|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
6 - 12 August 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
photo: Fatemah Farag
Badawi Mohamed Abdel-Rasoul:
People of the mountain
Abdel-Rasoul is a gaunt man, with deep, rich brown eyes set in his sun-burnt face. His steady and patient gaze is captivating, as if the history of this stark land and its people lie within its depth. "Memories do not die," he tells me for no apparent reason; the phrase seems to aptly sum up Gurna.
"Our villages are made of three families: the Horabat, Ghabat and Attiyat. I am from the first, but they are all brothers," he continues.
The name Horabat immediately conjures the images immortalised by Shadi Abdel-Salam in his internationally acclaimed film Al-Mumia (Night of Counting the Years). Stark black silhouettes against perfect yellow sand-dunes -- a young villager who faces a crossroads: either follow his ancestors' ways and sell Pharaonic treasures from the tombs known only to his family, or give away the secret which feeds his village and hand the dead over to the government. The film was set in 1881, yet the basic tenets of the quandary faced by Younes remain relevant today.
Abdel-Rasoul's voice pulls me back into his living room. "I was born in 1935. In this house." He is one of the few remaining village elders. "Our people do not own much land and I started out working for Samlouk Pasha, who owned most of the land around these parts. There was also a Boulos Pasha, but in the end they were all the same; we would work for only a few piastres a day," he remembers. He considers himself a "man of the revolution", although he acquiesces that, "even after the revolution, we were given what? Two or two and a half feddans. Not enough to feed a family."
The point is an important one, because it leads us to the subject of the main vocation of the inhabitants of the village -- the near-by antiquities. It is a tense issue, fraught with years of debate and struggle. "Eighty per cent of my people have nothing else to live off. That does not mean we are bandits, as some people like to say. We are the craftsmen, the guards, and the tour guides. We are the continuation of the people who have always inhabited this land."
Voices of the village elders in Abdel-Salam's movie make themselves heard. Gaunt faces like that of Abdel-Rasoul, framed in white turbans and white beards, telling Younes of his vocation: "what belongs to us, and will remain ours as long as these mountains remain."
The statement has been seriously contested, not just by Younes, but more importantly by the government. "I have been watching them... for some time," said the sharp-featured policeman in Al-Mumia. Over the years, various projects aimed at ousting the inhabitants of Gurna from their mountain perch have been initiated and failed. The last major confrontation took place only a few months ago and left tragic casualties in its wake.
Abdel-Rasoul remembers when a nearby village near the Temple of Habu, further down the road, had to be removed during Nasser's time. "They had to make permanent irrigation ditches and people resisted being moved. Then Nasser said 'if it were my arm in the project, I would cut it off.' When he said that, it became a closed issue." The lesson is one Abdel-Rasoul has taken seriously. "My family has lived in this house for centuries and now they tell us that underneath there are important antiquities. What can I say? Maybe we will have to leave."
"The language of the effendiya..." A voice, an echo from the past.
"In 1945, 90 houses were built by Hassan Fathi and the Ministry of Culture bought 69 feddans planted with sugar cane for the project, which was my height [indicating the good quality of the land]. The plan was to get us out of here. At the time the village elders said 'no'. They said: 'we are the people of the mountain'. So no one else could say anything about it. Besides, there were the floods, and in the mountain we have clean homes, so why should we move?"
Later, some people did move but Abdel-Rasoul quips: "They were government employees."
Not that there was any lack of respect for the project or the man who masterminded it. "I met Hassan Fathi -- the mohandis -- when he was here. My uncle was his foreman. He was a very good man and we all really liked him. We just did not want to live in his homes. Of course he was an international architect -- like Samanoud." Samanoud? "Yes... he is also internationally recognised. He was the one who built Deir Al-Bahari."
Fathi is not the only one subjected to Abdel-Rasoul's thoughtful appraisal. "I remember in 1954 when Shadi Abdel-Salam came to our house and said he wanted to make a movie. Before he came, those of us who had the opportunity to see a movie thought everything that happened in the movie was true. But when he came to our house, we discovered what acting was about."
What does he think of the movie? A movie that says that the "Horabat know nothing except a road up to the mountain"? He bends his head and gives the floor a long and studied look. "I believe it is a memory of my family."
At the same time he vehemently denounces charges that the "people of the mountain" -- as opposed to "the people of the valley" -- are robbers of their ancestors' tombs. "If we were selling what is in this ground, there would be nothing left. Yet, today when the excavators come, as soon as they put the dust into their sieves they come up with things. So how can that be so? These things are precious to us, and we protect them like our eyes."
Shadi Abdel-Salam felt that, even though the "people of the mountain" were physically close to their history, they knew little of its cultural and historical importance. Abdel-Rasoul denies this. Outside, one of his grandchildren is playing in the sun. "You know a foreigner or graduate of the Faculty of Arts does not know as much about these things as our children who are only so high," he says, indicating his waist. Maybe these are ideas taught by difficult times. The years have shown Abdel-Rasoul that the people of the valley can no longer be called strangers. "Hatshepsut is the grandmother of the whole country. I know now that, although this is our life, the Pharaohs belong to everyone."
There are, of course, the moral aspects to take into consideration as well. Aspects faced by Younes. Abdel-Rasoul is philosophical. "If we violate a tomb... well, tomorrow it will be my home."
More practical attitudes are also linked to the pressures of a growing population. "People around here really hate the antiquities officials," he says in a matter-of-fact sort of way. "We want to build an extra room in our house because of over-crowding and they will not let us. Yet whenever they want to build something for themselves that is OK. We have paid dearly for complaints against them."
The details of today's life are bitter, and so we revert to talk of the past. "I remember the artists who used to come to Gurna, to my uncle's hotel -- the Marsam. Those were the golden years. We had Salah Taher and Hamed Said and Abbas Shuhdi. Artists who graduated from the Faculty of Arts and came for two years on scholarship. They would come with a cook and someone who would go every day to the east bank to get things for them from Luxor. We used to provide them with models. Not women, young children. I remember one picture: a little girl holding a goat in her arms."
Those were also days when a little money went a long way. "I remember when Hamed Said would send me to Luxor to buy his plane ticket. It would be once a month, on a Thursday, so that he could attend the Umm Kulthoum concert in Cairo. He would give me a LE10 note and the plane ticket was seven and a half pounds. He would let me keep the rest. When he came back early Saturday morning, he would have a bag with sweets. They were small things, but they made people happy."
Other than these encounters with "important people of the valley" as well as the excavators, Abdel-Rasoul's life, like that of all the Horabat, has been relatively secluded. "I remember the first coffee shop that got a television in the early '80s. The line outside would go all the way down the mountain -- not of people waiting to get in: many did not have the money required -- but of people waiting for those inside to come out and tell them what they had seen."
His eldest son walks in. "He has just joined the Antiquities. The first in our family to do so." Signs of changing times. Again a voice from the past. "Cursed is your reality..." I ask him: "Is it true? Is your reality cursed?" He gives me that long, studious stare, then averts his gaze towards his grandson. "I do not know any more."
On our way down, Abdel-Rasoul greets people left and right; children come up for a pat on the head. He is one of the village elders who obviously inspires respect and affection. Will he be able to help his people stand ground or move on? The question remains unanswered.
Below us, the Temple of Habu stretches towards our right, the Ramesseum before us. The Colossi of Memnon stand solidly in place. Otherwise, the vast expanse of land toward the valley is clearly different from that caught by Shadi Abdel-Salam's lens. New buildings and cars slowly pushing against the heat, up and down the tarmac road. Then a sad chanting reaches our ears. We look down towards the Temple of Habu and see a funeral procession winding its way towards the mountain. Figures in stark black walk solemnly behind the coffin.