A rooftop `farm': one man's green thumb in crowded Cairo

Ahmed Hany Mohamed, slim as a papyrus reed, intense as the Egyptian sun, has a bachelor of science degree in horticulture - a degree that's ironically going to waste in a country that struggles to feed itself. He works shuttling breakfasts between the kitchens and guest rooms of a large downtown Cairo hotel. Frustrated in his efforts both to advance his education or find a worthwhile position in his field, Ahmed says the only jobs for horticulture graduates amount to nothing more than paperwork.

He can make more money - necessary to support his ailing father, his mother, three sisters and assorted aunts, uncles, and cousins - serving breakfasts than shuffling papers.

But he wants to grow things.

Ahmed foresees a good future for Egyptian agriculture via the greenhouse. Around Cairo,the winter climate precludes year-round crop production. Commercial greenhouses, if built and operated efficiently, could be a tool against hunger as well as a source of income in this country where the average per capita earning is less than $600 a year.

But Ahmed hasn't the money either to establish such a business or to come to the United States, his fondest wish, to study the most advanced technologies of vegetable and fruit production.

Nevertheless, he has not allowed his green thumb to fade since earning his degree from Ain Shams University here in 1982. In his Saieda Zeinab neighborhood, ``where the working people live,'' he explains, he is ``farming'' on the roof of his apartment building. The four-story structure not long ago stood six stories high; but the building was deteriorating and the owner was ordered to lower it for safety. When the two-story demolition was complete, Ahmed surveyed the rubble and dirt remaining. Dirt is the basis of soil, and soil is the basis of agriculture, he reasoned.

With permission from the building's owner, he cleared the rooftop, mounded the dirt, collected stray bits of timber, reeds, stalks, and pieces of lumber from streets and gutters and anywhere else he could find them.

He anchored the mounds of dirt behind timber pieces. He built standard greenhouse benches from the lumber. He tied together the reeds and stalks to make his greenhouse walls and roof. Then, walking daily to and from his hotel job, he kept his eyes to the ground and picked up anything that seemed a seed and any bit of stubble that revealed a tinge of green.

``This was a little green stick that I found in the street,'' the rooftop gardener smiled with pride as he gestured to a bird of paradise pushing forth eight flower buds. ``I got this from my uncle's factory's yard,'' he says, pointing to a luxuriant growth of grape vine, two yards long. When he picked it up, it was a bit of branch with three buds on it, he says. ``I grew this from a seed,'' he noted of a six-foot tall Peltfort tree. ``I have to be careful it doesn't get too big. It is most dangerous for the building; it has a prolific root system.''

Ahmed pointed to two asparagus ferns, potted, hanging on a wall; one was merely healthy, the other rampant. ``This is one of my successful experiments. I put earthworms in that pot,'' he says, indicating the more flourishing one.

Cultivating some of the country's native 1,000 varieties of cactus, and such familiar species as impatiens and begonias, Ahmed has experimented with water and fertilizer applications, propagation techniques, soil fumigation methods, and growth medium mixtures. In the latter instance, he has collected soils from various sites, tested their abilities to supply plant nutrients, then measured and combined them to seek the best plant bed. To supply natural fertilizers, the high-rise farm includes a coop of pigeons, a shed of chickens and a hutch of rabbits.

Yet, Ahmed realizes he doesn't know enough about horticulture, and that his little ``farm'' is an insignificant part of the Egyptian landscape. So he continues to seek to learn more from the US, the greatest producer of agricultural products.

Thus, he strides off to his hotel work, in hopes of meeting some American who may help him, but with his head down, seeking seeds and bits of green stuff that will enable him to keep helping himself.

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