This Article is originally published in Amkenah Magazine, Issue 9 November 2008
Translated into English by: Marwa Medhat
I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I first visited the old city of Al Qasr in Al Dakhla oasis. My only motive for taking the trip had been a few colorful shots from the movie Abu Aly and the haunting legend of “the palm that lost its shadow” from Radwan Al Kashef’s Araq Al Balah (Date Arrack), which I suspected of being an exaggeration of a cinematic imagination.
Following a bend in the road by the old minaret and the tomb of Sheikh Nasreldin with its pyramidal dome, I held my breath as I strolled down the streets of old town that dates back to the Ayubite age. I was totally taken in by those mud-brick houses that sometimes reach up to five floors high, the solemn doors with their intricate engravings, the arches decorated with red and white bricks and the covered passageways resting beneath balconies with small windows which hid the city guards as they ambushed invaders in the old days. There were also the broad wooden doors that have thresholds engraved with the Hegira and Christian dates of construction, the names of the master mason and the owner of the house, whose lineage is detailed up to the fourth generation and always ending with “Al Wahy Al Qasry Al Qorayshy” (descendant of the oasis, the city of Al Qasr and the Qoraysh tribe). Most of the families inhabiting Al Qasr are descended from Arabian Peninsula, with roots that go back to Al Ashraaf (descendants of Prophet Mohamed) through Al Hussein ibn Aly, the Qorayshys and the Dinaries.
Moving to the outskirts of the city, the walls of the white houses are still inscribed with the Hegira and Christian dates of the owner and his wife’s pilgrimage to Mecca, framed by big rectangles and decorated with blue and red geometrical figures. Leaving behind the noise of the outer world and delving into the heart of the old town felt like passing through invisible gates into a secluded place where the only sounds to be heard are those of our breathing, the cool breeze, and the guide appointed by the Council of Antiquities to accompany tourists. Questions raced through my mind as I went down some steps, passed through doors that separated different families and were closed at night to protect the city and as I lowered my head to pass from one roofed alley to the other with their sharp-angled bends designed to keep out the cavalry of the Senussi army: What was life like in this city? How did the bustle of life fit in the narrow alleys? What level of intimacy existed as members of the same family, the same neighborhood and even the same city lived together? When and why was the city deserted?
“Well, the city wasn’t deserted that long ago” answered the guide lightly. “Yes, but when exactly?” I asked again, expecting it to have happened two or three centuries ago, but to my surprise the answer came “About fifteen or twenty years ago, and the houses were proclaimed by the Council of Antiquities only five years ago”!
Why did people desert this old city? How did they exchange these intimate homes for cement houses in the flat nearby land?
“I saw an opportunity. What was I supposed to do? Let it go?” asked Mohamed Ayoub impetuously. He is a 58 year old school headmaster who received us among his family: his wife Harbeya, his eldest son and his grandchildren whose voices rose form the inner room. Several things caught my attention as I entered the single-floored house: the blue inscription on the outer wall “the house of Haj Mostafa Ayoub and his wife”, the computer in the inner room behind the transparent curtain that separated the two rooms, the television and the satellite receiver in the corner of the hall which broadcasted satellite channels throughout my visit.
He sat more comfortably as he explained in his deep, now less tense, voice “there were 52 of us in the old house. They kept adding rooms every now and then until nowhere was left inside the town, it’s a narrow space and in the old days the total area of Al Qasr was about one kilometer. Now I have five children, and each has two of his/her own; what shall we do? Live together? Besides, the old house was about to collapse, people were flooded last winter. Do you think if I listened to my father and stayed behind I would’ve been able to build a house here? No, I couldn’t help it; I saw an opportunity and grabbed it.” Interest in the oases started during the age of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the government built houses via the urbanization board. “This flat was one of many distributed by the ‘Desert Cultivation organization’, this is my share and till now the rent costs LE 20 with no private ownership. Once you finish the installments it becomes yours. All in all it costs about twelve to thirteen thousand pounds.”
Mohamed and his family weren’t among many other inhabitants of Al Qasr; those who travelled abroad in the late seventies and early eighties, and on their return couldn’t live in the old mud-brick houses, thus chose to leave their big families and move to the valley building cement houses that announced the rise in their standard of living. “This rise was not caused only by education, the increased number of schools. The independent youth wanted live in places of their own. But do you mean that the government interfered and evicted people from their old homes and stuff like that? No, that was a natural thing. People started to travel abroad, to Kuwait, to Iraq, and they started to bring back money. It’s a continuous development, there are those who left for Cairo, joined the army or went to college. They saw civilization.” Mohamed remembers the time when he moved out of the old house. “When I left my grandfather was alive and he became upset. He neither visited nor spoke to me for five months, but then he was convinced. When I went and told him I was leaving he was upset and wouldn’t speak to me. He said ‘Come pick the best spot in the house, it’s yours, stay in any rooms you want, but don’t leave with the kids’. The rest of the family was sad that we were leaving the house; I was being rational but they were emotional. My family left the house as well later on. Some went to Bahareya, some to Kuwait. Afterwards he accepted the situation when he saw the world progressing, and said ‘those who want to leave may leave’.”
“You see, people weren’t grateful for their blessings, they trifled them and were happy to go down to the open country. But in the days of the old homes no one ever suffered from disease or headaches or –if you pardon my words- colic pain or diabetes, we never heard of blood sugar, sugar was only what we added to tea (…)”
Not only an eighty year old man (or as he accurately informed me “I was born in 26/2/1928”) reminiscing about the good old days, Haj Mahmoud Abu Bakr is someone who lived his whole life in the city, witnessed all its developments and remembers its details. He is also from the Abu Bakr family, one of Al Qasr’s biggest families and respected by all its inhabitants, young and old. He and the rest of his family inherited this status, including his father who was an eminent member of the community, could recite the Quran and was the town’s sheriff, as I was told by Homda, my friend and guide from Al Qasr.
Haj Mahmoud sat with his small, time-shrunken frame, his little face hidden behind his eye glasses and a white laasa (men’s turban-like headdress). He looked very different from the man in the two pictures hanging on the wall, wearing a Kuwaiti headdress in one and a Saudi headdress in the other, vigorously youthful, sporting a pointed moustache and standing upright. He looked at us with his beady eyes as he spoke in his shrill voice, mesmerizing us with his words “Mud bricks have a history with mankind, because, what is man made from?” – We answered together: “From mud”- “Yes, ‘we created man from a race of mud’- Al-Mu’minun (The Believers) [23:12]). Of course everything yearns for its origins, and since man is made from mud, he yearns for the mud we use for houses. That’s why the houses are always tender with you, in the cold winter they give you warmth and in the hot summer they give you cold.” Then he adds “You know, Al Qasr is designed on scientific bases and has central air conditioning. When you walk in the center of the town you’ll find roofed places and other roofless ones. You come back from the field or the open countryside where it could be 40ºC hot, and you find here cool distilled air. That’s because I build my house here, you build yours there and we leave some space in between; then we raise the southern walls, so the wind blows from the north and hits this wall then blows down to the street. By the time you reach your home back from the field or the hot desert you feel the cool weather.”
Haj Mahmoud remembers life in Al Qasr long ago, when his father was alive and the city was densely populated “There were seven uncles and, and my father – God bless his soul – was as sharp as a sword, his glance alone would terrorize us. But he was also kind and gentle, hated all forms of haraam (sinful, religiously prohibited acts) and always taught us lessons before leaving the house. We had a guesthouse to which he invited any stranger he met on the street. The guesthouse was next to our home, and the stranger would stay there for one, two or three days, eating and drinking, until he finished his errand in the city and left. That’s because Al Qasr was the center of all crafts; the ironsmiths, the masons, they were all based in Al Qasr. On Fridays people came from nearby farms and villages. There were those who wanted to fix axes or make doors, mills or water wheels…etc. They would attend the Friday prayers then tend to their different errands. My father – God bless his soul – would wait by the mosque’s entrance for strangers who had no homes in Al Qasr, and by lunch time he would send them with us to the guesthouse were they prayed and had lunch and so on, then left.”
Despite his anecdotes about the beauty of life in the old town, Haj Mahmoud takes pride in being “the first to go down”. His career started before the 1952 revolution, as he worked as a cook for a wealthy Syrian who owned vast lands. After the revolution and the privatization, the Syrian lost his fortune. Later on when the union with Syria came to an end Mahmoud’s career hit rock bottom, for he used to travel with his employer from place to place, from Cairo, to Lebanon and Syria. Forced to return to Al Qasr, he applied for the post of a cook at the ‘Desert Cultivation Organization’ whose rest house –which was originally built for King Farouk- hosted 46 engineers. After difficult tests the examining committee accepted him, but on that same day he received a contract to work in Kuwait.
“I worked at the Kuwaiti ministry of education for 22 years, from 1963 to 1987. I helped many people to find work in Kuwait. There was a flat upstairs inhabited by more than 17 people, none of whom could eat a date or an apple without sharing with the others. When I cooked for parties, they sent me home with a lamb or two, basketfuls of fruits, bananas. I would carry all that in my car, and then even if it was 3 O’clock in the morning –I swear to God- I would knock on that flat and wake them all up, and we would all feast on the apples, meat, rice…etc. We would then finish with tea, get dressed and go to work. When someone was hospitalized, we collected money for him from everyone. Where do you find this now? Today even brothers don’t see each other.”
During that period Haj Mahmoud’s connection to the old town was limited to short biannual visits, until he returned permanently in 1987. By that time many families, including his, had left the old homes; so he had no choice but to build in the valley, although his elder brother,(the head of the family at the time) stayed in Al Qasr till his death. After that the house was appropriated by the council of Antiquities as is the case with all deserted houses. “People left their homes gradually, that wasn’t the first resettlement, but rather third time. First, they moved from the old homes in the heart of the city and built more developed houses in the outskirts. Later, they moved outside and built cement houses (…)”. Houses classified as ‘antiquities’ cannot be upgraded with basic facilities like running water, electricity and other infrastructure, so people had to move out, specially as they grew in number and were forbidden to build new rooms. The family of Haj Mahmoud for instance owns two houses, one in the center of the city and another on its outskirts. “We didn’t leave the old house because it has water and electricity. We rent it for those interested.”
Standing on the roof of Haj Mahmoud’s old house by city’s outskirts and near the tomb of Sheikh Nasreldin Al Waly, we watched the entire city with its irregular mud roofs, when suddenly an extraordinary sight caught our attention in this deserted town: Red and white laundry hanging to dry. I ran down the ragged stairs, followed by Homda and passing through the narrow alleys seeking the only sign of life in this area, curious to see who still inhabits “the ruins” (which is how the old town is referred to now). At the house’s entrance Homda stepped aside and waited outside out of respect for the sanctity of the place, as only Zamzam was there at the time. Together with her small family they make the last inhabitants of Al Qasr. She let us in the simply furnished house: the vivid colors, the nick knacks lying around, the old kilim, the semi-automatic washing machine and gas cooker which could be seen from behind the transparent curtain separating the back and front rooms, they all added life to the small mud-brick house. The house which resembles other houses from the outside looks very different from the inside. The walls are painted white and blue mixed with the grey of mud bricks, and decorated with colored triangles and inscribed with verses from the Quran and Hadith, all done by Zamzam the houses’ caretaker who is constantly decorating it and mending its cracks.
It is easy for those who left the old city for a better standard of living like Haj Mohamed and Haj Mahmoud to remember the old days with nostalgia, but Zamzam and her family weren’t that fortunate. The 48 year old who looks at least ten years younger lives alone with her husband – a teacher- and two sons, after her husband’s family deserted the old house. “They built and lived there; those who build leave their place and move out. My sister-in-law and mother-in-law lived with us, now they left. I’m here on my own, if I had the means I’d leave today. You see, there’s no one else here, no one but me – but it’s all a matter of fate.”
Seeing our surprised looks she adds: “I don’t like the place itself. One wants to live in a developed place you know, well-equipped. The world is evolving. I have electricity here but housework is very hard to carry out, there are cracks in the wall and pits in the floor. Of course the flats in the valley don’t have this. Here I have to mend the cracks in the floor.”
Zamzam performs house maintenance three to four times a year, mending the cracks. This is more frequent in winter as the rain melts the mud and it becomes impossible to live in the house were the mud is sometimes knee-high. In such times she is forced to stay at her relatives in the new houses until the mud dries so she could go back home. “It’s true that it’s more peaceful here and the weather is pleasant. I mean, I don’t envy them or anything, but each of us has a wish you know.”
However, it’s not yet too late for Zamzam to fulfill her dream. “Those who are able to leave and build outside don’t take anything in return for their old homes (which are classified as antiquities). They say that those who want to leave are offered flats, they offered us one and we accepted, then they took our names and now they will build us a flat.”
After taking a tour inside the house and the small garden she plants in the backyard, I left Zamzam to catch up with Homda and my friends. But suddenly I found myself alone in the alleys of Al Qasr. I looked left and right but there was nobody in sight. I left the house despite Zamzam’s insistence that I’d wait for my friends’ return, and decided to move on in spite of the scary maze ahead. I found my way to the car with ease because Zamzam’s house was close to the main road, and I waited there trying to overcome my fear by thinking that the car is still there, which means they’ll be back soon. Those few silent moments made me realize how difficult it is for Zamzam, who was deserted by her people, to live in an empty ghost city.
“No one likes to live alone among ruins” Fred Leemhuis assured me. He is the head of the Dutch archeological restoration mission that has been restoring the old city of Al Qasr for five years. The sixty-year old, white-bearded Fred (or Farid as the locals call him) sat at his wooden desk amidst his papers, wearing his hat, vest and eye glasses, smoking his thick cigar. The main aim of the project is to restore the old houses until they are habitable again, so that its inhabitants could move back. This ought to be the main goal of any restoration and heritage preservation process, as opposed to separating the inhabitants from the place. Al Qasr is renowned for its five-floor high mud-brick houses that stood the test of time for more than four centuries. The mission wasn’t an easy one from the get go. “we only restored five houses, and as you see every place has two pieces., and we are sorry but nobody knew where the expertise to build a mud brick houses are still present , not just the knowledge but also the experience to rebuild and restore these buildings because to make one house of one floor in mud brick is no problem everybody can do it but to have a house like this with five floors and to rebuild it you need a lot of experience, u need to know how to build the lower roof so they won’t be crushed by the weight ”. Fred recruited two old master masons from Al Qasr to work in his project, and they in turn taught the members of the mission. But who would want to return to ruins after moving out and getting used to a different lifestyle? After restoring a house or two, Fred started getting offers from the locals to buy them back. . “What we try to do is restore the houses of an entire alley. No body likes to live alone in a deserted town. The small house next to this we have an offer for it for 70,000. And we said it’s not enough, we want more”, he laughed. “We are absolutely sure that people will return, although I must tell you there is one condition if they won’t have water and electricity balash … this is normal, this is we know for certain, once they have water and electricity, there is no problem for their return to old houses” .”
Balat: The City of Clay
Unlike Al Qasr, Balat wasn’t completely deserted by its inhabitants. Signs of life could still be found on wandering in the roofed passageways, where the sunbeams paint various shapes on the mud walls separating the city’s houses. All the bends in the streets are curved, and the steps leading from one level to the other are rounded, carrying the prints of those who shaped them. On both sides of the road women stood at the entrances of their homes, watching the passers-by, and covering their faces with their veils to hide their smiles and their questioning eyes.
She stood there like a wax doll, with a taut round face, clear eyes and tiny crow’s-feet, the only telling signs of her age. She wore a purple headscarf with red prints over her silver hair that revealed her fifty years of age. Karima stood at her house’s entrance in her bright clothes, looking at the three of us in bewilderment. If it wasn’t for the traditional codes of hospitality, she would’ve disappeared in no time. “No no, please come in, the house is empty, but please come inside.” She said hesitantly, looking at your local guide for reassurance, since he was the only familiar face to her. I followed her inside, stepping over the elevated threshold and feeling as if I was delving into the center of the earth. The door is a big round opening with a low ceiling, so I had to lower my head to pass into another world, like a fetus in the womb. I ran short of breath and my slow heartbeats started drumming in my ears as the dark calm and silence of the house surrounded me. The door led to a hallway connecting to the neighbors’ house. The two houses share one dark, roofed entrance so you could easily mistake them for one house, until you see the small wooden side-door leading to the other house. The houses here are like a maze of rooms opening into one another with dark and smooth intimate walls.
A few minutes passed till I got used to the darkness, my breath was regular again and I started looking at the small room furnished with nothing but a straw mat, a bed and a big kerosene lamp by the wall. The electric cable embedded in the wall is the only sign of ‘modernity’. In the corner was a large copper bowl filled with water and a heap of sand, which explained the unusual roughness of her hands. She was rebuilding her dead father’s house so she could move in after her own house had collapsed.
Karima lived her whole life in Balat like many inhabitants of the city. She received a brief education –most women in the area are somewhat educated, if only up to the primary stage- and she worked in a hospital to support her children after she was widowed at the tender age of nineteen. She found herself responsible for two children, so she moved back to her father’s house and refused to remarry. She only leaves town a few months every year to visit her children who have settled in Cairo. “My son is educated and he found a job in Cairo, he told me ‘if you want mother, I will stay with you’. But I was worried that one day he’d say that I prevented him from earning a living, so I told him ‘my boy, the country that appreciates you is your home’.” The fact that her son was educated explained his life in Cairo, as in Karima’s opinion the new “educated” generation would not be satisfied with living in the damp mud houses where life is rough and uncomfortable. Life in these houses hasn’t changed, except for the rise in prices which has included everything. Karima remembers the days when Balat was full of life “For house maintenance we used to carry sand on our heads, and also mud which we brought from the dunes in the old times. Now we have to buy it. We used to knead it with the mud, but in those days it wasn’t the mud you see now; it was green mud which we covered with stripped palm branches, then a layer of white mud. We used to bake every week or every three days. Today the world has changed, we have refrigerators. Before, grains were cheap and no one sold anything. Neighbors would give each other, if I had some I gave them, if they had more they gave others, and so on. Now what we don’t buy we don’t have. Also, in the old days there wasn’t that much education around, now people are educated and build cement houses so they don’t see their families anymore. People don’t feel for each other anymore. Today the dowries are also very expensive. My dowry was twenty pounds; one’s worth is not in money, but in one’s values and religion.”
After hosting us in her house and telling us about older times, Karima walked us to the end of the road that leads to her house, passing from the shade into the sunny downward road. At the end of the road I asked:
– May I take your picture?
– No no, I don’t want to. Don’t.
– Well, can I at least take a picture with you?
I was surprised by her firm tone
– She’s not a foreigner (Homda explained)
– No, I’m Egyptian and a Muslim as well (I added hastily)
– No, I know she’s not a foreigner. No, we don’t let foreigners take our pictures. You see – if you pardon my words- illness has increased. Before, we had no diseases, and before we had no foreigners either. They came and brought illness along.
I listened, struck and I chose not to ask more questions, concluding the conversation with her greetings and well-wishes.
– Are you a “Miss” or “Mrs.”? (She asked shyly)
– Go then on your way, may God kindly grant you a decent man.
I smiled and continued the tour around the town with Homda and the guide, lowering our heads at times, walking up streets and down stairs, passing by roads exposed to the sun and adorned with pots of basil, mint and purple Hibiscus flowers. At the other end of the town the buildings were different. The small, red mud houses are replaced by relatively tall and white ones. Here lies the house of the village chiefs, who are descended form Al Brins family which –according to the locals- was the first family to settle in this area. “It’s a well off family; they own wells and lands, and of course the biggest family in town is the one that runs it”, our guide explained. Mahmoud Al Brins greeted us in his indigo blue Kaftan and green laasa, a deeply-wrinkled tanned face, weathered eyes and sharp teeth that made a hissing sound as he spoke. His wife joined us too, with her dark taut face. She leaned against her house as she squatted on the floor and watched her husband talk to us. “Why would I leave? There are no problems here. When people argue I help them reconcile. No one in Balat goes to the police station unless it’s murder, which never happened here; not even thefts. Usually we have arguments over land, water and the like; for instance someone’s cattle may tread over another’s land, so they pay compensation. The other one may forgive him, kiss his forehead, and apologize and so on. Arab reconciliation you know.” Unlike the people of Al Qasr who all moved out – young and old, including the chief – to the surrounding lands, building cement houses, the town of Balat is deserted only by younger generations. Mahmoud Al Brins and his wife still live there, although his seven children are scattered among the outskirts of the town, Cairo or Kharga oasis for work. As the silence prevailed the wife said “please have some tea”. We realized then that we had outstayed our welcome and it was time to go. We thanked them and went on our way, followed by his broad smile and curious eyes.