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Chris Hedges—Inside Egypt

Posted on Oct 19, 2006
Egyptian Demonstrators
AP / Mohamed Al-Sehety

An Egyptian demonstrator chants anti-government slogans in front of riot police during a pro-judges protest outside the Supreme Court in Cairo last May.  The protests were emblematic of the burgeoning free-speech movement in what is effectively an autocratic country. In this article Truthdig contributor Chris Hedges chronicles how Egyptian authorities silence those who would speak out.

By Chris Hedges

(Page 3)

As we talk, an older woman dressed in black opens her door and casually empties a bowl of orange peels onto her doorstep.

I move slowly around the monument and only after close examination do I make out the figure of a hunter who holds in his left hand an ibex, the animal’s feet crossed and tied together.  The hunter has taken a knife in his right hand and plunged it through the neck of the animal.  He is offering it up to the royal personage in front of him. The monument is only a hundred feet away from a church and a mosque. This small patch of Qus has been, for several thousand years, sacred space.

The poverty of Egypt has left the country of 60 million with the strange mixture of the modern and the ancient, often coexisting in ways that befuddle the outsider.  We can hear the chatter from television sets that are pumping popular and slightly racy soap operas from Cairo into the small hovels.  Workers in Qus covet secure jobs in the sugar and paper mills.  The belief in folklore, ingrained xenophobia and superstition, however, coexist with modern medicine, factories and cellphones.  This tension, as it does in much of the Middle East, spawns confusion and alienation, especially for those who leave the vital and close kinship ties of the village and seek work in the urban slums of Cairo. 

There are in Qus several small shops where herbs and potions are sold for ailments, real and imagined.  Small glass bottles with oddly colored liquids promise to increase fertility, sexual prowess and intelligence and replace hair.  It is one of these shops we decide to visit.  We wait while Ahmed calls to report our movements and find, when we arrive, two uniformed police.


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The shop is hidden in a narrow alley, too small for cars but wide enough for donkey carts.  It is dingy and has the sour smells of herbs and spices that lie in burlap sacks on the dirt floor.  In the center of the shop is a massive granite wheel.  The wheel, which is upright, has a beam, worn to a shiny smoothness over the years, poking out of its center.  It resembles a huge Tinkertoy that has lost one of its wheels.  The end of the beam has a harness.  When the harness is hitched to the cow currently resting out back, it is pushed slowly around the bowl-shaped stone below.  The granite wheel grinds the herbs and spices into a mush that is distilled by a press into liquid and sold in small vials.

“It is all medicine,” one of the owners says.  “We use onion oil for sexual enhancement.  The man takes the onion oil and the man becomes very strong and virile.  It is good for the whole body.”

On shelves in the front room are very small glass bottles of oils made from carrots, white radishes, watercress, parsley, bitter almond, eucalyptus, anise, coriander and lettuce.  A 24-year-old customer, Ahmed Mohammed, comes into the shop.

“If you have a chest cough take this,” the owner says, offering something called Baraka Nagila and clutching his cellphone.  “It costs four pounds.”   

As we walk out of the shop we see a wooden lintel over the opposite door.  It has ornate verses from the Koran, and in the middle of the board there is a Star of David, left as a calling card by a Jewish carpenter who long ago departed Qus, perhaps during the great Jewish exodus of 1956 when Israel and Egypt went to war.  His name is forgotten, but the emblem of his faith remains, and there are mosques throughout the Middle East where, if you look closely, his brother carpenters also left behind Jewish stars in the ornate woodwork.

Gazira, perched on the rich agricultural land along the Nile, is one of the local centers for the manufacture of mud bricks.  We arrive early in the morning at the home of Abdel Azim, 46, who has made mud bricks for the past decade, a trade he was taught by his father.  He wears a dirty black galabaya and has a white cloth wound tight into a turban on his head.  He is barefoot and the bottom of his galabaya is rolled up to protect it from the mud.  He works six hours a day making the bricks, leaving them to dry in the sun or firing them at night by burning straw over them, a practice that is banned by the government authorities.  But the village is known for its night fires, with local family brick yards sending flames up toward the starlit dome.  He and his children can make up to 10,000 bricks by hand a month, with an average of 600 to 900 a day.  The state security has preceded our visit apparently, since the brick maker, when asked about firing his bricks, answers:  “We are not allowed to tell you we fire our bricks.”

The mud bricks with their composition of straw and sheep or cattle manure have changed little through the centuries.  The mud, taken out of a watery hole, is deftly mixed by hand with the organic materials, kept in neat mounds on the ground and then placed in wooden rectangular molds.  The bricks are set out in rows to dry. 

Abdel Azim has 10 children, ranging in age from 5 to 20 years old.  His oldest, Mohammed, is in the army, but his other sons are working with him.  The family makes about two dollars a day selling the bricks.  They make the bricks when a builder places an order.

“I don’t want to do this,” one of the sons, Hassan, says flatly, dun-colored mud caked on his arms and legs. 

“First, I will look for another job,” he says, “but if I don’t find one I will work with my father.  This is hard work.  I will look in Qus, but if I do not find a job there I may go to Cairo.  I will look for a job at the paper and sugar cane factories.  These are the best jobs, the ones where you work in a factory.  If I want any kind of other job I need an advanced diploma.”

Hassan loads the mud, scooped out of the hole where he stands with his pants rolled up, into a wheelbarrow.  He lifts himself out of the hole and wheels the mixture over to his father, squatting on the ground.  Hassan stands and squeezes the mud from his fingers and flings it aside.  He dips a white plastic pail on the end of a rope into the canal, draws up some water and dumps it into his mudhole.  He climbs into the hole and stomps the mixture with his bare feet.  We talk about his life in the village, where he says he would like to remain and raise a family.  He eats, for lunch, white cheese, bread and tea; at night the family cooks fava beans known as foul.  He has one pair of shoes.  He has never been to Luxor or Cairo.  He has never visited the ancient pharonic monuments because “I don’t have enough money.”

“When the day is done I feel pain in my hand,” he says.  “My skin is dry.  Sometimes I get cuts.  The work hurts your back.”

As the men work making bricks, the mother, Suad al-Sayyah, who says she is about 40, washes the laundry in a small enclosure bordered by a fence.  She wears hoop earrings, a long gray robe and a blue, red and green head scarf.  She said the family is saving to pay for electrical service.  She too has never visited Luxor, a luxury she said she could not afford since the money had to be spent “for useful things.”  On the mud wall of her small hut are posters of Egyptian film stars and prominent clerics.

The dearth of jobs thrusts young Egyptians back onto their families, who will at least make sure they remain housed and fed.  Those that head to the teaming slums that have made Cairo one of the most densely populated and impoverished cities in the world leave behind this safety net.  It is the disintegration of these kinship ties—a disintegration directly related to the faltering economy—which has proved to be the powerful wedge used by militant Islam to reach young, dislocated Egyptians.  No longer able to depend on family for support, they find in militant Islam a kind of traditional, cultural and emotional reassurance that holds out the promise of something better and a replacement community.  Traditional Islam, a powerful force in village life, mutates in the slums into something deadly.     

Qus and the surrounding villages are “dry,” something that would have dismayed the builders of the buried temple, who consumed beer and wine.  There were, after all, 36 wine jars in Tutankhamen’s tomb, each with a docket in hieratic giving the date, place and vintage.  But Islamic culture remains powerful.  Women in Qus do not congregate in the male domain of coffee shops or go out without head coverings.  The mosques, once neglected and filled mostly with the elderly a couple of decades ago, are filled with young men and women.  It is a creeping Islamic revolution.

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By Bukko in Australia, April 1, 2009 at 8:57 pm Link to this comment

It saddens me tio say this, Egypt Lover, but the way you feel about your homeland is how I feel about the United States. Which is part of the reason I don’t live there any more…

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By Egypt lover, March 27, 2009 at 12:19 am Link to this comment
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Iam Egyptian, I love my country so much, idon’t before think how can i live away from my home. But you couldnont live now at all. No education, no democracy, No law (Except for the poor peoples)Governement can easily cooperate with others (businessmen, illegal organizations,.....etc) to destroy any infrastructures built before, to indirect kill peoples via toxic foods and water.
All of us knowing that. If you are here, don’t drink Water, don’t sell fruits and vegetables (Avoid the dangereous of Cancer). I dream Now to migrate to any other country to saved my life and my children. That is a small part of our life in the Big Prison “Egypt”
Police, fuck to police especially the Egyptian one !!

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By egyptevakantie, October 18, 2008 at 1:25 am Link to this comment
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i love egypt

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By usheroff, January 13, 2007 at 1:29 pm Link to this comment
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wow chris,
Another insightful and hidden   view from inside the Midle East-you are a remarkable reporter.I recently returned from Moroco where Westerners are definately another species.The people there are also afraid to be seen with foreigners if it is not in the proper context.Morocco has a 30% unemployment rate. The King is the head of the Mosque so it appears that Islamic fundamentalism is kept at bay.Anyway,So there was a very strange subtext underlying my vacation.

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By Lennybruce, November 1, 2006 at 3:27 am Link to this comment
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You guys just don’t get it, do you. The USA’s unflinching support for these despotic regimes in the flammable ME is a brilliant and primarily efficient strategic foreign policy move. With friends like these, who needs enemies. Get it, two birds with one stone. Brilliant. Except for that other saying, about things coming back and biting you in the ass. Go George.

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By Christopher, October 30, 2006 at 11:26 pm Link to this comment
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As always, Chris Hedges’ work is worth reading.  I’m not surprised that so many young people, who don’t see much of a future for themselves, are turning to religion.  One person interviewed said, “A job is very important.”  That seems like an obvious statement until jobs become scarce.  The lack of employment does lead to despair.  Who do you turn to when you feel that way?  Your family, if you’re lucky.  And then you turn to God—because you have nothing else.  It makes perfect sense to me.  I actually have a lot in common with the people interviewed in this article.  I don’t go to a mosque, but, being unemployed and living with my parents, after graduating from college, I find myself inclined to accept religious beliefs.  It’s the only meaning I have in my life, and I’m not ashamed of it.  I also have a palpable hatred for the way my country, the U.S.A, is set up.  I hate the leadership’s foreign policy.  I hate the capilalist inhumanity of the job market.  So I can understand the people of Egypt.  I almost feel like I’m one of them.  Overall, this was a very good article by Hedges.

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By Spinoza, October 30, 2006 at 9:17 pm Link to this comment
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>  When will people, or this site, do a piece on the root of the problem(s) which is overpopulation?  Why do we choose to ignore this?

BECAUSE it is not the problem???

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By charlie ehlen, October 30, 2006 at 7:50 pm Link to this comment
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Mr. Hedges,
Thank you for this article. As others have said, Egypt is so repressed it saddens one to hear how bad things are there.
One other thing I got from your article though, people are people, no matter where they are in this world. They want a better life for themselves and their children. Money and/or education being the barrier to that better life.
We are all the same inside, we have the same basic needs, the same basic desires. Things like religion come along and divide us. Politics divide us even further.
Egypt seems to be right close to being a total police state. America seems to be well on that path also. Our “patriot act” the Military Commissions Act, and other “legislation” recently passed in these past five years are sending America down that same road. Oh, and the outsourcing of our best jobs is placing us on the economic pathway to becoming a third world country as well.
Just my 2 cents worth.
Excellent article sir! Thank you for your reporting..

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By chris (usa), October 30, 2006 at 8:46 am Link to this comment
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There is a book that I feel is a must read for anyone interested in the social dycotomy that is Egypt..The book is “No God But God.Egypt And The Triumph Of Islam”.The author is Geneive Abdo. Although it is a bit long winded, she does a great job illustrating how strange and often times simplistic the roots of what has become modern day Egypt is. This is a place that has neighborhood Mullahs that are no more qualified to speak on their religion than any lay-person on the street..These people just begin a dialog within what they feel the public wants to hear and “Voila”-instant holy man!..Then the skullduggery of the state comming in and letting them know that they are being watched and that anti-government speak will be stamped out in a New York minute. This is how these governments weild the “Cane”..The U.S.A is not far behind these folks…You then see Mubarak on Charlie Rose soft selling the pollicy and proceedure of his government..Right..The one thing that everyone fails to realize is that these people lead these governments from without the country rather than from within. That is to say that they pander to the west in their business suits and conservative haircuts, then when our governments rubber stamp the regime and give them the “Hear, See, Speak no evil” tune up, they return to their country, throw on the olive drab and kick some a..-.

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By e, October 29, 2006 at 7:30 am Link to this comment
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Note how Mubarak started his regime in ‘81-he used the killing of Sadat by an extremist group as an excuse to declare a national state of emergency, and suspended civil liberties and othere freedoms that have never been restored.

Parallel this with 911 and Bush’s move down the same path-the Patriot Act, Warrantless Wiretapping, Military Commissions Act, etc, etc, etc

Who are we to judge another country and its monster leader, when ours is even worse??

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By J, October 28, 2006 at 3:03 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Egypt is an amazing country and has “potential.”  However, it’s numbers continue to grow and as easy as it is to blame the government, blame another entity, it is the number people competing for the limited resources and jobs that limits its success.  When will people, or this site, do a piece on the root of the problem(s) which is overpopulation?  Why do we choose to ignore this?

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By Fadel Abdallah, October 28, 2006 at 10:23 am Link to this comment
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What is “inside Egypt” is closely interlinked to what comes from outside of Egypt, pariculary the unholy alliance of the U.S.A. and Europe, who support a corrupt and dictatorial regime whose only credit is that it turned Egypt into a police state reminiscent of the times when the ugly British occupied Egypt! And they keep wondering how and why the average Egyptian hates the West and finds no hope but in a radicalized version of Islam.

Thanks Chris Hedges for your couregeous attempt at a truthdigging!

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By Val, October 28, 2006 at 2:17 am Link to this comment
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Thank you. An astonishing and necessary piece of true journalism. How tragic, to realize what religious superstition has done, over millennia, to human lives and the human spirit.

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By vonwegen, October 28, 2006 at 2:09 am Link to this comment
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Chilling indeed, but in time such oppressive repression becomes its own worst enemy. It’s like trying to stop a boil from festering not by curing the problem, but by trying to cover it up. Sooner or later, it will burst.

Mubarek had the golden opportunity to stop all this from happening, just by restoring the freedoms people had under Sadat, but every year that passed since then has hardened the resentment and hatred of the common people toward the government, and by now, it’s way too late.

The bottom line? We need to get totally off oil N-O-W. Otherwise, when the boil finally does burst, in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, we are going to be caught in an Energy Crisis the likes of which we have never seen. It does not take a genius to see this coming, folks…

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By Bukko in Australia, October 28, 2006 at 1:44 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great article! I knew Egypt was poor and politically repressive, but not at this level. It sounds like the old Soviet Union. Kudos for revealing a side of Egypt that most of us never hear about. Frightening, the desperation and anger underlying this society.

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By TOC, October 27, 2006 at 6:45 pm Link to this comment
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Egypt is a repressive state ruled by an oligarchy. This is news? The alternative to this seems to be invasion, which, if you haven’t noticed, doesn’t seem to work out to well in this part of the world.

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