Small town, big history
Once a busy intersection between east and west, Qosseir is a town which is rediscovering its identity. Amira El-Noshokaty visits the port city as it attempts to reclaim vestiges of its past
The three-storey white buildings with their sky-blue balconies surround the old Ottoman fort and ancient water reservoir. "This reservoir was the only source of drinking water in Qosseir 100 years ago," remembered Adel Aiesh, director of the non- governmental organisation responsible for the preservation of the heritage of the town. "My grandfather was responsible for dividing the drinking- water equally among the inhabitants. The water was imported from Aden."
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A walk through the narrow streets of Qosseir
Hotel Al-Qosseir, the result of the restoration of the 80-year-old former residence of the chief of Ababda Tribe. This is the only hotel downtown
Wooden bridges between neighbouring houses
The balcony from which King Farouk gave his speech
One of the old unrestored houses of Qosseir
Sea-side cafés are the only outings at Qosseir
The Learning and Development Centre of Qosseir
The shrine of famous Sufi sheikh Abdel-Qader El-Gilany
The woodwork shop, supported by the micro-credit project
Local children during their computer class
What's left of the phosphate factory
The town of Qosseir is one of the Egyptian gateways on the Red Sea. Located between Hurghada and Marsa Alam, it used to be an important town along the spice trade route through various eras, from Pharaonic and Roman times through to the Ottoman period. It was also the final place of rest for pilgrims travelling to Mecca. The trade route was diverted in the late 19th century, however, when the railway came to Suez, and a new source of income was found for the town, namely phosphate mining, with the establishment of the Italian phosphate company in 1912. Saad Hamza used to work as a truck driver for the Italian company in 1952, for a daily wage of seven piastres, and remembers the names of all officials who once worked there.
"The manager of the company was called El Laurinti, the technical manager was Albestro. All these old houses were owned by Italians who worked in the phosphate factory," he said. The phosphate company was much more than an industrial project. It provided jobs for most of the inhabitants whose main source of income vanished when the Muslim pilgrimage route shifted to Suez. Aside from being the source of income for 90 per cent of the locals, the factory provided a monthly supply of 10 kg of sugar and enough gas to use as a source of lighting before electricity reached Qosseir in the eighties. Hamza, born in 1936, was a driver on one of the heavy trucks owned by the phosphate company. After the factory shut down most of the locals earned their daily bread by working as drivers transporting food from Cairo and Giza; the rest made their living as fishermen and some left the village entirely.
Farid Mansour is the chairman of the Preservation of Qosseir Heritage NGO, which was established in 1999.
"The idea to preserve the heritage came from the need to provide the villagers with a source of income after the phosphate factory was shut down," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. The town's inhabitants used to be fishermen serving the needs of the pilgrims passing through the village, then came the phosphate factory. Changing international markets reduced the importance of phosphate as a commercial commodity and the factory was closed.
Even though the golden era of Qosseir has been lost, a brighter future may be provided through the efforts of the preservation society. One of the main projects started by the NGO is the Learning and Development Centre of Qosseir which now comes under the auspices of the Egyptian Red Crescent Society. The centre was started in 1999 in the abandoned hospital building which was restored by the NGO. Computer and English language courses are run there, and the top floor is dedicated to children with special needs. Two thousand boys and girls have been taught in the period of one year.
Essam El-Bakry is among the first computer students at the centre. He joined the course two years ago and took computer and English courses. A graduate of the Faculty of Tourism and Hotels at Cairo University, he is now an instructor at the centre. This job opportunity gave him a reason to return home.
Inside the classrooms, children sit back-to-back with their eyes on their screens. The English lesson has just finished and it is time for computers.
Aya Hamada is 11, and she visits the centre on her day off. "Here I learn how to draw using the computer programme, Kid Prix," she said.
The upper floors of the three-storey building are dedicated to children with special needs. Iman Moustafa, one of the teachers who was among the first class to acquire training courses abroad, is now an instructor herself. Moustafa is proud of the training she received in Switzerland with the Montessouri teaching methods. "We are a sentimental people by nature, and these classes taught me how to use my mind other than my emotions to teach children. We employ flexible teaching methods, using for example music and games to teach children the alphabet."
Dalia Shaaban is also a graduate of the centre and now teaches English to prospective employees of the Red Sea petroleum companies. Mansour said that the petroleum companies used to train prospective employees themselves, but only around 30 of 1,000 candidates would actually be given jobs. Girls were not included in this training scheme and the preservation NGO objected to this. The first people to be trained in the new courses were girls.
The town is small but big in history. Many pilgrims died there on their way either to or from Mecca. Being a final resting place for pilgrims, many believe it was a blessed place where no bad could occur. Haj Mubarak is a wanderer we encountered while walking the streets under the wooden bridges which link neighbouring houses. We learned that he is the most skilled electrical technician in town, despite his blindness.
The town is steeped in history. Even the police station has witnessed speeches made by King Farouk and Gamal Abdel-Nasser. The history of this small, yet very rich part of Egypt was carefully recorded by Qosseir's own local hero, Kamaleddin Hussein, or 'Hamam' as he was known by all.
Hamam was the first Egyptian director of the phosphate company after its nationalisation. He wrote many books documenting historical facts of the Red Sea area and made particular reference to Qosseir. It is thanks to him that electricity was introduced to the area in the early 1980s. He also drew attention to the importance of Qosseir's Ottoman citadel, which has now been restored and is currently in use as a museum.
In Qosseir, every smiling face has its own story to tell. Stories abound of endless shrines where this or that saint has performed miracles or bestowed curses. One such story relates to a Sufi sheikh, El- Sheikh El-Gilany, who was buried in the town. An attempt was made to knock down the shrine some 20 years ago, but the dome on top of the structure, it is said, remained spinning and caught fire, indicating objection to the plan. The shrine still remains intact and overlooks the first beach-front café in town.
The café is owned by Samira Neiama. "Most of the people here used to be fishermen, and my father was the head fisherman," she remembered. Her father dreamt that El-Sheikh El-Gilany asked him not to block the sea water, as he used it to perform ritual ablution.
Conditions used to be bad in the town. Neiama said that there was neither water, roads nor electricity in Qosseir until as recently as 15 years ago and the beach area was used as a dumping ground for the slaughterhouse. The beach has since been cleaned up by the local council.
Lobster fishing also used to be an important industry here. A single specimen would sell for LE2, now one lobster can cost as much as LE50. The government has since prohibited night fishing -- the only time to catch lobsters -- without a permit. Permits are difficult to obtain. Fishing is one of the alternative sources of income since the closure of the phosphate factory, but difficult to undertake if permits can't be acquired. "Why not use the old phosphate factory as a fish factory, for canning, or as an ice factory or something?" asked Neiama.
But things are getting better, at least according to Ahmed Abdel-Gaber, a free-lance photographer who joined the micro credit project in Qosseir. Abdel-Gaber now owns his own developing studio. "Before my studio," remembered Abdel-Gaber, "tourists in Qosseir used to wait for a couple of days to develop their films because we used to send them to studios in Qena, Luxor or Sohag." This micro credit project is supported by the Preservation of Qosseir Heritage NGO in collaboration with the National Social Fund. It has provided aid to 74 industrial and trade projects in Qosseir since 2000.
"I took a loan for LE35,000 with a monthly repayment of a LE1,000," said Mostafa Said, showing us a woodwork project commission by the Mövenpick Qosseir Hotel. The strangely shaped bench is for divers to store their oxygen tanks. Development is not just limited to providing job opportunities for the people of Qosseir. A joint project between Southampton University and the Preservation of Qosseir Heritage NGO was approved and they are now planning to open an exhibition of photographs, slides and replicas of historic artefacts found in the area. The old 80-year-old hotel has also finally been restored to its former glory and is now the only hotel in the old town. This hotel is the former residence of the chief of the Ababda tribe and was one of the old stone buildings in dire need of restoration.
Sitting quietly by the seashore, Hamza remembered how, during the Moslem holy month of Ramadan, a whistle which could be heard across the waters, was blown by the phosphate factory as a sign that the hours of fasting had come to an end. The shadow of that factory still stretches across Qosseir today.