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Chris Hedges—Inside Egypt
Posted on Oct 19, 2006
By Chris Hedges
We retreat to the Nile, sure now that Ahmed and our state security minders will exert even greater control over our activities. Ahmed refuses to let us leave for the river, an enforced delay that will color the rest of our visit, and when we arrive there are several large men in galabayas, all wearing expensive watches and with the well-fed jowls of men who do not eke out a living in the fields. Girls are washing laundry in the river, laughing gaily in the water. The banks of the river are sandy and wind whips down the broad expanse of water. Women in black robes, with straw mats or baskets of clothes balanced on their heads, move toward the water. A boy swims naked alone in the shallow water.
Faiza Hussein, 12, is washing with her cousin. She wears a blue dress and stands knee-deep with laundry floating around her.
“Afaf,” she shouts to her cousin, “where is the brush?”
She takes the brush and begins to work on a curtain in the water, soap suds rising from the material as she scrubs. Two of the large men in galabayas stand a few feet away, watching me.
As I chat with the girls, who banter and giggle with teenage enthusiasm, a young man pushes a friend who is a paraplegic down through the sand to the water. The paraplegic sits on the seat of a crude, large tricycle he can peddle by turning cranks at chest level. His withered legs are contrasted with his upper build.
He is Ahmed Fahty, 25, who had polio when he was a small child. The young man pushing him, Ramadan Sayyed, is a mute. They are neighbors.
“I spend most of my time with Ramadan,” Fahty tells me. “We go everywhere with each other. We have a lot in common. We are more than brothers. We need to help each other.”
The two men look out at the water. A pair of crutches are strapped to the back of the tricycle.
“We just come to look,” he says. “In the summer I will go in the water, but Ramadan will not go in. He is afraid. When Ramadan wants something I can understand his gestures. We give each other help. We share our food.”
He says he lives at home with his parents, a life that is hard and often lonely.
“The hardest thing is mental,” he says. “Sometimes I get angry with my mother or sister at home. Sometimes my chest hurts me and when my chest hurts me I do not want anyone to speak with me. If someone speaks with me I get angry. Ramadan stays with me when I have this pain. He will tell me we should go down to the Nile and look at the water. Ramadan and I understand each other.”
One of the large men in a clean, pressed galabaya comes to stand next to me. He is clutching a cellphone. The two young men nervously glance at him. When I ask Fahty what he does when people make fun of Sayyed it is the stranger at our side who answers.
“This kind of thing never happens,” the man says briskly.
On the way home we are told that our request to visit the elementary school where Ahmed’s small daughter is a student has been denied. We decide to visit the offices of the Ministry of Education in Qus to get them to reconsider the request. When we arrive we find the director, Rushdi Abu el-Safa’, behind a large desk. He is smoking, flicking the ash on the floor. He oversees the 180 schools in the district, which has 87,000 students. He promises to pass on our request. Ahmed, who receives a call later that day, is told we will not be allowed in any schools, nor can we visit the local factories. When we get home we find Ahmed’s wife nervous and silent. The constant phone calls, the long reports Ahmed has to fax each day on our activities, have cast a pall over the house. The strains of our visit show in the darting looks, whispers and uncomfortable gaps in conversation where we had once laughed and joked.
We walk that evening to the tomb of the village sheik. The blue dome of the tomb, with vermillion and green flags on top, is a local shrine. A sign outside says: “This is the place of Sheik Abdullah Mohammed Ahmed.” About 10 children play in the dirt outside the tomb.
“He lived a simple life,” says Abdullah Ali, who built the tomb in 1984 for his uncle. “He was a farmer. He was very kind. He did not hurt or annoy his neighbors.”
The sheik, according to the villagers, had supernatural powers. He knew what people were carrying in their pockets. He could predict the future. He could take a pot of boiling liquid and drink it. In his final days, sick and bedridden, villagers claimed to have seen him visit their houses. When he spat at a water pump it exploded. When thieves descended on the village they fled, believing they were chased by the sheik for 50 kilometers.
“He could go 45 days without food or water,” his nephew says. “He did not live in any one place. He wandered. He once jumped from the highest palm tree in the village and was not hurt. He was illiterate.”
His nephew did not build the tomb until his two sons suffered accidents, including the collapse of a wall on one of the boys. He saw these as signs of displeasure from his uncle.
“Since I built the tomb nothing has happened,” he tells me.
I ask him if all venerated sheiks have magical powers. He looks at me with disapproval.
“Magic is forbidden in Islam,” he says.
We do not eat until late at night. Ahmed spends two hours writing up our day to fax to the state security services. When the photographer traveling with me picks up the report he reminds Ahmed that he has not mentioned the trip to the tomb.
“Oh no,” Ahmed says, clearly upset, “I forgot.”
The next morning at dawn the photographer asks to take pictures in the cane fields, but Ahmed does not let him leave the house. He calls state security. He waits to be called back. Reza, when he finally arrives in the fields, notices several large men with cellphones interspersed among the cane cutters.
We drift at nights to the coffee shops, tailed now, as we are during the day, by the heavyset men in the clean, pressed galabayas and holding the cellphones. They offer no explanation for their intrusiveness.
Our decision to go back to the pharonic temple, however, the next morning makes us glad to have them. Our return visit is not taken lightly by the neighbors, who believe it is connected with an excavation. Within minutes people start shouting at us in anger and rage, telling us to get out.
A young man had let us into his home during the previous visit and his father begins to yell and curse him and us.
“Why did you let them into the house?” he shouts at his son. “They will report about the whole temple to the government and all the houses will be destroyed.”
Curse words begin to fly. We back away. Three uniformed police swiftly arrive and hustle us to the van, shouting at the small mob to get back.
It is only at midnight on our last day that we are told we will not be allowed on the third-class train. We will be put, we are told, into a first-class car to Cairo. We will not be allowed to speak to anyone on the train.
We enter the train with escorts, including uniformed police with assault rifles. When we attempt to walk into the second-class car we are abruptly pushed back by a policeman between the two cars.
“No foreigners,” we are told.
When the train pulls into the Shohaj station security men enter our car. They check the documents of the few Egyptians seated in our car and frisk them. The Egyptians are asked to leave our compartment. We become, in a matter of minutes, as hermetically sealed off from the Egypt we sought to reach as the tourists in the lumbering buses whose convoy we had joined a few days before. We sit on the long ride to Cairo and watch the other Egypt glide past us.
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