Each morning, Mina roams the streets of Cairo with his cart calling out the Italian word “Roba Vecchia”, a trademark cry in Egypt’s streets.The word has been used since the early 20th century for junk collectors looking to buy or trade unused household items from residents.
Over the years, the job has seen many changes, from apparent ones like shifting from handcarts to donkey-drawn carts and small vehicles, to less obvious changes such as competition from the internet.
A rag and bone man will collect just about anything, says Mina Thabet, who has been in the trade for many years.
I buy washing machines, refrigerators, stoves, scrap iron, aluminium, and copper. But there were more items available in the past.
“I buy washing machines, refrigerators, stoves, scrap iron, aluminium, and copper. But there were more items available in the past, now there are fewer. People now know everything and if they have even a small piece of iron, they ask for a price based on price per kilo,“he said.
People who want to make some quick cash off of items that they no longer need, trace the sound coming from the loudspeakers and find Thabet. Then the bargaining begins, until Thabet and the seller agree on a price.
Once the transaction is complete, Thabet goes on looking for the next buy, filling up his donkey-drawn cart in the process.
At the warehouses, the items and machines are dismantled and sold as separate pieces, With computer screens for example, copper is pulled is out to be sold, while the glass is thrown away.
Over the years, the job’s main clientele has shifted, says trader Gamal Shaarawy who said he spent his “whole life” in working in this trade.“We have the ‘Tuesday Market’, which is held on Tuesdays and Mondays, where we display items to sell them to people who come from the rural areas, all the way from Aswan to Cairo and from all over the country. Merchants come and buy items at wholesale prices, old closets, beds. The tyre technician comes and buys tyres,” Shaarawy said.
The ever-changing nature of the job has brought on some changes that Shaarawy does not approve of, including the use of the loudspeaker which he described as disturbing.
Yet, even after ventures in other jobs, Shaarawy’s love for the rag-and-bone trade has always brought him back to it.