Chris Hedges—Inside Egypt
Posted on Oct 19, 2006
By Chris Hedges
The center of life is the mosque. The imams, appointed and paid by the government, are careful about what they say. But the mosques have swelled with young people seeking another way of life. The large al-Amri mosque in Qus, built at the time of the Ottoman empire, is the biggest in upper Egypt. It is an open space, the roof held up by pillars, with a green carpet. Its ornate wooden pulpit, made from teak imported from India, is one of the most intricate in the Islamic world with its 12 carved wooden steps. But the recent government renovation of the mosque has turned it into a soulless, concrete monstrosity, the old beams and marble pillars, many of them Roman in origin, incorporated at random into the design. The walls are a pale yellow. Fans are suspended from the ceiling.
I sit in the sea of worshippers and listen to the sermon. The imam speaks of feeding the poor and how most of our problems are caused by human selfishness.
“Allah calls on us to cooperate to promote goodness and not to cooperate to promote evil,” he says.
I meet with the imam after the service in his small office, the shelves filled with theological works. He wears a red turban, a white collarless shirt buttoned up to his chin, a pressed gray galabaya and a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. He is a large man with beefy hands and an easy smile. He is careful when asked questions that skirt into politics, keeping things vague enough to make a point and keep him out of trouble.
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He tells me that a proper Muslim woman must cover her head, and when I ask him about the singers and actresses in Cairo, and the wives of high officials, including Mrs. Mubarak, who appear uncovered, he picks his words with care.
“These singers spread corruption in society,” he says. “This leads to illegal relationships between men and women, which is not allowed in Islam. It leads people away from religious principles, away from the true Islam and finally angers Allah.”
Late that night we sit in the small coffee shop in Gazira. A television on a table in the corner transmits a soccer game.
“Nurses will go to your homes to give vaccines,” a commercial informs viewers.
The mud-brick buildings are three and four stories high, the arched doors and window frames neatly painted with white trim. They remind me of the towering mud buildings in Yemen. The windows on the bottom floors are closed off with wooden shutters. Two young men work over a small stove with jets of blue gas. On the wall, in red letters, is a sign that reads: “Remember the Prophet.”
But there is despair in the coffee shop. Few of the men have jobs.
Moustafa Abdel Safat, in a brown galabaya and with a yellow scarf draped around his neck, helps his father grow wheat and vegetables. He lives with his mother, father and eight brothers and sisters. He moonlights hooking the houses in the village up to the electrical grid, setting up a ladder, hammering holes in the walls and stringing the wire out to the poles. I have a hard time determining whether, as I suspect, he is pirating the current.
“The bad part is that I get electrocuted,” he says.
“If I grip the wire like this,” he adds, folding the palm of his left hand around his right index finger, ” I die. A lot of people have died doing this work.”
“I will leave soon for another country to find work,” he says. “I have a bachelor’s degree in social work from Aswan University. I graduated three years ago. I can’t find a job. I do not want to work in the fields with my family. I want to find another kind of work.”
He has applied for a work visa to Saudi Arabia and has been waiting for two months for a response. He hopes to work as an electrician.
The two boys behind the counter are busy packing tobacco in round metal cylinders for the water pipes. The hiss of the gas competes with the radio above the counter playing a folk song by Rabia al-Baraka.
“A plant grows then I cry for it when it dies,” the words go. “This happened to me.”
Alla Adel is 16, with a thin moustache and sideburns. He works for about a dollar a day and gives the money when he comes home at night to his father. He has four brothers and three sisters. The other waiter, Ahmed Nour, who is 15, also uses the money for his family. The two boys say they dream of something else, especially Ahmed, who wants to be a professional soccer player. Alla points to a spot on the wall where he scratched his name. “It was when I started work,” he says.
The owner, Said Bishair, sits out with the patrons, leaning forward on his bamboo cane. He wears a white turban and a brown scarf. He has had the coffee shop for 30 years. Before that he was a farmer.
Those who seek work can go at this time of the year to the sugar cane fields, where they can cut cane for less than a dollar a day. It is brutal work, especially in the heat, one of the reasons the harvesters begin work before dawn. We arrive in a field not far from the paper and cane factory. The men in galabayas and sandals cut the green stalks with machetes and strip them of the leaves before tossing them in a pile. Donkeys, tethered in the field, bray.
Mohamed Kamal, 45, the owner, stands next to a wooden cart and watches the some 20 workers fill it with stalks. He allows them to take the leaves home to feed their animals. Several of the donkeys are already eating their fill of leaves.
One of the workers is a young man clearly unused to hard labor. He gives me his name and tells me he graduated from the university with a degree in social work. He is cutting stalks in exchange for leaves for his animals. He is also angry, and as we speak, Ahmed, who accompanies us everywhere, begins to inch closer to us.
“I searched for a job,” he says, “but there are no jobs. I am angry. A job is very important.”
He tells me he has never been to Cairo, but he may have to go there to seek work. He began to attend the mosque and do his five daily prayers about six years ago. And then he lays out a new vision for Egypt, one that lurks not far beneath the surface of the secular Mubarak regime.
“When there are Islamic laws governing our lives, things will be better,” he says. “There will be more work. Everyone will fear Allah. This will make a change. If you fear Allah there is no corruption. This will make it better for us.”
He watches as I write down his words.
“Please omit my name,” he says softly, glancing at Ahmed, who stands a few feet away with his back to us. I cross his name out in my notebook. He looks at the black lines through his name and asks me to continue to blot out his name.
As we get in the van Ahmed asks if he can go to Qus and find a phone so he can report on our conversations over the past two hours without using his cellphone. The cellphone service is down today and he has lost contact with state security. We suspect the comments of the cane cutter mean trouble for him. We head to the central phone exchange and Ahmed disappears into a cabin for nearly an hour.
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