Palestine Pulse

Rural Egyptian village stuck in time

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Article Summary
Egypt has gone through dramatic changes in the last three years, but in the remote upper Egyptian village of Western Bindar, life remains at a standstill with little state presence.

WESTERN BINDAR, Egypt — Everything is changing in Egypt, except for this village 500 kilometers (310 miles) from Cairo. The clock stops here in Western Bindar, where the faces are dark, the houses are poor and the benches are wooden and resemble a bare sofa, as if it were made to go with the houses built from mud or red bricks, on unpaved dirt roads, alongside a canal. At night, these benches turn into the only spot where men stay up and chat. There are no cafés, no parks and no school uniforms.

After an eight-hour train ride to reach the village, which is in Markaz Gerga in the Sohag governorate in upper Egypt, you forget how tired you are as soon as you feel the love of the residents, whether it's the men or the women who usually wait in the indoor “yard” of their homes.

Revenge attacks between families dominate in this village, but they are not its only features. The popular jilbab robe is not the only garment worn around here. There are women who wear pants, while others wear the niqab as another kind of contemporary uniform.

Hussein Fawzi, 24, took us to his father’s land, which was all green and surrounded by a rocky height, known as the Eastern. “Here is where my brothers and I plant potatoes and wheat,” he told Al-Monitor.

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Hussein is also interested in using the Internet, “Around a year and a half ago, the Internet reached our village. I made a Facebook account and I taught the rest of my family how to use the network,” he said.

A decade ago, electricity did not reach the village regularly. Acting Mayor Ihab Fawzi, 39, said, “Around the mid-1970s, electricity reached the village for the very first time. Ten years ago, water was cut off most of the time, but now it is regularly available. Yet, there is no sewage network; each house has its own sewage tank.”

During an interview in his home, Fawzi said his duties were limited to mediation between families, and did not include providing government services. “The last time a government official visited the village was 10 years ago. The condition of the 10,000 residents is very bad; most of them are unemployed, there are no projects or factories here and the men emigrate to find jobs,” he said.

Every home in the village has a place for poultry. If the family is doing well, then it will own a buffalo as well. A mud oven is usually placed nearby so they can bake “al-Aysh al-Shamsi,” or bread loaves placed under the sun for hours, until they ferment and puff up. People say this is how the ancient pharaonic bread was made.

Hussein, who took us to his father’s land, gave us a bundle of green onions and watercress, which we ate with chicken made by Umm Kamal from her poultry. The residents here have a self-sufficiency of food.

Ahmad Salah, a 45-year-old research officer who was wearing a jilbab and an upper Egyptian shawl, said self-sufficiency is the main reason why the residents do not care about the political changes in Cairo. “The people here are never hungry because they eat what they plant, unlike the Cairo residents who are driven by hunger,” he said.

He said the last protest took place in Markaz Gerga after the Rabia demonstration was dispersed. “There were only two people from the village, who were convicted, due to their political support of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he added.

Sinaa and Tiba Abdel Hamid are sisters, but one of them supports President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi while the other thinks of him as a criminal and supports former President Mohammed Morsi. Tiba said, “He [Sisi] did not change anything; it’s gone from bad to worse. At least Morsi came to Sohag and listened to what we had to say.”

Sinaa replied, “On the contrary, when Morsi was president, there was chaos, weapons circulated and many people died. Look at your daughter and her Sisi tablet.”

Indeed, Jihane, Tiba’s 16-year-old daughter, was carrying a small tablet, given to her by the school — she was the only one to receive a tablet in her area. She then began taking pictures of her mother and aunt as they continued to argue.

Ahmad said that after the January 25 Revolution there was chaos and people were afraid since the police were not present. “Every boy carried a gun due to the security chaos and thousands of weapons entered from Libya. However, today, security has been restored and this is why the residents tend to support Sisi,” he said. “I could swear, it all looked like a conspiracy to make people hate Morsi.”

Hussein introduced us to his father, Fawzi.

In their modest home, the television was on and the presenter was warning about terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula. “I am almost 63 years old and I do not believe any of the things being said on TV, but people here worship it and it’s their only mean of entertainment,” Fawzi said.

“If the media, the security apparatus and the judiciary agree on one opinion, all we ‘helpless people’ can do is nod our heads in agreement,” he said.

When residents want to justify their support for Sisi, they always give the example of a revenge feud between two large families, from which 45 members were killed in one year, as proof of the chaos that prevailed over the villages of Markaz Gerga before Sisi’s rule. However, revenge is part of tradition here, as well as female circumcision for 9- and 10-year-old girls, in addition to the general injustice against human rights in this village.

The Hajj Abdul Wadood lived an extremely tough life; he had to work tiring and degrading jobs in Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and finally in Libya, to put food on the table. However, his home’s roof and floor are still made of mud, “I could only send money for expenses, but I could never save more,” he said.

Sinaa, 40, said that her husband married another woman because she gave birth to five girls. Now his second wife also had a girl. “I wished this would happen because he was unjust. Isn’t the male responsible for the fetus’ gender? How come this is my fault? Women are oppressed here, write that down,” she said.

On the other hand, there are women who showed that they can be successful in the village. For example, in a small room on the street, Umm Ziad opened a clothing store, “I opened my store two years ago. There are other women just like me and bit by bit, this village could soon be like a city,” she said.

She said a piece of clothing sold at 80 Egyptian pounds ($11) was paid for in several installments because of the buyer's poverty, “I have four books full of debts,” she said.

Umm Ziad’s clothing store resulted in a fallback for other working women. For example, “The Foreigner” is the nickname of Fawziya al-Habash, who used to make clothes for the village before ready-to-wear clothes became popular. “I only shorten and tighten the people’s clothes now,” she said.

In her home, “The Foreigner” has a picture of the Virgin Mary, under which she placed her sewing machine, “I do not know why they call me ‘The Foreigner,’ but it is definitely not because I am Christian. There were never any differences between the people of my village and me,” she said.

She wears a veil on her head, as do the rest of the women in the village. “We got used to it,” she said.

She said that she goes to church once a year, because it is located in the village of Eastern Bindar. “Sometimes, the priest comes over and we pray for my son Bassem, who died when his car flipped over eight years ago when he was serving in the army,” she said.

Life here is moving forward, like the flock of doves we spotted on our way out of the village of Western Bindar.

As for Hussein, he plans to travel and work as a security guard on the Suez Canal, leaving behind the village as it is.

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Found in: women in the workforce, women in society, unemployment, poverty, migrant workers, history, female genital mutilation, egypt

Asmaa al-Ghoul is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Palestine Pulse and a journalist from the Rafah refugee camp based in Gaza.

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