Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 March 2008
Issue No. 887
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Still free

Far from the frontline of capital and pain, Quft escapes the architecture of time. Serene Assir explores the desire to run

Where symbol and reality meet, and the present comes to life, time ceases to run through my fingers. Not only am I out of the city. Once past the final checkpoint on the way to Quft from Luxor -- patience, there are many of them -- the modus operandi of the state exposes itself as a primitive method of administrative control which rudely imposes itself on the beauty of that which is bigger than itself, failing to kill it but making a damn good attempt at hiding it. Not only am I out of the city and the architecture of time, but I am also beyond the reach of lies. Here the sun is the sun, the moon is the moon, and humans still remember how to feed themselves without killing others for it.

Sadly I too have made the mistake before of qualifying travel to Upper Egypt as a journey into the past -- as though the present, past and future were technological constructs, and as though the measure of time was merely advancement further and further into the pit of capital.

In Barahma village, in the home of Sanaa Hamdan, her daughter brings out sugar cane to offer her guests. Sanaa watches discretely as I struggle to peel it, but in good faith does not disturb. I soon give up. Sensing this, she takes it from me and within seconds it is peeled. According to development-based criteria her home would no doubt qualify as miserable. But she has memory of something of which I do not. She gives me the peeled cane back. It would be a statement of the obvious to say that it is sweeter than anything mass produced. But what is revealing is the instantaneous exposure of the misperception that somehow the city should in any way hold more advancement than that which Sanaa can offer. She is the present and I am the past.

At any rate the description appears insulting unless qualifying the past as behind is a mistake too. Maybe as we draw nearer to the frontline of capital and technological violence, the delusion that there can be nothing else is strong, and from that delusion grows a lethargy and submission to human limitation. Of this submission Quft knows literally nothing -- at least not with any depth. Upper Egypt is known for its resistance to the imposition of state control, and to this day any significant abuse of power by central power quickly meets retaliation. "It's not that we don't cooperate," said resident Ahmed Jebran. "But we know the difference between cooperation and submission. This is ours, and we are part of this land. It could be said that in Upper Egypt we enjoy our independence. It is not political. It is human."

Along the road up towards Barahma from Luxor, the consequences of this proud spirit of independence are clear. The splendour of nature is overwhelming. Fields stretch out from beside the Nile water as far as the eye can see. Reeds grow tall and their tips shine as yellow beneath the perfect sky. Children sit by the river and talk or play. Palm trees line the banks in different shapes and sizes. The moon begins to rise early, its white translucent configuration carving itself onto layers of darkening blue. Silence is here, as is sound enough to fill the air with comfort. And there is also struggle. The work of the farmers is physical and hard. Some children play rough, as they do everywhere. Perfection does not mean stillness, for there is much movement. To sow the harvest involves cuts. To raise children involves cracking of the skin, as the roughness of the skin of scores of mothers in Qena reveals.

But the greatest struggle is not one for which the people have prayed, and that is the struggle against poverty. Everywhere the phrase seems to echo, " Ehna ghalaba, alhamdulillah." (We are poor, thank God). Inequality reaches brutal levels here as some gain status over others simply for having a direct water connection to their homes, even when the rest of the home reveals an equal level of disenfranchisement. Indeed relativity is reduced to a bad joke played on those who, swamped by information, lose sight of just what is happening even on their own ground.

Military strategy dictates that the offensive is most brutal when the chances of success are small. Poverty and the onslaught of globalisation are likely to keep going, ever more relentlessly, until they manage to co-opt the majority of the world, which is still rich, variegated and is home to areas such as Quft. The prospect is frightening, sure, because the pain is strong already. But the loss of beauty and freedom amidst the pure nature to the forces of submission and order -- surely the pain of that would be greater.

Quft leaves many impressions. The strongest is the temptation to run towards a future where justice and love are stronger than the monopoly of order. My feelings change, however, on the road back out, and I remember my place, and it is not here, at least not now. The sun begins to set as it occurs to me that if such beauty exists on earth, then paradise must be -- but no. We leave that thought for another time.

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