Tuesday 13th January 2015
When I reach New Qurna I am surprised at how “established” this new town on the edge of the desert has become in less than seven years. Despite receiving Emad’s directions on Facebook Messenger earlier in the day, I take the left turn too early and find myself on a dusty side road, wild yellow dogs barking angrily at my rented ladies’ bicycle. As I bring the battered old relic to a shuddering halt I am relieved to hear a local man in the distance calling the animals off. When he approaches I am faced by a particularly happy-looking man a little older than me, and in other circumstances I would have quite gladly taken up his offer of joining him in his house for something to eat. But I’m conscious of running a little late. “Do you know Sennefer Restaurant?” The man eyes me quizzically. “New Sennefer I mean – Mohammed Snake?” Realising that I am familiar with one of the locals he answers enthusiastically: “Yes, yes, the new place – back down where you have come and turn right.” Happily avoiding any further contact with the dogs, in a few minutes I am outside the building familiar from my previous visits in 2010 and 2011, though with many of the surrounding building plots now filled in.
After a few knocks on the front door followed by a call up to the roof terrace Mohammed Snake’s son, Emad, appears and we greet each other with a big hug, indicative of the firm friends we have become over the past five years. When we reach the roof, Mohammed is stretched out on a divan, clearly very unwell and barely able to speak, and after a brief greeting I leave him alone. Emad tells me he is suffering from the effects of high blood pressure and a chest infection but it later becomes evident that he has been floored by the death the previous day of a popular local man, suddenly, in his mid forties. (The next day the reaction to the same event of my taxi driver, Ahmed, proves what a genuine shock to the community this man’s death has been). But when we are out of earshot Emad makes it clear that he feels his father is still “grieving” for the old place, and despite the remarkable rebuilding work he has completed in astonishing time, he has still not come to terms with the forced ejection of the community from Old Qurna.
While I wait for Emad to bring me up a drink from below, his little brother Fares appears, who I had met on both of my previous visits. The little boy who struggled up onto the seat of my bicycle on the first of those visits is now a charming, engaging, young man, seemingly older than his ten years; the very image of his father when he roamed the desert hills in the heat of his youth. We speak a little in English, which he is learning at school, and he tells me about his love of football, and that he is off school for the afternoon having sat an exam in the morning. I try to reciprocate by attempting to revive my rusty Arabic and we have fun as I stop repeatedly to look up vocabulary on my phone. He seems happy, well-adjusted, confident despite – to us in the west – the comparative poverty of his environment. I look into his eyes: it is the future of Egypt.
Emad brings plates laden with kofta, salad, potatoes, rice and fried aubergine to the table and after I’ve eaten we get down to talk. “The tourists have not returned. Who’s fault is it? Who’s to blame? Yes the government, the Revolution – but the media are also a large part of this. Always telling people Egypt is not safe. It is safe – look!” Emad is almost too angry to stay seated and I follow him to the corner of the roof terrace. As we look out towards the high desert he points to a spot in the middle foreground where he plans to build a multi-story block for international students, somewhat in the form of a Moroccan riyad with a central courtyard. I can’t help but share his enthusiasm, and optimism, as he spells out his plans for bespoke cultural experience packages in which the visiting students would be free to do much of the exploring themselves. “What’s needed is a new vision; it’s about young people, experiencing different ways of living, close to the ancient sites but within a living community!”
There is real fire in his eyes. “My father has struggled because he is in denial about what has happened. He wants to turn the clock back, wants everything to be how it was when the old guest house was full of the sound of French, Spanish, English. Of tourists. But the country went through a revolution! NOTHING can ever be the same again.” As he speaks, he is standing in front of a banner depicting on one side Gamal Abdel al-Nasser, on the other Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Egypt’s past, Egypt’s present. Strong generals who grabbed at the reins of revolution. “Yes”, he sighs, “It needs a new vision. I tell you truly, that man, my father, is a genius!” With a sweep of his hand he highlights his father’s work. “He can envisage something like this in his head – no drawings, no plans – and turn it into reality! But he is fighting against circumstances.”
By now, Mohammed Snake has arisen. He is as courteous as ever and I know that in other circumstances he would have been happy to talk. He beckons to Fares to bring the visitor’s book for me to sign. “This man’s death upset me. It is hard for me to speak.” I thank him and press a note for payment for the meal into his hand. He embraces me warmly, with a kiss on each cheek, his own cheek moist with tears. Mohammed Snake is a man of keen emotions, typical of his generation of Qurnawi: proud, intelligent, the very living embodiment of this part of rural Egypt.
* * *
With a kick, Emad fires up the motorbike, we pick up speed on the dirt track and emerge onto the main road of the new town. And despite all the disappointments, the failures, the lost opportunities I find myself once again among a smiling people, one of the youngest populations on the planet; laughing, joking and full of optimism. I wonder: are these the most resilient people on earth? And for how much longer?