Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

For the birds

In the Egyptian countryside, Sherif Sonbol discovered the original meaning of pigeonholes

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Years ago, during an event to launch one of my picture books, I was approached by an American lady. “Do you know what you should publish a book about?” she asked. “Pigeon houses”. Looking at her but not really following what she was saying, I pretended to agree but thought to myself: what is this lady talking about? Could she mean the tall white towers standing in rows that we see everywhere?
Years later, when driving in Upper Egypt, I caught sight of an outlandish construction which looked like a castle built of mud. I stepped on the brakes, pulled over on the traffic-jammed Agricultural Highway and stepped out of the car to see what it was. I spotted one of the natives and asked him what the odd edifice was. He looked at me in surprise, as if my question was quite absurd. “It’s a pigeon house.” Then he shot me a look very similar to the look I gave the American woman.
I kept trying to remember where I had seen such an amazing structure before, and finally remembered. It was in one of the old black-and-white Egyptian movies, but I was not sure which one. Anyway, I took a quick picture and decided to return again.
It took me around 10 years to return. I went to Abnoud, the village that the great poet Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi calls home, carrying a recommendation from him to his local friends. A photographer wandering around in an Upper Egyptian village is not quite your everyday scene and there was concern I would not be welcomed.
In a neighbouring village called Beir Aanbar there was a different kind of mud construction. My Abnoud native friends said that it was a sawmaah, a granary to store grains.
Three days later, I went back on my own to photograph the sawmaah. A few men approached who did not look very friendly. Soon, though, we became best friends, and they told me that the good Abnoud folks had mistaken these strange pigeon houses for granaries. This type of pigeon house had vanished from the world; even their neighbours could not recognise them anymore. One of them even took me to his house and showed me what a sawmaah looked like — a much smaller structure located inside the house, not outside. “It has always looked like this, since Pharaonic times,” he said. “Then with the advent of electricity, it began disappearing so much that the new generations of locals cannot recognise it.”
They explained that the constructions are dying out because the number of people who built and inherited the craft of building them from their parents had dwindled. After a hundred generations had passed this craft on, the last generation simply lost interest.

SUSPICIOUS INSPECTORS: Last month, I stayed in Sohag for a week to look for those pigeon houses one more time. Friends of mine who are antiquity inspectors took me to a neighbouring village. A huge mud wall that stood blocking the road in front of me was painted white and stuffed with many jars inside the walls. This was once a common way of construction in Qena and Sohag. The wall had an open gate and a big sign reading “The Fort of Al-Ledeidi”. Once a pigeon fort it now is still a fort, but alas, no more pigeons.
A young man approached and asked us what we wanted. My friend Ayman Al-Damarani took the lead and introduced himself and the other two men in our company as antiquity inspectors, then introduced me as a journalist from Al-Ahram.
The man told us to wait and went to check with someone. He came back half an hour later carrying tea and soft drinks, which we had not expected. Then he showed us through the gate and there it was. The setting could not be believed: huge castles built of white mud surrounding an empty space. It felt as if we had entered a fort in a Western movie.
An elderly man arrived. Amicably, he inquired as to what antiquities inspectors were doing on his family property. It soon became obvious that the village people were not fond of antiquity authorities, who have a reputation for confiscating lands and houses that are in the vicinity of antiquities. In 15 minutes, there were around 15 young people sitting with us on the famous Upper Egyptian wooden benches, known as dekkah.
We chatted over tea and it soon became clear to them that I was there to photograph the heritage, and that the men in my company were my friends. Still, someone demanded to see our IDs until, finally, the elderly man was able to feel comfortable enough with us. As another elderly man approached, all of the young men stood up in respect and I followed suit. When it came to my attention that the first elder did not stand up, I decided to take my seat, to preserve my prestige.
Soon after, another elder arrived and the standing ceremony took place, while I remained seated.
We had a talk about the village, how it is famous for these pigeon forts and that this compound was the largest. We found out that, curiously enough, they do not sell these pigeons.
The second elder explained that the forts were not built for decoration purposes, and that the pigeons were different than those grown as poultry. Since they fly all the time, they are hence very light and people with high cholesterol purchase them as they are fat-free. I remembered that in my youth my father had bought those “tower pigeons”, which we ate with their bones, which were brittle and crispy in much the same way as the little fish called basariah, which people devour whole.

ECONOMY LESSON: Finally, Haj Tamim Al-Ledeidi, the elder of all the elders, arrived. Younger people stood up and I hesitated until the elders stood up as well. I was honoured to have him sitting next to me. He was followed soon after by the fourth tray of strong, black Upper Egyptian tea. He was around 100 years old. As he spoke, others nodded in agreement. Clearly, everyone had heard the story many times and they were enjoying keeping their family heritage alive.
Our conversation was long and enlightening:
“When were these towers built?”
“Long ago.”
“Five-hundred years old?”
“Not that old. They were built in the year 1700, so 313 years ago. It was an investment.” In English, he added: “A business.”
“Selling pigeons?”
“No. Not at all. We ate pigeons for dinner, but the capital of the project was pigeons’ zebl.”
“What?”
“Yes, pigeon droppings. It was the best fertiliser for fruit gardens and other crops.”
“I see. And what are the towers built of?”
“They’re built of mud and homrah, which is the powder of red bricks; burnt mud.”
“But what holds the mud together to make a wall?”
“Honey.”
“Honey?”
“Yes.”
“Bees honey?”
“No, black honey, made of sugar cane.”
“And where do you get this black honey?”
“We grow sugar cane and then squeeze it in wooden squeezers, run by oxen, then we cook it and produce honey.”
“So, everything you use to build comes from your own products. You don’t buy anything?”
“No. There’s a saying that we shave the horse’s mane and from it we make ropes to saddle the horse. (It loosely means being self-sufficient). A farmer does not buy anything. Mud from the land, honey from the land products, houses from the land mud and fertilisers from the pigeons and so on. So, these walls are built from mud, bricks powder and honey.”
“And these things that have holes?”
“The gawadees?”
“Yes” I nodded not knowing quite what that meant.
“These also are made of mud. These are where the pigeons sleep. So, in the lower levels, it is built from mud, homrah (red bricks powder) and honey. Then to the higher levels, we add these jars so the pigeons can sleep.” He repeated, as we always do in Egypt, because things needs to be repeated several times.
“But won’t the ants eat the honey?”
“No. Once it is mixed with mud and gets dry, ants do not eat it.”
“Which is better? Old times or now?”
“Old times were sweeter. Everything was natural and tastier.”
“Do you mean food?”
“Food and everything else. Life had a better taste. You know, we had few doctors, unlike today, and the only medicine we had was the fruit of lemon. We were also manufacturing a medicine called ‘The pomegranate of Sheikh Ebied’.”
“Tell me about that pomegranate. Sounds very important.”
“It was not exactly the usual pomegranate. It was a very bitter one. We used to wash it, then cut it into four quarters and boil it with the skin and the bark, then drink it. It would heal the belly, dysentery, diarrhea and all stomach diseases. Then as it always happens, it was proved by science that pomegranate is a real medicine. But in the end it disappeared.”
“But why did it disappear if it was an effective medicine?”
“Nobody knows. We used to give it for free, exactly like the pigeons, which we used to distribute for free.”
“And how much was that pigeon zebl?”
“In the 1960s, it was LE30 for the ardeb.”
“But pigeons are eating your grains.”
“They eat shamy corn, which is LE7 for the ardeb.”
“So, you were making a fortune out of this.”
We drove to Sohag Airport, where we found signs still pointing to Mubarak Airport three years after the revolution (the name Mubarak was taken down from all institutions named after the former president following the 2011 popular revolution).
This precious Upper Egypt is really out of date.

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