“3,500 families will leave for a better life. It’s the most important resettlement operation since the rescue of Abu Simbel in Nubia forty years ago.” Samir Farag*, Governor of Luxor, 2008
“They will turn Qurna into a city of the dead without caring much for the living and their history.” Prof. Hassan Amer, Egyptologist, Cairo University, former resident of Luxor west bank
[*Following the revolution of January 2011, Samir Farag was arrested on charges of corruption]
Interlude: In the summer of 2009, following my first encounter with Snake, I meet up with his son Emad who is living near to my home town of Sheffield with his English wife. Over dinner in a Sheffield restaurant, Emad fills me in with the harrowing details of his father’s final removal from Qurna and the demolition of the family guesthouse, the last building on that part of the hill to go. Snake was forcibly taken by the authorities for “questioning”, an experience which left him hospitalised and traumatised. By the time of my next visit he is attempting to revive his beloved business in the new settlement.
New Qurna, December 2010
I first stumbled across the new village when exploring the west bank a few days before my initial meeting with Snake. Admittedly, the eerie fog that took so long to lift that day did not show the buildings at their best. But whichever way you looked at it, the move from cool mud brick houses sprouting organically from a hillside to rows of identical concrete boxes on the plain below was not going to be easy for any of the residents.
This time I am on a rented bicycle and though the sky is clear the new village is remarkably difficult to find. The young, bored, policemen at the checkpoint are evidently not from the area as they haven’t heard of New Qurna. On the phone that morning Snake’s other son, Hamdy, had given clear enough instructions but now I find myself lost amid a maze of identical concrete cubes. Some boys are playing football on a construction site while others take turns to skid their bikes at speed, sending up clouds of dust.
“Monsieur, Monsieur!” I turn round, surprised that anyone is still addressing tourists in the former colonial lingua franca. The old lady sitting on the floor outside a newly-built house beckons me over with a toothless smile and wave of a leathery hand. As I approach her I offer a greeting in Arabic “As salam aleikum, ya madame” and ask for directions to the New Sennefer Restaurant in a mixture of English, Arabic and French, hoping that one at least will lead to recognition. In the event, all she does is smile and say “ah” to each of my questions, occasionally nodding enthusiastically as if in full understanding. One of the older boys approaches and asks me who I am looking for. When I say “Mohamed Snake” he too launches into the smiling and nodding routine. Somewhat confused, I make the unilateral decision to continue walking the bike up the slope between the rows of houses.
At the top of the hill I am approached by a man of about my age. Upon enquiry he says he can take me to the man I am looking for and, rather surprisingly, insists that he pushes my bike while I walk alongside. Soon we are out of what I took to be the main village and back on the new dual carriageway. I have to admit to feeling slightly uneasy at having a dark-skinned man in local dress push my bike for me; it feels a little uncomfortably ‘colonial’. The feeling is heightened by the fact that the man doesn’t say much. I attempt to break the ice. “How far? How many kilometres?” “No kilometre” comes the reply, the man hardly turning to look at me. After ten minutes or so we turn off the main road into a far less developed part of the new settlement down a rough dirt track between some newly-constructed buildings.
As we round the corner a bearded man in dark galabeya greets first my companion and then me and it is only up close that I definitely recognize him. “Ah, Mr Mohamed!” I say as he embraces me. After greetings the two men become lost in conversation as I sit between them on a divan outside what is becoming “The New Sennefer Restaurant”. When it is time for the man to leave I go to give him ten Egyptian pounds (about £1) since I really appreciate his help in getting me here, but he will have none of it. Snake backs up my pleas but it is only with reluctance that he eventually accepts five. A small boy joins us and is soon despatched by Snake to fetch tea. He looks curiously familiar, similar to his grown-up son who I have met back in England. “Your grandson?” I ask. It is only after a couple more corrections during the course of our conversation that I realise it is his son.
It is immediately clear that Snake has no energy left to go over every last detail of the evictions since the whole experience has left him with a deep sense not just of physical loss but of emotional and psychological bereavement. “Since they tore down Sennefer and took me from the hill I have not shaved. I feel… empty.” His voice is noticeably weaker than when I first met him almost two years ago. “I am the first from the old place to see if I can run a new business here.” We turn and face the façade of the new building which has reached first floor level and has received its first coat of terracotta paint. “I hope to open fully in the spring. Some of the Spanish and French groups I knew before have contacted me and said… but it will be difficult to get tourists to come all the way out here. This is what makes me very sad. I must hope that they will return.”
I tell him I will be glad to have some lunch, so long as it does not put him to any trouble. He waves away my hesitancy, suggests some dishes, and goes to give instructions to his wife in the kitchen. Once again she remains unseen and I remember that this is Upper Egypt where custom dictates that a woman will not intrude into men’s affairs. As we wait, Snake shows me round the inside of the new restaurant that is rising phoenix-like from the ashes of his former life. And what a revelation it is! Despite the fact that the new material is concrete cinder block rather than traditional mud brick, he has faithfully replicated the interior of the famous house on the hill with roof beams on the ceiling and soothing Nubian blue decor. When we sit down again and he starts to talk it is obvious that he is a broken man. At one point he becomes so lost in a particular thought of the past that the cigarette between his fingers completely burns out to the stub and on occasions tears swell visibly in those heavy-lidded eyes. A momentary silence is broken by the braying of a donkey, but even this seems weary. The sound stirs Snake from his reverie. “He has nothing to do now. There’s no water to fetch. They say I should sell him but he’s…” Snake pauses, as if a little embarrassed. “…almost like a friend.”
I bring up the subject of Critchfield’s book which, over thirty years ago, propelled him if not to fame, then into notoriety, publicising his status as a “local character” to the world at large. A book that is still cited in The Rough Guide to Egypt as a good introduction to the character of the inhabitants of the somewhat ‘untamed’ villages of Luxor’s west bank. For the first time the look in his eyes is one of resentment, a barely-restrained anger.
“What he did was to get Shahhat drunk and then he would come out with wild stories like the one about meeting the European girl on the hill above the Valley of the Kings. None of it was true! Shahhat didn’t mind, he liked the ‘fame’ and attention the book brought him. But I always felt it gave me a bad name and I even thought about taking legal action but by the time I got a case together [the author] was dead. Then they told me there was nothing I could do.”
Snake gets up and brings the food to the table then leaves me to eat. It is a wonderful assortment of local dishes that include fried aubergine, spiced potato and tomatoes baked in an earthen pot and a centrepiece of grilled chicken and rice accompanied by a tomato and pepper salad, sesame humus and fresh ‘village’ bread. I eat as much as I can then join Snake outside for mint tea and a smoke. The young boy, Fares, has become fascinated by my bike so I hold him up on the saddle and push him round in an arc on the dust track to the accompaniment of squeals of delight. Somehow I know that not many years ago that sound would have made his father smile, but not now. Not yet.
Snake’s silent gaze is across the building plots towards “Thoth Hill” which I had climbed the previous year. “If things go to plan one day there will be a hotel there, insha’allah” he says, almost to himself, before standing to bid me farewell. He hugs me tight and kisses me, almost tenderly, on the cheek. It could have been the embrace of a man resigned to his fate and if so, would have been quite understandable. But instinctively I felt it was something else. It was the first stirrings of a man coming back to life.