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Chris Hedges—Inside Egypt
Posted on Oct 19, 2006
By Chris Hedges
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.
Square, Site wide
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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