June 19, 2013
Chris Hedges—Inside Egypt
Posted on Oct 19, 2006
By Chris Hedges
The mud-brick walls of the room are whitewashed. The rafters, as in all the houses in the village, are made from palm wood. There is a ceiling fan. There are three couches, where we sit with our interrogators. We lean back on hard red pillows. On the floor is a straw mat with a red, yellow and white design of small diamonds. The one window in the room is closed by blue wooden shutters. It has iron bars and no glass. The sun slants into the room through the cracks in the shutters, the dust dancing in the narrow rays of light. Black-and-white family pictures are framed on the wall.
The police look closely at my Swiss passport. They hand the documents to each other for inspection. They examine my press card. They look at the letter given to Ahmed that says I have permission to visit Qus and the village. The officer with the blue pen laboriously writes down my name and the information from my passport in a notebook.
“You will write and photograph the life of the villagers, how they live and work and go to school,” he says slowly as he spells out each word in Arabic.
The three police officers shift uneasily. They rise to depart and motion for Ahmed to follow them outside. They speak in hushed tones for several minutes. Reza, my photographer, and I take our bags upstairs to our room. We greet Ahmed’s wife and two children.
Ahmed’s departures for Aswan on Sunday nights are painful.
“My son cries and cries,” he says. “He asks me not to leave. And when I walk out the door I cry in my heart.”
Ahmed’s cellphone has been ringing constantly since we left Luxor. It rings again and, as usual, he begins to speak in a low voice as he walks away from us. This time the phone call is from Kena, the seat of the governorate. He has been taking calls, almost nonstop, from security officials in Luxor, Aswan, Qus and Cairo.
“I need to go to buy more phone cards,” he says in exasperation. “Can I get some money to pay for them? I need to make a lot of calls.”
So my first foray into this Egypt is to buy phone cards so my host can report on my movements, my conversations and my plans for the day. He has been told to relay this information to a variety of state security officials from Qus to Cairo. His confrontation with the layers of state security that we, and probably he as well, did not know existed in President Mubarak’s Egypt is leaving him nervous and jumpy.
We head to Qus. No one in the village sells phone cards.
The road to Qus, about five miles long, cuts through cane fields. There are 24 villages that ring Qus. It is harvesting time, and the cane fields have green stalks shooting up in long, crazy rows snaking through the middle of the fields waiting for the workers with machetes to finish their job. Tractors, pulling metal carts with rubber wheels, are piled with yellowed stalks of cane and rumble down the road to deliver their product to the Quena Newsprint Paper Co. on the edge of Qus.
Qus is an ugly city. The charm it may have once held has been sucked out of it by cement, diesel fumes, piles of rotting garbage, looping telephone and electrical wires, dust, noise, horn blasts, overcrowding and the ubiquitous four- and five-story apartment houses that give most Egyptian cities the same boxy appearance. When we enter the city we stop in front of the railroad tracks. There is a whitewashed villa with balconies and French windows on our left. It was, in the days of the monarchy, one of the palaces of aristocracy, but its care has been neglected and the Nile, domesticated by the high dam, is no longer within sight of its high double doors. The socialist revolution led by Nasser turned the villa into a school. Girls with head scarves are gathered on the porch.
We are behind a pickup with metal benches in the back where paying passengers are seated facing each other. The buses, trucks and cars wait in three lines. The train that eventually rumbles past is third-class. Its carriages, packed to the gills with peasants in long galabayas, have no glass panes, only metal bars, in the windows. There are few seats. The human cargo is forced to sit or stand in the carriages, which rock slightly as they move along the track. Carriages designed to hold 50 passengers routinely hold 200. A few young men, “fare dodgers,” are on the tops of some carriages as the ancient locomotive, belching black smoke, squeals and huffs its way into the station and lurches to a high-pitched stop.
The third-class train is how most of the country’s 2.8 million train passengers travel, moving from city to city and village to village along the 4,900 kilometers of track that run like a ribbon along the Nile. President Mubarak, when he boards a train, takes the opulent carriages that once made up the personal train of the deposed King Farouk. Tourists are required to travel in special tourist trains that have no third-class carriages attached. Reza and I, although we entered Qus in a van with an armed escort, have asked to depart on the third-class train to Cairo, although the safety record of the third-class trains is dismal. Dozens of Egyptians over the past decade have died on the rails in head-on collisions, as well as in accidents with vehicles at railroad crossings. But for most Egyptians, who do not own cars, this is the only way to travel. And it is most Egyptians who interest us.
Qus has been settled for thousands of years. The local folklore holds that it was the place where the ancient Egyptians embalmed and mummified the dead. This messy and foul-smelling work was usually done, Egyptologists believe, in tents set up around burial places. There are the remains of what must have been an imposing temple tucked down an ally in the heart of the city. It has never been excavated, in large part because the owners of the houses that ring it know they are perched on top of an archeological site and are hostile to all outsiders poking around the ruins. It is, once the phone cards are purchased, the first place we visit.
The heavy blocks that once composed the top of the building have carvings of the falcon-headed god Horus, the god of the sky, and numerous hieroglyphs. The blocks are in a sandy courtyard flanked by mud and concrete hovels that reach three or four stories in the air. Goats next to the granite blocks root around in piles of garbage. Laundry hangs from the windows. Ahmed has told us, before we arrive, that a local legend says that if anyone digs beneath the monument, out of the depths underneath will come jets of fire, water or gold. The possibility of catastrophe has kept the monument underneath the sand and the houses above it intact.
As we stand looking at the blocks of stone a government health worker, Mahmoud Sayed, followed by a young woman wearing a red headscarf and carrying a small cooler filled with oral polio vaccine, makes his way down one of the alleys. He holds piece of chalk. I look down the narrow alley behind him and see that he has marked the doors of houses to show that the children inside have taken the vaccine. He has a pen tucked behind his ear. He sees us peering at the monument.
“If you dig there it will see Qus consumed by fire, water or gold,” he tells us. “This is the reason we do not touch it. I believe this.”
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