|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
26 July - 1 August 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
The last frontierFayza Hassan and photographer Randa Shaath return to Al-Qursaya and find a storm brewing on the Nile's tiniest island, too
"The government only took notice of us when our land became desirable for their projects," shouted Umm Abdel-Moneim as we tried to talk to her about her plans for the future. Like the rest of the population living on the islands in the Nile, she and her family may be evicted from their homes pretty soon. "The government never gave us anything," continues Umm Abdel-Moneim in her cracked voice: "No water, no sewers, no school, no clinic. We managed on our own and never asked for anything. Now they plan to throw us on the streets." Umm Abdel-Moneim's family comprises a son (Abdel-Moneim), three daughters, Abdel-Moneim's wife and their three infant children. They all depend on the earnings of the son; he works on the islands as a labourer, complementing his meagre wages by fishing and doing odd jobs. "This is how he manages to feed us all. We have no other place to go... They will have to walk over my dead body before I let them evict me," she suddenly sobs.
THAT CHOKING SENSATION: Islanders demand nothing, and contribute much to the city's economic and ecological survival; yet while they struggle on without government assistance, eking out a living from fishing and agricultural work, they must now face the threat of eviction to make room for a "national project," rumoured to be the construction of a luxury resort
The old woman is sitting on the ground in front of her miserable mud-brick shelter, in the company of her daughters and her grandchildren. One of the grown girls is combing her younger sister's hair. "God forgive them for what they are doing to us," she sighs. The other women shake their heads in resigned agreement.
The place where I met Umm Abdel- Moneim is the island of Al-Qursaya, the smallest of the three, off the busy Mounib ring road. One leaves the noisy thoroughfare behind on the island, a rare spot of green at the heart of the chaotic city. Egrets dig for worms and birds twitter in the trees. A few colourful butterflies that have all but disappeared on the mainland are poised on the aubergine plants. Women are singing somewhere and their voices carry on the breeze.
There are two other much larger islands in the vicinity. One, Al-Warraq, is a semi- rural area, where izbas of mud-brick houses nestle among the palm trees, while a few nondescript concrete structures mar the scenery, but have to be credited for having provided cheap housing to poor students and low-ranking government employees in the past decades. Green fields, fruit and flower plantations are the main features of Al-Warraq, however. Sometimes, in the distance, one can see water, buffaloes grazing and small, sturdy donkeys carrying their owners to market. The other large island, Geziret Al-Dahab, poised in the Nile opposite the Maadi Corniche, is the most famous for its first-rate arable land. It has long been an active centre for the production of flowers and expensive cash crops. In the days when Egypt did not import exotic flowers, the prettiest roses grew there in abundance. Here and there, away from the izbas, a rich landowner has built himself a grand residence. It is known that large landowners there include names like Abu Shaqra, Sawiris or Ibrahim Kamel. Their constructions are inconspicuous enough to blend into the landscape, though.
A while back, the government became interested in the islands, which according to developers represented an invaluable piece of real estate. The indigenous population stood in the way, however. Since that time, the inhabitants of the islands have been complaining of harassment by various government officials. Not the least among the causes of their displeasure are the helicopters that buzz back and forth over their heads all day, and which they believe are being used to draw up a land survey of the islands.
Today, the dispute rages on between the government, intent on evicting the islanders, and the irate population, who number close to 80,000 and regard their place in the Nile as home.
Many of the peasants and fishermen were born on Geziret Al-Dahab, which seems to have been the first island to be settled permanently. In time, they recount, their fathers and grandfathers noticed the small island of Al-Qursaya, which appeared whenever the floods of the Nile receded. The men began to cross over seasonally to tend the land and plant their crops, returning to their original homes when the water rose and covered the fields. Over the years, and with the construction of the High Dam, Al-Qursaya stopped playing hide-and- seek and the peasants felt secure enough to begin, on their own, a land improvement scheme that allowed them to start planting more than one crop. This is when many families moved in from Al-Warraq and Geziret Al-Dahab to be closer to their fields. They dug irrigation canals and spread fertilisers. The rich earth yielded enough maize and vegetables to feed the households, with something left over to sell at the market across the river. The Nile provided them with fish caught by young boys who cast their nets in the shallow water off the island. In a way, this was a self-sufficient community that made no demands on the outside world.
The government, however, objected that the land had been obtained by seizure and that the members of the islands' community were squatters, not entitled to own their small plots. Many inhabitants do have regular property deeds, some dating back to 1900, while others are prepared to pay the necessary registration fees. The rest of the settled residents cultivate government or private land under a usufruct system.
A few years ago, rumours of a foreign businessman who had invested heavily in the islands and intended to set up a tourist project began to circulate and the media was alerted. Nothing happened, and public interest declined. According to a well- informed source, speaking on condition of anonymity, the businessman claims the government had promised to evict the islanders and allow him to proceed with the building of a river resort. Cabinet Decree 542 for the year 2001 was issued in unclear circumstances, sending the islanders to court. Basically, the decree stipulated that the islands were to be cleared of their inhabitants, making way for a project described as being of "public benefit." This formula is currently used when major infrastructure works are initiated, such as the building of roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. It certainly does not apply to private development endeavours. (For full details of the court case see "Just leave us alone," Al-Ahram Weekly, 19-25 July.) Meanwhile, the inhabitants await the court decision on 19 August. Although they all say they are ready to accept God's will, whether they will accept the government's is debatable.
Artist Mohamed Abla, my guide to the islands, is late, which gives me a chance to observe the bustling fish market at the entrance of the small dock leading to Al- Qursaya. The ma'addiya, which will transport us to the island, is a decrepit old craft, attached to a heavy metal chain at both ends of its course (the chain passes through a pulley and is pulled by a young boatman who moves the "ferry" from one bank to the other). Passengers and necessities shuttle to and fro every ten minutes. As I watch, women cross to look at the day's catch. Here the much-appreciated bolty (a popular river fish) retails for only LE8.50 a kilo. There is much haggling going on and several housewives finally settle for more modest sardines, which are swimming in an old pink bathtub. Young boys watch over baskets full of fish piled on the footpath; passersby stop to see if they will be able to clinch the bargain of the day. A taxi driver stops and after some discussion with the fishermen acquires a large fish that he places on the front seat, then, murmuring a few words of apology to his client, who has been waiting patiently, proceeds on his way. The delicious smell of grilling fish permeates the air. In a corner, a metal plate glows red hot over burning coal. A selection of fish rolled in spices and doused with tomato and onion juice is thrown onto the improvised barbecue. Clients interested in take-away queue up, watching over the process
Abla finally arrives and we jump into the ferry. Jerrycans filled with water are stashed under the makeshift benches. "There is no running water on the island," explains Abla. Nor is there any sewage system, I notice as soon as we disembark. The Nile is high at this time of the year, and sacks filled with debris have been lined up on the way to the island to allow for a drier passage. Women carrying loads of dishes on their heads greet us on their way to the river, where they gather to share in the household chores. Children jump in the water, rubbing their bodies with the dishwashing suds. They scream and laugh, splashing each other exuberantly. They are hardworking youngsters, who have to contribute early to the family income by fishing or working in the fields before and after school, but today is a holiday and they are taking full advantage of it. The young boys beg Abla to take pictures. They love posing for the camera. "Later," he says as we move on. "They are good kids," he adds. "Did I tell you that there are no schools on this island? The children have to walk all the way to Mounib."
A pretty girl with long plaits escaping from her mandil is scrubbing a plastic mat. They all know Abla and are not unduly disturbed by the presence of a stranger. They keep insisting that their photograph be taken and complain that Abla never shows them the finished product. "When I am done admiring you, I will bring your photos around," he tells them. Abla has been painting the islanders and his work was on show recently at the Atelier (a collaboration with Weekly photographer Randa Shaath) and the Sony Gallery.
Under a large leafy tree, half a dozen teenagers are having breakfast. They have been picking cucumbers for their employer and kept a few for themselves. They are seasonal workers from Fayoum who move around according to work availability. They have been coming to Al-Qursaya for several years now. Unlike the settled inhabitants, they are not worried by the ominous developments. They share a room in the village and believe they can always find the same set-up elsewhere.
Having accepted a few cucumbers, Abla urges me on. He notices red peppers growing on small bushes and picks a few. "Are you going to eat those as well?" I ask him in alarm. "These are for painting," he says.
'Amm Ahmed is working in a field of eggplants, picking the purple vegetables carefully and throwing them into a half-full basket. "Here, doctor, taste this one," he tells Abla, handing him a round bulb. "Isn't it delicious?" 'Amm Ahmed does not really want to talk to me, but answers my questions politely nevertheless. He was born on Geziret Al-Dahab "60 years less two years" ago. How does he see the situation? "Just fine," he answers. "Couldn't be better. The government will take my land and give me a villa in Zamalek in compensation. I will live like a king in my old age." I am taken aback by the bitterness, but 'Amm Ahmed has gone back to his aubergines and I can't see his face. "Don't get me started, doctor," he calls to Abla over his shoulder. "My tongue will get me into big trouble."
Abla is optimistic, though, at least for now. "The rural populations have become wiser," he says. "They no longer fear the state. The islanders closed Mounib Bridge in an unprecedented protest a few weeks ago and they have allies in the government. They sent a delegation to Alexandria to meet with Abul-Ezz El-Hariri, MP for Qarmouz. He has promised to help them and they have hired lawyers. They don't intend to give up without a big fight."
The point is really that the Egyptian government, famous for its controversial policy of evictions (the Qurna saga comes to mind) and its bungled resettling schemes, does not seem able to leave well enough alone. The islands are a lung for the overcrowded, over-polluted capital, which is experiencing a messy and long-drawn out death under the onslaught of poisonous emissions. They are inhabited by a self-sufficient community, which should be taken as a model of grass-roots development that has flourished against all the odds. The islanders may be polluting the Nile, but certainly no more than the large cruisers that ply the river with the authorities' blessings. Why shouldn't potential developers get a piece of Sinai or the Northern Coast instead? There investors have already wreaked havoc with extravagantly and unsightly resorts. Here, now, before it is too late, the authorities should be thinking about how to preserve this tiny spot, if only as proof that they stopped short of nationwide devastation.
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