Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)
Tuesday,14 August, 2018
Issue 1280, (28 January - 3 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A mayor’s tale

Egypt’s oldest village mayor explains the secrets of his longevity to Nader Habib

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Ya hadret al-omda,” or “Mr Mayor”, is a phrase often uttered in classic Egyptian films. On screen, the omda, or village chief, is often portrayed as a grumpy old despot who tries to get his own way, no matter what. In reality, as I recently learned, things are quite different.

Some may remember the film Al-Zoga Al-Thaniya (The Second Wife), by Salah Mansour, or Salah Al-Saadani in the television series Layali Al-Helmiya (Helmiya Nights). In both cases, the omda was a symbol of authority, someone who cherished power and was not above abusing it.

But the truth is gentler than these fictional representations, and the once-important omda is fast disappearing from the country’s villages. In recent years, Egypt has been phasing out the omda system. Instead of the village chief keeping law and order, most villages now have their own police stations, which hire locals as ghafar, or guards.

Only in small villages, or areas lacking a police station, does the old system still exist, with the omda keeping law and order with the assistance of a few ghafar. Unlike the ghafar, the omda doesn’t receive a salary. His work is voluntary, and not infrequently he may be called upon to pay from his own pocket to settle minor problems.

Although his position is unsalaried, the job of omda comes with so much prestige that in the past powerful clans sometimes started feuds over which was to get the honour. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the government has found it hard to keep the old system in place.

During a recent visit to Aswan, I heard that a nearby village, Meniha, was run by “Egypt’s oldest mayor.” Haj Saleh, an Internet search revealed, is also popular on social media and has a reputation for being honest and working hard. Having filled the post since 1963, he is often referred to as Sheikh Al-Omad (Dean of Village Chiefs).

The village of Meniha is surrounded by lush orchards of date palms and mango, and sugarcane fields. Upon arrival, I requested an interview with Haj Saleh, now in his mid-eighties. A meeting was set up at his house for 1.30pm the next day.

At the big metal gates to the house, a girl opened the door and made a gesture of covering her head, as is customary among women in the village. The house, just like in the films, is referred to as dawwar al-omda, or “grand house of the village chief.”

A minute later, Haj Saleh himself appeared and led me to a room in his house. The room had one bed pushed against the wall; the other three walls were lined with sofas for guests. The walls were bare except for a certificate of appreciation from the Ministry of Interior, recognising the work of Haj Saleh.

I started firing off questions as soon as we sat down, but the seasoned omda dismissed them with a wave of the hand. “You came at lunchtime and we will not talk until we have had lunch.” His words were uttered with avuncular warmth and an old-world generosity that was impossible to challenge. We ate and then we had the ultra-sweet tea that one expects in a village house.

Only then, did the omda start to talk. He told me that he had succeeded his father in the post. His father had been an omda since 1932. When he died in 1963, the job went to Haj Saleh.

One quality the job demands, he stressed right away, is the ability to communicate with people of various backgrounds and levels of sophistication. “When a man is in a position such as mine he has to talk differently to different people. You don’t talk to an uneducated man in the same way you talk to an educated person,” he said.

Then, he used a popular proverb: “Argue with the savant and you gain, argue with the ignorant and you lose.” Haj Saleh, who used to accompany his father to village meetings as a child, is adept at using proverbs and is a great raconteur.

When I asked him how he felt about his job, he started at the beginning. “When my father was alive, we had about 100 feddans of land. But with the nationalisations carried out by [former president] Gamal Abdel-Nasser any land that was tarh al-nil [by the river] was given to small farmers.”

Most of the family’s land was tarh al-nil, and Haj Saleh found he only had five feddans left after the land redistribution, not the kind of wealth usually associated with people holding post of omda. “I had to ask myself a very important question: How could I continue to serve as omda if I had no money?”

To resolve the problem, he decided to go into business. But what business? “I started to think, and then I remembered the time the village had been overrun with ants. At that time we had no electricity, and the houses were built with beams of wood and palm fronds. The ants ate the fronds and the wood and left people literally out in the cold.”

Before continuing, Haj Saleh remembered another popular saying. “The misfortune of some is the fortune of others,” he said, and began to recount how he became a scrap metal dealer.

“I borrowed 1,000 pounds from a friend in Alexandria. I took the money and put it in my pocket, next to the gun my father had got a licence for in 1960,” he said. With this money, he intended to go into business selling scrap metal.

“I had a free train pass [one of the perks of being an omda], and I decided to go out to seek my fortune. First I went to a seasoned businessman in Suez to ask for tips. He advised me to focus on the area of the Suez Canal, which at the time was a military zone.” In the course of his search, Haj Saleh came upon the junkyard of an old British barracks, which he said was a “treasure trove of pipes and sheet metal.”

Haj Saleh bought 2,000 pounds of junk metal from the yard, but had only enough money for half the consignment. So the owner of the junkyard accompanied him to Cairo to collect the other half. “I understood his fears. This was the first time I had dealt with him, so he had his doubts,” Haj Saleh remembered.

When they arrived in Cairo, Haj Saleh was too shy to admit to his companion that he couldn’t afford to pay for a taxi. “He was trying to hail a taxi, and I had to stop him because I only had 25 piastres on me, and that was not enough for a taxi. I told him that if I took a taxi I would lose my way, and that a bus from nearby Ramses Square would get us where we wanted to go.”

Haj Saleh then managed to pay the junkyard owner from the down payment on the consignment. That night, the Cairo dealers invited both Haj Saleh and the Suez-based junkyard owner to a sumptuous dinner. Treated to such Cairo hospitality, the Suez junkyard owner apologised profusely to Haj Saleh for doubting his honesty.

“When he returned to the Suez Canal, he spoke highly of me to all his acquaintances and recommended that they do business with me, with or without advance money,” Haj Saleh recalled.

Once he had shown he could be successful in metal trading, Haj Saleh tried his hand at cattle. He went to a town near SoHaj in Upper Egypt that had a well-regarded cattle market. “I got the permission of the local omda to buy cattle in his area. Then, heading to the market, I began inspecting the cattle,” he said.

The technique he developed to buy cattle at the right price is quite interesting. He would eavesdrop on business discussions and if the negotiations broke down, he would offer the seller slightly more and clinch the deal. It was a simple trick, but it required some deft footwork.

“As soon as the buyers left, I would go up and offer the same amount of money that the last had mentioned and top it up with 50 pounds. Then I would ask the buyer to take the cows outside the market so that others did not find out about the deal. I would then repeat the same tactic with another seller.”

Haj Saleh took the cattle to his village and sold them at a profit, but still at a lower price than other cattle merchants would offer. So it was a win-win situation for all.

Along with his business acumen, Haj Saleh is a firm believer in charity. “My father used to give me the key to the storehouse where we kept our grain and tell me that if anyone came to ask for help, I should not hesitate to offer him what they needed, and from the best supplies, not the mediocre ones,” he said.

As for politics, the omda had only one thing to say: intabih. He once saw the word, which means “stay alert”, on a sign in Saudi Arabia, when he travelled there during the pilgrimage season. It stuck with him — the idea that one has to be always on the alert. This is the only political advice he has ever needed, he said.

When I asked him about the presidents who have ruled Egypt during his time in office, his comment was that they had all done their best. “Every man has his abilities and his limitations. In the past, the omda represented the Ministry of Interior in his village. When my father took office in 1930, he was so feared that people would run and hide when they saw him coming. Those riding on donkeys would dismount out of deference. Now, it’s different,” he added.

An omda must be proactive, Haj Saleh said. Instead of waiting for problems to arise, he should step in and prevent them from happening. “A good omda should sense trouble before it turns into reality. Take our village, for example. There are 16 clans living here.

When I feel someone is stirring up trouble, I nip it in the bud. This is the job of the omda, and this is what makes people love and respect him,” he said.

Then he shared another proverb: “The best man is the most useful man.” An omda who does nothing to serve his people is not worthy of the job, he said. An omda has to be in touch and stay proactive.
“Intabih,” he concluded.

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