22 - 28 July 1999
Issue No. 439
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
A living community
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Sir- As an anthropologist working with and amongst the Gournawi, I find it saddening that, despite all the academic work which has been carried out in the Theban Necropolis, its contemporary inhabitants remain a largely unknown entity. "A yearning for another country" (Al-Ahram Weekly, 24-30 June) does nothing to dispel that truth, relying instead on the now worn imagery (also see Al-Ahram Weekly, 6-12 August 1998) of Shadi Abdel-Salam's work, which dramatises an event dating back to 1881. By association, your writer continues to uphold the notion that all people here are tomb robbers, and that the trade in illegal antiquities is still the primary mode of subsistence.
It is obvious that he has not set foot inside the Necropolis to inspect its dwellings for the veracity of the 'mogul' assertion made by his east bank informant. Had he done so, not only would he have found that the ones so described trace their (relative and arguably historically fortuitous) wealth to some six family-owned feddans, he would also have found many families living in what must be, to a middle-class city-dweller, near-abject poverty.
Most people in Old Gourna subsist on a mixture of formal (lower-level government) and informal employment. Amongst the latter, the better-off may own a few animals and a grad of land.
Contrary to your writer's false distinction between the Nile Valley's 'true' peasants and "those beset by scandal", they nevertheless, with the pride of a tradition steeped in agriculture, refer to themselves as muzari'in (farmers). Others are subjected to the seasonal hardship of having to sell souvenirs to tourists, survival during the summer months seen as the result of divine will rather than the outcome of reliable economic projections.
It is your reporter's right to ignore the socio-economic realities of a community he purports to write about, and it is likewise his right to remain faithful to a tomb-robbing mythology which takes much of its inspiration from a 100-year-old event. But it is highly offensive to characterise a living community he has no knowledge of in such derogatory terms as a "most striking misfit" and a "pariah of villages".
Mesmerised by Hassan Fathi (his vision "far more tasteful than anything else encountered on the west bank"), your writer, keen to see the second relocation initiative, drove straight past Old Gourna, ignoring the vernacular architecture appreciated by visitors to the Necropolis.
Despite its charm, it is true that Old Gourna now looks run-down, but only because it has not been allowed to maintain the state of repair its vernacular quality deserves. If it is a truism that such vernacular architecture also houses a rich communal culture, then most visitors will lack the opportunity to explore this beyond the short-term access inherent in the small-scale eco-tourism now offered by some families. The wider community has little knowledge and less understanding of Gournawi culture, other than the name of Abdel-Rasoul and the events of 1881. Little is known about how people really live in this World Heritage Listed, protected archaeological landscape, how the landscape defines and confines their everyday lives, and how they impact on and live with that landscape. Little is known about the kinship bonds and social obligations that have forged this community and which are so important when considering relocation.
The protected landscape vs living community dichotomy which seems to exist in this symbiosis merits our interest (if only because of the eventual relocation of Old Gourna to New Al-Taref, bringing to a close centuries of history here) and should allow us to ask questions and make observations beyond the history of the trade in antiquities and the mythology surrounding it.
Simply to subscribe to that mythology, and then to physically bypass the village altogether, as effectively done by your reporter, does nothing to alleviate our collective ignorance. In the light of east-west bank rivalries, the ignorance portrayed by your writer's taxi driver can be excused. As an open-minded and unbiased journalist, your writer has no such excuse.
A city-dweller's Orientalist perception of otherness, characterised by repeating old assumptions and by what was left unexplored and unsaid, has once again allowed a rich and unique part of Egypt's cultural heritage to remain in the dark.
Kees van der Spek
Luxor West Bank Ethnographic
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