Editor’s note: In this article, the former New York Times Middle East bureau chief spends 10 days living with a lower-middle-class Egyptian family to expose the side of Egypt off-limits to most tourists—one made desperate by poverty and kept fearful by the omnipresent threat of state security officials.
QUS, Egypt—A line of 80 buses and vans idles as black-uniformed police move with clipboards and snub-nosed machineguns from driver to driver collecting information. Tourists, their faces beet-colored, peer from the aquarium-like windows of the buses above onto the teeming world of the street. The high-pitched whine of motorcycles, the honking and squeal of car horns and the rumble of decrepit blue and white taxis unite in a strident chorus. Bicyclists in long, flowing gray and white galabayas and turbans weave deftly in and out of the traffic. On the banks of the river, flat-roofed tour boats and floating hotels with names like Cheops III or Hamees are berthed three to a pier. Couples in bathing suits sit on the roofs, next to the pools, shaded by the awning stretched over the boats.
The buses, given a signal at the front of the line, begin to move forward. The convoy rumbles toward the resorts on the Red Sea, escorted by police in pickup trucks. The mud-walled villages, the irrigation ditches, the dirt yards with chickens and donkeys and cattle, the barefoot children, the fields of sugar cane, the whitewashed domed tombs of local sheiks, the spindly blue and white minarets, the donkey carts with old car tires, the overcrowded passenger buses belching diesel smoke and tilting under the weight of the human cargo and the dilapidated cars and tractors held up at intersections so the convoy can pass rapidly become a blur, an indistinct and faintly remembered reminder of another Egypt.
There are two Egypts. One is crushed by poverty and groaning under the weight of an autocratic regime that has been in place for nearly three decades. This Egypt is increasingly desperate, as the country’s population growth soars, and its economy, burdened by corruption and a stifling state bureaucracy, stagnates. Out of the bowels of this Egypt have come mounting anti-government street demonstrations, anger, frustration and renewed acts of terrorist violence by Islamic militants. The second Egypt, the one on view to foreign visitors, bears little in common with the first Egypt. It is a manicured and heavily guarded Egypt of air-conditioned hotels, Nile cruises, majestic archeological sites, afternoons by swimming pools, evenings in disco clubs, posh restaurants and shops crammed with copies of statues of Horus and Nefertiti and glass jewelry cases filled with silver and gold hieroglyphic pendants.
But the clash between these two Egypts is mounting. It has left tourists, confined to these islands of privilege, caught in the middle, seen as symbols of all that is denied to most Egyptians. And once again, as they were a decade ago, foreigners are being targeted and killed by armed militants as the government of President Hosni Mubarak promises reforms, including presidential and parliamentary election reform that Mubarak’s critics dismiss as cosmetic.
My van, after about 20 minutes, pulls off the road at a police checkpoint. An arrow on the sign in front of us points left to the city of Qus. The police, who check the passports, match the names to the list they hold in front of them. The convoy, speeding along the road, disappears ahead of us. All foreigners are required by Egyptian authorities to travel on the roads in the south with armed escorts. They are banned from wandering into the impoverished villages outside of Luxor or Aswan. I am permitted to depart from the city only with the convoy and have been required to pick up a policeman to travel to Qus.
A uniformed officer with an AK-47 and the handle of a pistol poking out from the back of his pants climbs into the van. We turn off the pavement along a rutted road. For the next 10 days I will live in the village of Gazira in a mud-brick house with an Egyptian family. It will be a rare look at the Egypt few are allowed to examine, one that has been beyond the reach of most of the outside world since November 1997 when Islamic militants armed with guns and swords killed 58 tourists and four Egyptians in the temple of Hatshepsut outside Luxor. The six assailants and three police also died in the attack. The terrorist attack was followed by a severe, nationwide crackdown that largely broke the armed Islamic militant cells; that effort without doubt was aided by the widespread revulsion many Egyptians felt toward the murderous rampage. But Islamic radicalism has ebbed and flowed in Egypt for a century. It follows a pattern. Severe state repression cripples the movement for about 10 years and militant campaigns then reappear, with each successive incarnation spawning more radical and deadlier tactics.
This war has ebbed and flowed since 1928, when the homegrown fundamentalist movement known as the Muslim Brotherhood was organized. Advocating a return to the “pure” Islam of the Prophet, the brotherhood grew during the 1940s into a radical political movement prone to antigovernment violence. It helped topple Egypt’s monarchy in 1952 and almost succeeded in assassinating Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. One of the extremist groups that grew out of the brotherhood, Islamic Jihad, did succeed in killing President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, immediately declared a national state of emergency, suspending civil liberties and other freedoms that have never been restored. Despite these crackdowns, Egypt, the intellectual capital of the Arab world, has continued to produce ideas and political ﬁgures with influence far beyond its borders. Most notorious of these is Ayman al Zawahiri. A leader of Islamic Jihad, he helped organize Al Qaeda and serves as Osama bin Laden’s chief advisor.
The van turns down a dirt road when we reach the village, dropping down a small rise so that we travel along the border of wheat fields that throw off a dark, luxurious green. The house lies at the end of the road. Facing the two-story house are the fields and rows of palm trees, their tops crowned with delicate leaves bowing over the serrated brown trunks. The palms cast a delicate, lacey shadow on the dirt. On the far side of the fields is an irrigation canal and, beyond, the whitewashed tomb of a local sheik. Birds chatter. The Nile, which we cannot see, is close. The river seems to have calmed the village, given it another pace, its wide, stately majesty decreeing that all movement, even human movements, should be slowed.
We carry our bags into the house down a dirt path. We step over a small drainage ditch. The house has a blue wooden front door. In the sky we see the faint half crescent of the moon. For water, there is a green metal hand pump a few feet from the front door. The pump empties into a small concrete trough. Ahmed, a minor official in the government information office, invites us to sit in his front room. His wife brings us glasses of tea. We are soon joined by two “state security” officials. The police officer who rode with us, wearing a green sweater with red bars for epaulets and beige slacks, is tall and lanky and towers over his two colleagues. One of the new arrivals wears a long-sleeved beige shirt with a blue pen poking out of his shirt pocket and has closely cropped hair. The other is wearing a gray galabaya and worn plastic sandals.
“This gentleman is from the general police,” Ahmed says, turning to the uniformed officer. “This gentleman is from state security,” he says, turning to the man with the shirt. “And this gentleman ...” and here Ahmed stumbles, not sure what to say, until he hastily adds “...is also from the police.”
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 is a warm, gentle man who spends his week in Aswan, where he works, and on weekends returns to his village, where his wife and children live. His dark hair is tinged on the sides with gray and he has a moustache. He speaks French and some English. French and Arabic become the languages we use to communicate. We often slip from one to the other in mid-sentence.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“There is no cooperation between the rich and the poor in this country,” he says. “The rich should help the poor.”
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 television is broadcasting a popular soap opera called “I Do Not Love My Father’s Galabaya,” about a younger generation that does not subscribe to the old ways of life. The girls do not cover their heads. The boy wants to go to college rather than work with his father. The first commercial is for Tide.
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.
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.
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.