A place to stay
With over 3,200 families being relocated from Luxor's west bank, writes Pierre Loza
, disgruntled inhabitants have yet to be placated
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Clockwise from top: the old Gurna houses overlooking Medinet Habu; one of the preserved houses; depicting the traditions of the Gurna people on the walls makes this house one of 25 others to be preserved; a resident not willing to leave her house; a Gurna resident still practising her everyday rituals hoping not to be relocated
Comprising four interconnected nogou' (hamlets) -- Al-Hurubat, Atiyat, Al-Ghabat, Al-Hasasna -- the village conglomerate of Gurna is the most densely populated part of the west bank of the Nile in Luxor -- the site of the Theban necropolis. And evacuating it has proved to be a major undertaking, second only to evacuating Nubia prior to its submersion in Lake Nasser in the course of building the Aswan High Dam. Two weeks after the "celebrations" broadcast on satellite television -- pretty girls in ancient Egyptian outfits dancing around while the mud brick houses were being bulldozed into oblivion -- villagers like Mohamed El-Tayib, a tour guide, are voicing discontent: "you think these girls are from Gurna? Well, they're from Luxor. The celebration a show put on by others -- nothing to do with Gurna or its people..."
While the move was being planned, indeed, incipient meetings had excluded all but the most affluent villagers, as El-Tayib explained, who could afford houses bigger than the 150 sq m units provided to each family in Al-Taref (or New Gurna, five kilometres away). This was the main complaint: in Upper Egypt large, often extended, families will normally occupy a single space, and Gurna villagers are concerned that, with up to seven children (not to mention grandchildren) in each family, a 150 sq m space would not be enough for comfortable living. Nabawiya El-Garani, a member of one of the first four families to be moved on the occasion of the "celebration", has been told by City Council officials that she should expect to be moved again. "Why make me leave my home if they are going to move me again," she asked rhetorically. "I like it here. But without a contract I live in fear of what will come next." Unreliable as it remains, running water has spared her the uphill journey, undertaken every other day, to fill troughs carried on a donkey-pulled cart; and with furniture (donated), her new home is an improvement on the last. Yet she cannot fully enjoy any of it knowing she must move again.
Pooling the efforts of five ministries and several other official bodies, the LE180 million housing project takes into account the villagers' lifestyle (Gurna has no running water or sewerage, only electricity), providing each unit with a backyard for domestic animals, for example. But El-Tayib, for one, claims the demolition of his mud brick house on the sandstone mountainside -- a move that was made without his legal consent -- would have left him and his family homeless if not for the presence of an ancient cave carved into the stone wall of the house, which they now occupy: "I was told I would get a new house, complete with key and contract. Well, you can see I got neither." Nor would he have been happy with the contractual stipulations, which he feels give the occupant a sort of lease rather than full ownership; additional floors cannot be built without permission from the City Council, which he expects he will be denied. "You see how they failed to deliver what they promised. Why would they give permission to build?" The demolition, the El-Tayib family insisted, had not been consensual in the first place. "When I told the officer in charge we didn't want the house to be demolished," Mohamed's son Ahmed testified, "he said he had already prepared detention orders for people who didn't comply."
According to the City Council representative of Al-Hasasna, Sayed Hamid, 110 families living in Al-Hasasna have been successfully relocated. And the contract stipulation that villagers cannot sell or rent out new homes without City Council approval -- one of the most frowned on -- has now been revoked. Families not living in but owning houses in Gurna were compensated with plots of land in the same area -- 302 of which have already been handed over -- causing problems of their own.
Born in Gurna though living elsewhere, Abdel-Sabour and his brothers were given three land- ownership contracts in compensation for their family inheritance but they have not yet been able to locate the land in question, he complains. He expressed resentment of the evacuation not only because it severs the link between the people and their ancestral home but because it will also deprive them of vital access to tourists -- a major source of income for the vast majority of them. "Having left we will be strangers in our homeland," Abdel-Sabour said. "I bet they won't even let us in before checking our IDs." Yet Mohamed Metwali, who has been the president of the City Council for only a month now, since the west bank was declared a separate district, agrees with Hamid's positive view of the relocation. The 700 army-built units have been distributed in the most efficient way possible, he says: "it was the village elders heading community committees who decided who should get what, on the basis of number of family members and location of original home. The government was only involved at the executive level."
Nor was Metwali apologetic about people receiving land ownership contracts without even knowing where their land might be located. "When you buy a car, do you keep that car on you at all times?" he said cryptically. "No, you sign a contract, and so long as the product agrees with what that contract specifies, you are fine." Housing contracts allow full ownership, he insisted, pointing out that the three-floor limit is a reasonable measure, and denying any claim of that people who have been relocated will be moved again: "Rumours have been rampant because there are those who are trying to exert pressure to get as much as they can out of the deal. How do you expect me to believe that 250 homes were torn down without their owners' consent?" Nor is there cause for concern when it comes to families who, evacuated, have not yet been relocated: "How do you expect me to move 3,200 families overnight? It's going to take at least 45 days for the relocation to be complete." He sounds as if he has no more to say.
For their part antiquities officials are quite pleased about the future of Gurna. "This area marks the resting place of the nobility of the New Kingdom's 19th-20th dynasties," Ali El-Asfar, the manager in charge, sounds relieved that a century-old question is finally being resolved. "We expect to find an estimated 1,000 tombs buried underneath the village itself." Even after 100 years of residential living at an archaeological site -- accompanied by many thousands of antiquities stealing and smuggling instances -- the area still has immense potential: "Most of what we know about the afterlife in ancient Egypt comes from the tombs of kings, but the nobles' tombs are unique in that they include paintings and inscriptions reflecting everyday life." This could relate to anything from father-son relations to wildlife and agriculture. Tomb robbery, he says, was due largely to ignorance: "In the old days when people actually lived inside these tombs, they felt they owned them and that the antiquities were part of their property. This was especially prevalent because there was not yet a legal framework for criminalising." El-Asfar sees the people of Gurna as the descendants of the ancients, who have carried many of their craftsmanship techniques through generations, and he is pleased that the government decided to preserve 25 of Gurna's original homes as part of a heritage initiative undertaken in partnership with the UNESCO -- to be turned into outlets where local artisans can market their goods.