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Smoke, soot and sweat: Egypt's charcoal workers toil to fuel love for shisha and BBQs

Charcoal workers labour over burning mounds of charcoal, without gloves, facemasks or health insurance.
Published Feb 12, 2020 08:19pm

To fuel Egyptians' love for shisha pipes and barbeques, Said Mahrous and his men toil in an open-air furnace, inhaling thick plumes of smoke day in, day out.

Covered in soot and sweat, their faces blackened, they labour in a village near Cairo over burning mounds of charcoal, without gloves, facemasks or health insurance.

An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate, in the fertile Delta north of the capital Cairo on January 29, 2020. — AFP
An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate, in the fertile Delta north of the capital Cairo on January 29, 2020. — AFP

An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

Health and environmental concerns fall by the wayside when lumps of charcoal must be bagged at the end of the day and transported across the country.

Egyptian labourers bill bags of charcoal at a factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
Egyptian labourers bill bags of charcoal at a factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

“The smoke doesn't really affect me — I've gotten used to it working here for over 35 years,” says Mahrous.

“I'm an old fahham from way back,” adds the 48-year-old, using the local term for a coal worker.

“My father plucked me out of school, and I have continued the tradition because he was one too.”

Egyptian labourers work at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
Egyptian labourers work at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

A young Egyptian labourer walks at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
A young Egyptian labourer walks at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

The site in Inshas, in the fertile Nile River delta north of the Egyptian capital, employs dozens of men working for about 2,000 Egyptian pounds ($125) a month.

The workers take tree trunks sourced from nearby towns, clear them of branches and stack them according to their girth.

Egyptian labourers work at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
Egyptian labourers work at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

They then throw them on 40-square-metre patches of field, which become smouldering furnaces.

"The trunks must be dried out first, a task that takes about a year," says Mahrous.

“Then we build the furnace, add rice straw and start the fire, which burns for about 10 to 15 days.”

An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

Dirt and rice stalks trap the heat and stop the fire from spreading.

Mahrous explains that different trees produce specific types of charcoal.

Wood from mango and orange trees is charred for smoking shisha, while the charcoal from casuarina, camphor and olive trees is used for barbeques.

The mounds are then hosed down with water to cool them, but the tinders still smoulder underneath as smoke rises up into the air.

Egyptian labourers work at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
Egyptian labourers work at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

Egyptian labourers work at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
Egyptian labourers work at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

Using shovels, the workers dig down and break up the charcoal, sifting and then bagging it.

About two tonnes of wood produce one tonne of charcoal.

Mahrous admits the work is taking a toll, telling AFP that “the heavy lifting of tree trunks sometimes hurts my back”.

An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP
An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP

“For my kids, I hope they can get well-paid jobs,” he says.

"But if they can't find any, then they will work with me."


Header image: An Egyptian labourer works at a charcoal factory in Egypt's Sharkia governorate. — AFP