildings. “But it’s Eid. What can they do?”
And while most parents’ disapproval of firecrackers stems from safety concerns, Hassan and his partners are quick to point out that the danger does not exist. “Firecrackers are very safe,” they all take turns repeating, “as long as you know what you’re doing.”
For them, the real danger comes in the shape of the police. “I’ve already been taken into custody twice this Ramadan. Each time, they confiscated my merchandise,” Hassan frowns. As selling firecrackers and explosives of any type is considered to be against the law, Hassan over the last four years, has constantly had to come up with ways of evading the authorities. The firecrackers are kept in a cardboard box, always hidden under the display of toys, which are mainly there as decoys—“the toys don’t sell nearly as well as the fireworks”—with several other stashes planted every night at strategic locations around the boys’ corner—in trees and bushes, under parked cars, or amongst the crates of a sympathetic fruit vendor—and a regular customer—across the street. While their methods aren’t guaranteed, Hassan and his brothers show no signs of giving up. Defiantly, and with a smile on his face, the young entrepreneur shrugs and repeats, “It’s Eid. What are they going to do?”
The answer comes the following morning, as Al-Masry Al-Youm heads down to take a picture of Hassan and his brothers and finds no sign of them, or their merchandise, save for a few strips of aluminum and gift wrapping clinging to the tree. A quick visit to the nearby fruit stand reveals Hassan and his brothers were all taken into custody as they were setting up their display.
“The police came, rounded the boys up, and took all their stuff—they tore up the party hats and paper decorations, too.” The middle-aged man leans against a tree and sighs. “Those kids were young, smart, and working hard to make a better life for themselves. And then the government got involved.”