In the shadow of Cairo’s medieval aqueduct, Mohammad Mustafa teaches his 5-year-old son the family’s trade, one shear at a time.
Mohammad is one of Cairo’s donkey barbers, an expert in trimming and styling horses, camels, mules, sheep, goats, dogs and donkeys. He is a third-generation qassasseen, the Egyptian Arabic term for animal barbers, and his grandfather worked in Cairo’s Abdeen Palace.
Mohammad’s father, Mahmoud, taught him the trade and now, near Old Cairo along the road following the aqueduct, he teaches the craft to his son Mustafa.
It is a profession often looked down upon in Egyptian society, as he works with the beasts of burden that still roam modern Cairo’s streets, pulling carts filled with vegetables or loads of trash from neighborhoods. But workers rely on the animals and take pride in them, getting them haircuts or having their fur shaved with designs or their initials ahead of major holidays.
“There are a lot of other people who do this job. But he [Mohammad] is gentle – and his prices are gentle too,” says Abdul-Rahman Ibrahim, a cart driver who stopped by Mohammad’s outdoor shop to get his horse’s monthly trim.
Mohammad charges between 20 and 30 Egyptian pounds ($3 to $5) per customer, with each appointment taking him less than 30 minutes to finish – depending on the order, and the animal’s sensitivities.
“All the horses are clever – in fact all the donkeys, cows and dogs are clever. Without a doubt, dogs will slip out from under you,” he says.
But the work is dangerous. Later in his family’s one-room home, Mohammad traces to a scar across his right jaw with a finger missing its first joint. “One horse bit my finger off, another horse hit me here,” Mohammad says, pointing to the scar visible through a thick beard. He says a dentist told him he might lose most of his lower teeth soon.
Despite that, he takes pride in his work. “People love us because they trust the quality of work between us,” he says. “They loved my father, and my work is like my father’s work.”SHOW MORE