Hunting bikes in CairoPosted: November 4, 2013
I had been living in Cairo for a couple of months when I caught wind of a mechanic who specialised in classic British bikes. His name was Zein Hussein and after a bit of sleuthing, an address was procured for his garage. One free afternoon a friend and I took a taxi to a working class suburb called Saiyeda Zeinab to track down Mr Hussein and see what kind of bikes he had.
Like many taxi rides in Cairo, the driver didn’t know exactly where he was going but after a few enquiries shouted out the window to passersby and a bit of vague gesturing on our behalf we settled on a direction and took off. A short time later we spotted the Brookes Animal Hospital which was our cue to leave the cab and continue on foot. We entered a narrow street that smelled of manure and looked around for the garage. We found Zein’s place just around the corner, a small tiled garage barely big enough for a couple of bikes and assorted hardware.
The man himself was inside tinkering with an old single-cylinder sidevalve engine. Offering us his wrist to shake to avoid greasing up our palms, Zein welcomed us to his shop and introduced us to his 17 year old son. Ali was to become a third generation mechanic according to Zein. The garage certainly appeared to contain several generations worth of tools and parts but Zein told us this was just the tip of the iceberg; he had bikes in storage in various parts of the city while he had plans to construct a larger showroom next door.
Zein had a couple of bikes in the garage when we visited – including a 1954 BSA he had restored that my companion Ken was potentially interested in. “Very good engine,” Zein told us. “Good compression.” Ken made some suitably impressed noises and I clicked a few snaps.
Then Zein told us he had another couple of bikes we might be interested in that were locked up in a garage somewhere else. Keen for the adventure we accepted his offer to see the bikes and while his son locked up the garage we walked around the corner and jumped into his old Lada Niva. “Very good car,” he told us. Then as he wove through traffic Zein pulled out a deck of Cleopatra cigarettes and offered them to us. “Very good cigarettes,” he told us. By this stage Zein’s blanket approval of everything from beat-up Russian cars to loosely-rolled local smokes which burned unevenly was starting to put his praise for the BSA in context somewhat.
On the drive out to Mokatam we talked about the Egyptian bike scene and Zein’s love of British bikes in a mixture of broken English and tortured Arabic. Zein’s father had been a bike mechanic and had early on instilled a love of motorcycles in the young boy. He could fix anything on two wheels, including the newer bikes, but his heart lay with the classics. Zein said he didn’t ride as much these days but still liked to get out in the weekend for a ride outside of Cairo’s congested streets with his biker mates.
Out in Mokatam a wedding was underway outside Zein’s storage garage. Coloured bedsheets were hung on cords above the street for decoration and Arabic pop music blasted through blown speaker stacks. The men and women sat separately; female guests danced near the speakers while the blokes had retired to chairs in front of Zein’s garage to drink tea and smoke sheesha – tobacco smoked through a waterpipe. They moved out of the way so Ali could unlock the door and as he rolled it up clouds of dust billowed out into the street. Everything was covered in grime and the bare lightbulb on the ceiling was encrusted with bird crap. It didn’t look like Zein had been there for a while. It was an Aladdin’s cave of old bike parts though. “Some are 100 years old,” Zein told us, while others were junky bits of modern scooters. Under a tarp and some bits of old cardboard though were a couple of more or less complete bikes that Zein had plans for restoring. Another BSA in fairly good nick and a Triumph that would need a lot of work. Both very good in Zein’s estimation.
After a good poke around in the piles of junk and an examination of the bikes, we returned to the bike shop to talk numbers over a cup of tea. As Ali fixed up a brew Ken made some tentative enquiries about what it might take to relieve our friend of one of his cherished bikes. The prices Zein quoted were higher than what Ken was expecting. “I could get these bikes back in the States for what he’s asking,” Ken hissed under his breath as Zein rooted about in some cupboards for a box of old photos of himself with decades worth of previous clients. Zein was clearly a shrewd businessman, aware of international market rates for the kind of bikes he had stashed around Cairo, and it would take more than one cup of tea to reach any kind of deal with him. We left with a handshake and a promise to return. I’m sure if we do Zein will drive a hard bargain.