24 - 30 June 1999
Issue No. 435
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Profile Features Interview Travel Sports Time Out Chronicles People Cartoons Letters
A yearning for another countryBy Youssef Rakha and photographer Randa Shaath
SAFE AS HOUSES: Despite two partially successful evacuation attempts, the oldest Gourna lives on, obstinately attached to these arid hills. Its story is one of scandal and survival: antiquities, grave robbers, the dead of night and the blinding light of day, the Other seeking the Exotic -- in many ways, the story of Gourna is that of East and West itself. From one bank to the other, from the world of the living to that of the dead, the boatman rows. And as is so often the case, life and death, destruction and regeneration are linked, inextricably. There have been many attempts to adapt Gourna to other visions, but even the best of intentions, even grandiose plans for a better life, have not erased the tenacity of the past, or the persistence of the present
A mythic land that inspired both visionaries and impostors, Gourna is the Egyptian countryside's most striking misfit. Unlike its counterparts throughout the Nile Valley, its peasants never sowed or reaped, but were beset by scandal from the day they set foot in their dwellings.
In the course of the century there were two partially successful but incomplete attempts to evacuate the site occupied by the village and relocate its inhabitants in alternative, independent communities nearby, giving rise to two distinct new Gournas: one created by the legendary architect Hassan Fathi in 1945-'48, the other by government officials in 1995-'96. Nonetheless, the original site has obstinately continued to shelter a large population.
But in all three Gournas it remains unclear how people not involved in antique smuggling or tourism have managed to make their living for so long. On Luxor's west bank there is not enough agriculture to support the population, nor are there large-scale industrial or commercial establishments. Perhaps this pariah of villages can best be understood, though, not through the professions of its inhabitants, but the different kinds of houses that keep them safe -- or rather, those that do not.
"Master of the Waters, please take me across/ To see my loved ones with my own eyes... Their country is far from mine/ And who will take me across... Whenever I breathe I feel the heat from the West..."
For the Greeks it was Hades, an underworld buried in the deep, to which the dead, mere shadows of their living selves, flocked for shelter. But for the Ancient Egyptians in Thebes, death -- which, properly regulated, should keep both bodies and souls intact -- was a journey to the west bank of the Nile.
"Ancient Thebes was about six miles square; the main part of the city was situated along the Nile's east bank; along the west bank was 'the city of the dead' -- an area containing the Egyptian kings' mortuary temples and the houses of those priests, soldiers, craftsmen, and labourers who were devoted to their service."
The Nile thus divided the living from the dead. To die meant, simply, to go across -- and the lyrics by an anonymous turn-of-the-century folk singer from the Sa'id (Upper Egypt), suggest that Egyptian mythology has in some sense lived on. How else could the bereaved singer map the course of the ancient funerary journey so accurately? (His loved ones, by dying, have travelled west. Now he must follow, and heat from the West kindles his longing to go. The simple boatman who takes him across is called Master of the Waters, because it is the sun god Ra who oversees journeys from the land where the sun rises to the land where it sets.)
As the millennium draws to an uncertain and painfully equivocal end -- nearly a century after this mawwal (folk song) was first heard in the mawalid (saints' anniversaries) and popular celebrations of the Sa'id -- Luxor preserves the flavour of this ancient dichotomy.
While the East turns inexorably into a loud, ostentatious, profit-obsessed apparatus for the workings of global tourism (a bustling McDonald's ranks among its most recent contrivances), the West remains implausibly serene and austere, often downcast, but above all mysterious. "Even their language is hard to understand," the young east-bank taxi-driver confides.
The farther we get, the more evident it is that he dislikes west-bank dwellers; he makes no effort to hide his hostility: "Anyone will tell you that on the west bank of Luxor they speak the most incomprehensible Arabic in the Sa'id..."
We pass the two colossi of Memnon -- weathered giants poised grandly on their thrones, alone on the edge of a wide expanse of cultivated land. These are among the few remains of the great mortuary temple of Amenhotep III, which later pharaohs, eager to assert their own power, all but wiped out. Adjacent to the tarmac, they form a strange gateway into the unknown. The colossi acquire a more frightening aspect when one remembers that the tourist massacre in Luxor took place around the temples of the dead, not those of the living.
But on the road to Gourna, the west bank's principal modern habitation, it is clear that the humans who live here have been, in many ways, intimately familiar with death. For one thing, since their arrival in the area they have been the unwitting heirs to the unique prerogative of their Theban predecessors -- their closeness to the tombs.
MUD, PURE AND SIMPLE: The original village of Gourna is famous, or rather infamous, for illegal traffic in antiquities. "The peasant families who live here are the richest in the country," the taxi-driver insists. "Why do you think they are so adamant on staying?..."
But what people may not realise is that this affair, in which the European Other is scandalously implicated, goes back all the way to ancient times. The mortuary temples, where the royal treasures were hoarded, had been the haunts of grave-robbers almost since the rise of Thebes. "In the reign of Ramses IX, about 1111BC, a series of investigations into the plundering of royal tombs in the necropolis of western Thebes uncovered corruption in high places, following an accusation made by the mayor of the east bank against his colleague on the west."
So east-west animosity is rooted in ancient times, but it was not until the middle of the 19th century that it assumed its current form, when east-bank dwellers started envying the five extended, inter-related families who had come to the west bank from the villages surrounding Luxor, and who built mud brick dwellings on the hillside opposite the feudal farmland, at the site of the Tombs of the Nobles, between the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens. Why should these peasants, no different from us, have exclusive control over the mortuary treasures? East-bank jealousy was well founded.
In five separate clusters, the five "noble houses" were to "live quite literally on the past" -- as architect Hassan Fathi puts it -- "by mining these tombs" and selling the yields to seasoned go-betweens on the eastern bank, who in turn sold them to European antique dealers, to whom only they had access. By the mid-1910s, it transpired that the peasants of Gourna "had mined recklessly, exhausting the richest treasures long before the antiquities fetched a high price." Yet the five houses, unperturbed by the growing complexity of their position, stayed on.
The ochre pillars of Ramses III's temple are just visible beyond the curve of the road as the taxi-driver swerves around a heap of mounds and hillocks to park on level ground. "If the people left Gourna it would go dark," a middle-aged restaurant owner explains, speaking of current government efforts (begun after the floods of 1994-'95 destroyed some of the houses nearer the flood plain) to relocate the entire village on a hilly stretch near the village of Naj' Al-Rawajih, where they would be clear of the floodwater and several miles away from the tombs. In the courtyard of his mud-brick "cafeteria" -- one of the few basic establishments which have developed opposite Madinet Habu to cater for tourists wanting to stay close to the necropolis, and, increasingly, those after an "authentic" Sa'idi (Upper Egyptian) experience -- he draws on his shisha with relish.
"Without its people, it is worth nothing. It is the people who give the place life, in fact it is they who provide the most effective protection for the tourists. Some people want to go, yes. But most people, those who are comfortable, are happy here. Nobody was forced to leave, though. It is true that there have been squabbles with the authorities over the houses over there -- people wanted to get two houses instead of one -- but nobody had to leave if they didn't want to. Nonetheless it is very unfortunate that the authorities don't realise that for people to stay is to everyone's benefit, and that it's easier for those who spent their entire lives here to spot the possibility of danger and work to prevent it..."
All talk of antique smuggling is thus conveniently sidetracked ("God no," another local knowingly retorted, "none of this happens here any more, not for a long time, not since the 1950s"), even though it was precisely "this" that brought the people to Gourna in the first place, and raised the perennial question of how to make them leave.
As early as 1915, a royal decree was issued to evacuate the Tombs of the Nobles (the infamy associated with these "people of the hills" had reached such a zenith that the word Gourna was practically synonymous with grave-robbers), but the executive authorities decided that it would be impractical to condemn a population of 7,000 to homelessness. "You don't want to leave your birthplace, do you?" the restaurant owner asks rhetorically. "It's a really strange request to make, especially when it is unjustified. Why should the people who spent their entire lives in the village, the grandchildren of those who actually built it, want to leave it now? Others have their own reasons, of course. They are hard-up, they need a change. But for those who can manage, it doesn't make sense to go anywhere, let alone to that barren place where conditions are so bad..."
At the beginning of the 20th century, Gourna had already become these people's only home, their children had grown up to consider access to the tombs an indisputable birthright, even if, having been ripped off by the east-bank middle men, they were forced to forge, destroy (as in melting down golden statuettes and selling them for the price of the gold), and, fatally, plunder monuments which had been found and recorded in government registries.
MUD, WITH STYLE: In the 1940s, a scandal similar to the one which occurred in the reign of Ramses IX drove the Department of Antiquities to commission Hassan Fathi, then a brilliant young professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts, to design a village for the residents of Gourna in a hosha ("a permanently dry field kept free from floodwater by a system of dykes") on the cultivated land opposite the hillside. Fathi's early dream, "to build a village where the fellahin would follow the way of life I would like them to", had led to several successful experiments with traditional, cost-effective methods of mud-brick construction (notably the ancient technique of vaulted roofing practiced intuitively by Aswani masons), and he started making designs for the village in 1945, as soon as Boulos Hanna Pasha, the original landowner, gave up the 50 acres of land which he was forced to sell to the government.
By the end of 1948, Fathi had despaired of struggling against an increasingly unsympathetic bureaucracy, and a mere fraction of the 900 houses he had envisioned were ready. New Gourna developed into a fully-fledged community only very gradually, in the late 1960s and 1970s. But as one approaches the shady, densely populated lanes, with the heavy-set archways of the khan and the domes of the houses emerging in the distance, it is immediately apparent that what survives of Fathi's vision is far more tasteful than anything else to be encountered on the west bank.
There is something fundamentally homely about the people, too. Instead of the grave-robbers' secret tunnels looming dangerously in the distance, the derelict, hilly stretches populated by shadows, and the unexplained presence of European women in small, seedy hotels, here are hospitable Sa'idi families going about their daily chores, domestic animals and children running around safely on the fertile soil of a reassuringly familiar Egyptian village -- except that the architecture is as beautiful as it is functional. These, one suspects, must be "the people of the valley" who were working in the fields when Gourna's tomb-robbers first settled on the hillside.
"At first, people didn't want to come. They broke the dykes more than once to inundate the works and put an end to the project altogether, but a few families -- true peasants who felt that Hassan Fathi might really be doing them some good -- had thought it a beneficial idea from the start and finally decided to support the man. They really came here to stay, they appreciated the opportunities that were being offered -- that their children could be learning all these useful trades (you know about Hassan Fathi's crafts and textiles schools) as they grew up, that they would have schools and health care, land to cultivate and comfortable, decent houses to live in. Of course, as the population exploded, the place gradually filled with people, but that wasn't until much later. The works had stopped completely after 1952" -- when the fate of New Gourna was forcibly handed over to the new Ministry of Housing -- "and that's when I first came with my father to support Hassan Fathi and prove that his project could work. Hassan Fathi himself was still coming and going all the time, and he stayed in his own house while he was here. You can see it's no different from anybody else's, it's not even much bigger.
"I was only a child, of course, but I know that this man cared deeply for people. There were about four other families and we all had the intention of making a home out of this place. As you know, the whole project was never finished. So we came in the early 1950s, after the construction works were stopped. From the 1960s on, people started coming and living here, but because the works were stopped too early the authorities never gave us their full sanction. Even now they haven't. But we have stayed, and struggled to live decently, regardless of the authorities, and anything worthwhile that you see here is due to the efforts of the people, the community itself and only the community. Nobody else did much for New Gourna, nobody ever really bothered at all..."
The lean, witty man standing in the shade by the door of the mosque greets us warmly, enthusiastically. Even at the height of summer, the interiors of all the buildings in New Gourna are cool (due to Fathi's ingenious technique of constructing each in such a way that it would be a natural malqaf, or "wind catcher", to combat the heat), and in the mosque's refreshing courtyard our host drives away a couple of curious boys who "have not really come to pray", while explaining how the life of New Gourna has been exactly concurrent with his own. He is not the sheikh of the mosque, he points out, but he keeps watch over its entrances and exits, and helps teach the children.
"It gets more and more difficult by the minute. The fact is, the revolution didn't bring us here, we were here before the revolution. We are not against the public good, but it's totally mad to talk about loving Pharaoh and not his people. As if our mere existence here bothers Pharaoh. As if Pharaoh is their grandfather, but not ours. Anything you do, even adding a simple bench to your courtyard, is considered tampering with public property... until the entire village is caught tampering..."
From the top of the minaret, the ugly, recently established Agricultural School partly blocks the view of Deir Al-Bahari, and the awe-inspiring Hatshepsut Temple. When he takes us on a tour of his relatives' houses, it turns out that this man is not the only politicised resident of New Gourna. After repeated attempts to install the basic amenities through legal channels, we learn, the people got together and did it themselves.
"It was the only way," a young relation who has had to seek work opportunities in Alexandria explains. Fathi may have suffered equally at the hands of the tomb-robbers who were opposed to the relocation, but it is the bureaucracy that complicates life for his well-meaning supporters.
TRIUMPH OF THE CONCRETE: Back on the road, our east-bank taxi-driver is more sympathetic. He lights a cigarette while explaining that the Gourna of Naj' Al-Rawajih has several complexes of buildings, the first of which were built as emergency housing for those whose dwellings the floods had destroyed. "But then the authorities thought, why not bring the others here too, get them off the monuments. And they went on building and trying to get people to move. These people are hard-up, though, they're mostly simple people, not like the moguls over there..."
The third Gourna may suffer from more or less the same problems as the previous two -- unemployment, poverty, the bureaucratic stumbling block -- but its residents are probably the least fortunate. Mostly minor civil servants whose prospects in Old Gourna were so dark they jumped at the first opportunity, these too had been living mostly in the valley, close to the flood plain. Unlike the restaurant owners of Madinet Habu, they did not have the means to substitute (and/or complement) tomb robbery with authentic-experience tourism.
In a nearly vacant corner shop on one of the wide, empty streets lined with nondescript cubes of concrete, a middle-aged man, one of the first to arrive in the third Gourna, recounts the story of his displacement: "Oh no, in fact I'm happier here. Of course some things could be better, but we're mostly OK. Originally I am a civil servant. But when I came I had the opportunity to open this grocery shop, too. I haven't yet received official permission to engage in commerce, though. So I operate the shop without permits, what else can I do? And everything you do, you get accused of tampering with public property. Yes, even here. This is a problem. But in Old Gourna there was no way I could've put one brick on top of another, nobody's allowed to build anything there any more. Yes, because of the monuments, yes. Whereas here I've got this shop..."
Outside, the sun's glare is unbearable. The tiny one-floor buildings shelter families, it is true, but it is impossible to tell whether this is a village or a small town -- it resembles neither. Row upon row of concrete bunkers stretch down the slope -- to infinity, almost. And despite the illusion of spaciousness, where Fathi's impressive "public service buildings" -- the theatre, the school, the khan -- had been, only a tiny, isolated mosque stands. "Since we arrived we've been asking for a diwan," an apparently less contented resident complains. "That's one thing no Sa'idi community can do without, a public space for weddings and condolence ceremonies and all kinds of gatherings. That's very important. It's been nearly five years and we still don't have one..."
But the problems go further than this. There is, for example, the deplorable lack of amenities suffered by an extended Coptic family who occupy the most recent string of buildings. "We get an electricity extension from the army while they are here," the head of the family, another civil servant, indicates, "but once they go we won't even have electricity. Can you believe we still have to go to the toilet in the mountains?" he asks in a surprisingly temperate tone.
Others, who work miles away, nearer Old Gourna, suffer from the lack of reliable transportation. Further down the slope, however, where the army commissioned private contractors to build houses, conditions are near breaking point. The houses are falling down, quite literally, and their inhabitants have nowhere to go. "We received official demolition orders months ago and still there is no sign of the new houses we're supposed to move to," an unemployed man with four children recounts in his own version of the story of the displacement. "But we go on living because there's no other choice, as you can see. When the president was here in March he said it would all be fine, but the officials here don't seem to be doing much..."
The day concluded, our eastward journey is silent. There are too many thoughts and emotions to put into words. The lyrics of the mawwal recur, however, as if to explain, in a complex, mysterious way, the purpose of our visit. All these people, in one sense or another, moved from east to west; all wound up in a land of shadows, away from the hustle and bustle of the Sun. And like the folk singer, they were driven by a complex, inexplicable yearning for another country, a country otherwise denied them.
Since the turn of the century, when the mawwal was first heard in the public celebrations of the south, the people of Gourna have indeed come a long way. But it is doubtful whether their yearning has been satisfied. As our version of the story demonstrates, it is far from true that their westward journey has ultimately been one of accession to the light.
THE NOBLE GRAVE-ROBBER: In his magnificent landmark, The Night of Counting the Years (1968), film-maker Shadi Abdel-Salam took the myth of Gourna to an evocative extreme, capturing the tension between the tomb-robbers' obligation to their livelihood and their forgotten spiritual connection with the dead. The protagonist, a young man bereft of his father, the chief of the tribe, is for the first time confronted with the true profession of his kin. "When I look at these tombs," he divulges, "I feel that the dead are there, I feel that they are talking to me..."
In contrast to the cunning of the go-betweens, the alien aloofness of Cairo's effendiya, who have come to uncover the tribe's secrets and take the mummies away, and the benign domesticity of "the people of the valley", the tomb-robbers were depicted as courtly noblemen with an intricate family structure and exacting codes of behaviour. It is no easy task, therefore, for the protagonist to collaborate with the effendiya, resolving his spiritual dilemma finally in favour of his ancient predecessors.
The film ends with a funereal procession of the mummies being carried back to the east bank on feluccas, the women of the tribe running down the hills in their mourning garb, wailing -- but what loss are they mourning? Little did Abdel-Salam know that the myth he so beautifully distilled, thus concluded, was yet to live on in utterly unpredictable forms, finding its way to the end of the millennium.