Les chevaliers du Caucase à Alexandrie

Article Publie a Al Ahram Hebdo, 2006 http://hebdo.ahram.org.eg/arab/ahram/2006/2/8/patri2.htm

Le bleu de ses yeux clairs et brillants reflète les années tumultueuses de sa jeunesse insouciante d’enfant gâté. Des photos en noir et en blanc sont accrochées : des chevaliers d’un autre temps, des champs et des collines révèlent un paysage peu familier avec le paysage égyptien. Dans son salon de style aux fauteuils dorés, il s’apprête à partager une histoire que peu d’Egyptiens connaissent. Le dernier Circassien raconte l’histoire de son peuple dispersé et oublié.

Mahmoud Aziz Wasfi, cinquantenaire aux cheveux poivre et sel, a conservé toutes les caractéristiques de sa race : élances, minces de taille, larges d’épaules, teint clair et des sourcils épais pour accentuer son regard sévère et perçant. De sang circassien pur, il compte, pourtant, parmi la quatrième génération de la famille Wasfi, installée en Egypte vers la fin du XIXe siècle. Vers 1856, le jeune Mahmoud Hawer, grand ancêtre de la famille Wasfi, ne fait pas l’exception des nombreux Circassiens qui se sont réfugiés en Egypte. Ils fuyaient les invasions russes dans le Caucase, les massacres et la persécution religieuse. Le khédive Ismaïl était généreux avec eux, il a accordé pour chacun 500 feddans de terre fertile. « L’Egypte les a bien accueillis. Mon grand-père a pu choisir ses terres, et il a opté pour les jardins de Choubra », commente Aïcha Wasfi, fille aînée de la famille. Dans sa maison de trois étages, « il vivait avec sa femme et ses serviteurs ».
Traditions et coutumes

Nés en Egypte, Mahmoud et ses trois sœurs n’ont jamais mis les pieds dans le Caucase. Pourtant, ils ont pu garder des liens invisibles et magiques avec la terre des chevaliers vaillants. Mahmoud passe des heures à raconter fièrement les traditions et les coutumes de ce peuple méconnu auquel il appartient : « L’éthique des chevaliers régit tous nos comportements, même dans l’amour et la danse ». Sur son cheval, l’amoureux enlève sa bien-aimée dans la nuit, accompagné de ses amis. Il la dépose chez un grand homme intègre du village pour qu’il intercède en sa faveur auprès des parents, et assez riche pour les marier sur sa propre fortune. Une fin heureuse attend toujours les jeunes amoureux. « Lors de sa jeunesse en Syrie, mon père accompagnait ses copains pour enlever les jeunes mariées ». Des longues phrases en circassien entrecoupent son récit. Néfissa Hanem Wasfi, la mère, s’adresse à son fils. Par des monosyllabes il répond puis reprend en arabe : « C’était jamais de vrais enlèvements, mais plutôt de belles traditions ». Néfissa hanem garde jalousement son héritage et son patrimoine : des petits tissus brodés, le costume traditionnel des guerriers, le kalpak (casque de tête circassien) de ses ancêtres et un récipient en métal suspendu au coin de sa salle de séjour. « Tu ne trouveras pas un récipient d’aussi bon métal qu’au Caucase, les chevaliers circassiens l’ont inventé même avant d’inventer le téflon. Ils s’en servaient lors de leur nuit à la pleine étoile », explique fièrement Néfissa hanem Wasfi.

« Mon grand-père était très pieux. Il croyait que le jour de la Résurrection aurait lieu en Syrie, c’est pourquoi il a vendu nos terres en Turquie. Avec cet argent, il a acheté des terres dans le Golan, en Syrie, et s’y est installé avec sa famille. Maintenant, nos terres sont occupées par les Israéliens. Ils nous ont ruinés », raconte Néfissa hanem, mi-sérieuse, mi-amusée en évoquant cette histoire lointaine. Mariée à Aziz bey, qui venait en Syrie, où se trouve une forte immigration circassienne, chercher une épouse de son ethnie, elle s’installe en Egypte et fonde sa famille. Et c’est grâce à elle que ses trois filles et son fils se sont attachés passionnément à la culture et aux traditions circassiennes. « La discipline, la bravoure et le respect des aînés et des femmes caractérisent notre peuple : on avait une tradition en vigueur jusqu’aux années 1950. Si deux frères avaient des fils adolescents du même âge, ils les échangeaient, car à cet âge critique, le fils, chez son oncle, restera discipliné. Après deux ou trois ans, on organisera une petite fête pour le retour de chaque enfant dans sa famille », raconte Mahmoud.

Jeune homme séduisant et aisé, Mahmoud n’avait jamais eu de problème à s’intégrer à la société égyptienne. Cet ancien étudiant du prestigieux Victoria College se vantait d’être de la même promotion du roi Hussein de Jordanie, qui poursuivait ses études en Egypte. Lui et sa famille appartenaient à la jet-set cosmopolite d’Alexandrie des années 1950. Il se souvient toujours des réunions d’amis à Santa Lucia et du kiosque de musique à Glim où, chaque semaine, des soldats venaient jouer gratuitement de la musique pour le peuple. « Bien sûr, jeune, je me sentais différent de mes collègues égyptiens. Je suis fier d’être un Circassien. Jamais je ne me suis révolté contre nos traditions. Elles me poussaient à bien me comporter pour que mes collègues me respectent davantage ».
Une minorité qui survit

Etant la seule famille d’une lignée circassienne pure à Alexandrie et l’une des rares familles subsistants toujours en Egypte, la famille Wasfi est le point de mire de tout Circassien étranger.

La seconde guerre mondiale prenant fin, les Anglais ont voulu renvoyer vers la Russie un bateau qui avait à son bord environ 500 Circassiens qui battaient à leur côte.

Les Egyptiens d’origine circassienne ont sollicité du roi Farouq qu’ils payent le voyage et qu’ils emmènent ces Circassiens expulsés en Egypte, les sauvant de cette destinée fatale. Les Russes les auraient tués certainement. Ainsi, chaque famille circassienne en Egypte a accueilli quelques-uns, se souvient Mahmoud. Et même : « Notre père a souvent aidé des jeunes Circassiens à venir poursuivre leurs études à l’Université d’Al-Azhar ».

La communauté circassienne, minorité dispersée, a eu beaucoup de peine à conserver son identité. Des liens ambigus l’ont liée avec les pays qui l’accueillaient. S’accrochant à la conception de la pureté de race, les familles circassiennes ont longtemps refusé de marier leurs filles aux Egyptiens, considérant ces derniers comme des fellahs. Mahmoud a préféré respecter les traditions. « J’ai épousé une Circassienne pour conserver notre ethnie et j’espère que mes enfants en feront de même ». A l’encontre de son frère, Aïcha a été la première à épouser un Egyptien et rompre avec les traditions. « Aurais-je trouvé un Circassien pour l’épouser ? Nous sommes de moins en moins nombreux », plaisante la belle sexagénaire. La simple et modeste Aïcha a conservé la beauté célèbre des Circassiennes : une longue chevelure châtain, un nez droit et des joues hautes et saillantes. Malgré son physique d’étrangère, elle a gardé l’esprit allègre d’une jeune fille de vingt ans et l’humour égyptien. « Je n’ai jamais eu de double identité, je suis égyptienne, mais aux origines circassiennes ».

Feuilletant ses albums de photos, Aïcha désigne des visages souriants, une ferme impressionnante, des arbres et des champs étendus, des petits poneys galopant. Elle évoque longuement l’âge d’or de sa jeunesse. Elle s’arrête devant la photo d’un homme grand, robuste, au visage rond et aux joues roses. Aïcha regrette toujours le temps de son père défunt. Il est le seul à l’avoir soutenue dans son mariage. « Mon père était un Egyptien fanatique. Il se vantait que tous les plats mis sur sa table sortaient de la récolte de ses terres ». Aziz bey Wasfi, le père, était un homme remarquable. Même une dizaine d’années après sa mort, les fellahs de ses terres ont du mal à l’oublier, « Aziz bey était un grand homme, intègre et bon ». Passant sa jeunesse entre l’Egypte, la Syrie et la Turquie, le jeune Circassien a eu une excellente éducation. Après avoir fini ses études en 1937 à l’Université américaine du Caire, il a dirigé ses terres d’une main de fer. Respecté et aimé de tous, a été prié par les gens de sa circonscription à Koutour, dans le gouvernorat de Gharbiya, dans le Delta, de les représenter au Conseil de la nation, du temps de Nasser, en 1957. « Pendant les élections, il n’a mis aucune pancarte électorale, affirme Aïcha. Il n’en avait pas besoin ».

Advertisements

Le double visage de Mohandessine

Publie a La Revue d’Egypte, Numero 27, Jan-Fev. 2006 , http://www.larevuedegypte.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=5517

Tomber dans un autre monde. C’est l’impression qu’a eu la jeune Sara en pénétrant dans la ruelle Ibrahim-Khatab: «C’était il y a deux ans. Avec une amie, on cherchait un raccourci pour rejoindre la rue Chehab. On s’est perdues et on s’est retrouvées dans un quartier très populaire. Jamais je n’aurais imaginé qu’il y ait un endroit pareil à Mohandessine ! »

Au bout de la rue Chehab et de ses vitrines scintillantes, la ruelle Ibrahim-Khatab file entre les ateliers de mécanique et les kiosques de vendeurs ambulants de foul. D’un côté l’espace, la lumière et la verdure, de l’autre la terre battue, les maisons enchevêtrées et délabrées. A deux pas l’un de l’autre, deux mondes se croisent mais ne se mélangent pas.

Après une journée d’examens, Sara et son amie Radwa se détendent en faisant les vitrines rue Chehab. Boutiques de fringues, de lingerie ou de cosmétique, opticiens avec des affiches de marque sur les vitrines. Des bistrots renommés, des banques et un McDonalds indispensable dans toute rue commerciale digne de ce nom. Mercedes, BMW et Chevrolet garées en file, villas bien gardées et le consulat du Koweit ajoutent à l’aspect prestigieux de la rue qui fait la fierté du riche quartier de Mohandessine.

La rue Khattab

Ruelle Khatab. Om Badi’, âgée de 75ans, habite avec son fils aîné, sa belle-fille Ekram et leurs quatre enfants. « Je suis ici chez moi, pourquoi devrais-je aller là-bas ?» demande la vieille dame en désignant la rue Chehab. Je ne sors presque jamais d’ici, sauf quand je vais à l’église le dimanche. » Toute vêtue de noir comme ses voisines, Om Badi’, surnommée El-Haga Gamila, passe sa journée à observer les piétons et le va-et-vient frénétique des motos, seul moyen d’avancer dans ces allées étroites. Depuis qu’elle a quitté sa ville du Sud, Hawamdeya, avec son mari il y a quarante ans, elle n’a pas bougé de ce quartier.

Des champs aux tours

A quelques mètres de là, une vieille femme rêvasse sur le seuil de sa maison en brique nue. De temps à autre, quelqu’un la salue. « Tiens ! » lance une voisine en lui jetant une gerbe de mouloukheya. « Mais attends c’est combien, ça ? » demande la vieille. « Rien wallahi ! » répond la voisine en filant. « Elles ne me laissent jamais démunie », sourit la vieille femme.

1, 2, 3, 4 les numéros dorés défilent avec la montée de l’ascenseur de cet immeuble qui donne sur la rue Chehab. Au huitième, la porte s’ouvre sur un large miroir en fer forgé doré. Un long couloir, et plus loin une vaste réception avec trois salons de styles différents mais harmonieux. Des bibelots argentés, des vases chinois et des photos de famille sont rangés à leur place. C’est là que vit Soad, 53ans, et sa famille. Cette ingénieur au ministère de la recherche scientifique habitait la rue Chehab avant son mariage. «Nous avons déménagé de Tanta en 68 pour la rentrée à l’université. J’habitais à deux pâtés de maisons plus loin, dans un des rares bâtiments de la rue. » La rue était répartie en blocs : pour les diplomates, les ingénieurs et les enseignants. Soad habitait celui des diplomates. «Mohandessine a changé. Avant, le quartier sentait bon, il sentait la verdure et la fraîcheur.»

Avant, il n’y avait pratiquement que de vastes champs. Les riches familles de propriétaires ont petit à petit vendu leurs terres. Des tours se sont élevées, emportant avec elles à chaque fois un peu plus des anciens aspects du quartier. Sauf quelques-uns, comme la ruelle Ibrahim-Khatab, tache sur la vitrine scintillante du quartier riche.

Pour Soad, en cinq à six ans au début des années 70, le quartier a complètement changé de visage. Les magasins se sont multipliés, « et des nouveaux riches et des arabes (du Golfe) ont envahi la rue », affirme l’ingénieur avec mécontentement. Yasmine, sa fille de 22 ans, diplômée de l’AUC, s’amuse, à moitié scandalisée : « C’est devenu une blague avec mes amies. Quand je dois décrire mon adresse à quelqu’un, je lui dis: tu cherches Gad (vendeur de sandwiches de foul et de taameya situé au bout de la rue Chehab) et puis tu tournes devant chez El-Tawhid wi el-Nour (magasin de vêtements et d’ustensiles à bon marché). » Yasmine trouve la rue de plus en plus «low class». Low class et bon marché?

« Avec les 250-300 LE que coûte une jupe dans ces magasins, je peux habiller mes quatre enfants », ricane Ekram qui ne fréquente presque jamais la rue Chehab. Ekram n’est jamais allée à l’école. A quatorze ans, elle s’est mariée avec un homme de vingt ans de plus qu’elle. Maintenir son appartement ordonné et propre est la seule chose qu’elle connaisse. Elle mène une vie assez tranquille avec ses enfants, dans la ruelle, loin du monde extérieur. Un monde que Soad quitte, elle, pour pénétrer dans la ruelle et acheter des légumes frais : « La ruelle approvisionne tout Mohandessine en légumes à bon marché et en femmes de ménage. Mais aussi en voyous et en toxicomanes », ajoute-t-elle. Soad pense que les ruelles populaires représentent une menace pour les quartiers riches voisins. Pour débarrasser le quartier de ces voleurs et de ces toxicomanes, le gouvernement aurait un projet de remplacer les vieilles maisons par un pont ou par des hôtels, et pour reloger les habitants dans des nouveaux appartements à côté de l’aéroport d’Imbaba. « Ce serait un bon projet, explique Soad. J’espère que ce ne sont pas que des rumeurs.» Pourtant, la mère de famille est partagée. Négligemment appuyée sur le dos de son fauteuil, elle avoue, en parlant des habitants de la ruelle : «Quand même, on a besoin d’eux.»

Why I travel : To Redefine My Boundaries

A contribution i made as a reader to a new travel series launched by Al-Masry Al-Youm’s travel section titled “Why we do travel”

Leaning on the side window, the small torch tied around my forehead was the only source of light in the dark bus. I was reading the last chapter of “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, and while reading I figured out why I travel, alone. That was back in December.

Contrary to my travel habits, where I tend to welcome any social approach under the claim that I like to meet and talk to strangers, this time I was totally anti-social. I almost rudely turned down the offer of two Dutch people traveling with me on the same bus to sit next to them, and perhaps have a good conversation during the three-and-a-half-hours bus ride.

Eight hours earlier, I was touring old Hama, stepping into the sunlit streets and marveling at its white-stoned old houses. Thinking of what I had to do in the next 24 hours, many scenarios had popped up in my head:

Scenario one: Take a bus to Lattekia where I had planned to spend New Year’s Eve and see the other side of the Mediterranean sea, where I was brought up, then spend the last three days of my vacation in Damascus.

Scenario two: take the bus to Palmira, visit the historical city and spend the evening there, and travel next day to Damascus.

Scenario three: take the bus to Palmira, visit the historical city in just two hours, then take  another bus to Damascus, spend the extra night there — an exhausting scenario that will include at least seven-hour bus ride in one day!

Although it was a trivial and small decision, it haunted me for a few hours, on the bus, while  touring the streets, while stopping by the Hama waterwheels “al noureya” and while visiting Al Azm Palace “Beit el Azm” . As I enjoyed the warm sunny winter day, I constantly thought about what I really wanted to do.

This time I didn’t have a prepared schedule, or friends and companions to decide for me. It was only me and it was all about my needs and wishes. The thought of “what people usually do”  wasn’t an option. This time, I had to listen to the voice in my head and decide.

And this was the moment where the question: why am I travelling first popped up! I’m certainly driven by the natural human need to explore, meet new people and encounter new cultures, etc. But I realized at that moment the real reason, for me, was that travelling helps me to redefine my boundaries and to realize how all the surrounding stops influencing me , including traditions, beliefs, society, ethics, and everything I was raised to follow and to take for granted.

Traveling liberates!

And it has nothing to do with the revolutionary statements of some people who are in constant search for freedom. The reality is that traveling mutes all the external voices and for the first time you start to listen to your true self and to your wishes. You learn to know yourself well and to enjoy your own company. At that moment in Syria, I was responsible for myself and I was taking my responsibility seriously.

On that bus, as I turning the last page of my book, I looked up to face my image reflected on the bus window, and to look directly to my eyes lit by my head torch. Here I am, the self that I traveled to Syria to gaze at.

Exhausted, I let out a sigh, closed my eyes and tried to sleep for the remaining hour in my long ride to spend New Year’s Eve ning in Damascus, after I toured Palmira just for two hours.

Curating … The Passion of Displaying

Written as part of my participation of The International Arts Journalism Institute in the Visual Arts | JUNE 10 – 26,09| American University| Washington D.C

Three different exhibitions, three different arts spaces in Washington DC, three different themes, although, they have something in common: The Passion of displaying, the creativity of curating …


“WE ARE THE EVIDENCE”, with this fleshing sentence and its big white characters printed in a black wall, Paul Chaat Smith, curator and Art critic, starts the exhibition of “Our peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories”.
The black wall impressively ornamented with all the names of the disappearing peoples, installed in an intimate and indirectly lighted room, leave a strong impact on the visitor.
The entire exhibition does not display any art pieces; it displays an idea passionately and creatively illustrated. The exhibition is one of three exhibitions—“Our Universes,” “Our Peoples” and “Our Lives”— held in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, offering the visitors a unique perspective on lives of Native peoples.

P.C. Smith addresses the controversial untold history of the Indigenous American Indians by an image of words. Since he joined the Museum curating team since 2001, Paul Chaat managed and maintained the Museum collections. Although belonging to Indian tribe himself, he insists that “… curating has nothing to do with Identity. It has to have relation with knowledge and experience”.

Bending her head to one side, her two hands joined in front of her chest, with her closed eyes and her little dreamy voice, Mary ends up her story by “… and everybody lived happily ever after”. In front of the eager group of audience, She finds a real pleasure to tell the story behind every painting in the Kelly’s house, lovingly and passionately displayed. Touring the house, the visitor will have enjoyable glimpses from many famous original works from the early days of America’s great illustrators: a collection that, the curator Richard Kelly started to collect by early 1990. Three hundred and thirty pieces represent the American popular culture and the “Golden Age of American Illustration”. Big names of the movement can be recognized: Howard Pyle, Joseph Clement Coll, Dean Cornwell, Jessie Willcox Smith, Mead Schaeffer and others. With stuffed pets, Pokémons and other toys thrown in corners, family pictures displayed in every room, the house is far from being a cold art museum, this is a place where people do live. Every piece of painting is well organized and integrating with the family house. Paintings of famous illustrators are hung side by side with the babyish drawing of the Kelly’s kids.

On dark purple walls, the seven paintings of William Tryon (1849-1925) are displayed in the Freer Gallery of Art. The paintings (the decorations) as Tryon called them were made specially to decorate the interior of the house of Charles Lang Freer, a railroad-car manufacturer from Detroit. Although some of the paintings were occasionally exhibited separately, Freer and Tryon always regarded them as an “ensemble.” They were conceived to be matched with the whole interior, but even their periodical absence was calculated, the space behind the picture was paneled in oak so, as the artist explained to Freer, that when the pictures are removed (for exhibition and other uses) the room will appear complete.

Freer was not just an art collector and patron, chaperoning the artists of his time. He didn’t just buy the pieces of Art to decorate his main hall, he created for these pieces the space and the environment where they can be shown and appreciated. This explains the distinctive large frames of the pieces, made by Stanford White. White designed the large golden frames with their exotic motifs to be part of the whole decoration, architecture and furniture of the room. An interior that curators knew about through the correspondence between Freer and the artists, which give the running project of designing a digital tour of the house, valuable dimension.
Three different exhibitions, three different places, three different themes, although, they have something in common: The Passion of displaying, the creativity of curating. Curation has not to be limited to displaying arts piece in a certain space, it’s the passion and the vision behind the art of creation.

The concept behind curation (having a managing person arranging arts works in a certain way to communicate the artist’s ideas and inspirations) is something relatively new, not really developed nor needed in the historically rich Egypt with arts works, crafts and monuments dated back to more than 7000 years BC. In the stuffed with valuable pieces, not well lighted or ventilated National Egyptian Museum, the curator role is remarkably missing. Although, this art is raising and expending in small arts space and galleries spread in Down Town Cairo and Alexandria.

Al Souk Al faransawy (marche francais) : Un patrimoine Caché

Article Publie a Al Ahram Hebdo, 29 mars-4 avril 2006

Dans leurs va-et-vient quotidiens, les passants de la rue Saad Zaghloul vers la place Mancheya à Alexandrie, ne s’aperçoivent pas de sa présence. A deux pas de la corniche et devant la petite place où les petits marchants étalent leurs marchandises sur les trottoirs, El Souk el Faransawi [le Marché français] est le vestige méconnu d’une vie cosmopolite. A l’extérieur, les vitrines des ateliers délabrés des artisans, un restaurant populaire de poissons camoufle l’entrée principale de couleur verdâtre. Un pas après l’autre, on s’habitue à la pénombre. La découverte de l’immense superficie du Souk étendu derrière le portail en fer, ne laisse pas, le visiteur, indifférent. Un coup d’œil vers le haut révèle un toit incliné, sur deux degrés. Les derniers rayons de soleil de l’après midi s’y infiltrent dessinant des belles formes géométriques sur le sol. « Le Souk el Faransawi du point de vue architectural, est le seul Marché couvert à fonction commerciale qui existe à Alexandrie ». Explique Mohamed Awad, architecte et directeur de centre de recherche AlexMed, au sein de la Bibliothéca Alexandrina. Le manque de documentation sur le bâtiment laisse une large espace aux légendes et aux on-dit. On sait que l’édifice a été construit par une compagnie française, Desgerdais frères, durant la deuxième moitie de XIXe siècle. Raison pour laquelle « Le nouveau Marché d’Alexandrie », fut baptisé le Marché Français. Le choix de l’endroit était excellent : « la magnifique construction est situé au plein centre d’Alexandrie, du port principal de la ville »1,et à deux pas de la place des consultas et de la grande ancienne bourse de Coton. Les « nombreux riches commerçants cosmopolites […] manquaient d’un Marché central pour le dépôt de ses approvisionnement journaliers»1.
Le Marché s’étend sur une superficie de 6000 m2. Seule la moitie de cet espace est occupé par des échoppes, le reste est constitué de grandes allées. Ces six portails l’ouvrent sur le monde extérieur. « J’étais intrigué la première fois que je visitais le Souk, par cet endroit clos qui s’ouvre sur un autre monde, cette société qui existait à Alexandrie et personne n’y prête attention », raconte Alaa Khaled, rédacteur de la revue non périodique « Amkenah » où il consacre dans son premier numéro, une trentaine de page au Marché et à ses habitants. Espace cosmopolite
Devant sa petite boucherie située devant la porte principale, Ahmed El Bokl, guette les nouveaux visiteurs du Marché. D’une langue soignée et précise mélangées avec quelque mots italiens et français, le sexagénaire est toujours prêt à partager son histoire. « Mon père a loué ce magasin en 1918, et depuis je vis dans le Marché ». Un système ponctuel autrefois était suivi : Dès 6h du matin le Marché ouvre ses portes. A 7h, il commence à recevoir ses clients, à 2h de l’après midi on le ferme pour le nettoyage et le lavage quotidien. Vers 3h, on le re-ouvre pour accueillir les étrangers sortant de la Bourse et à 9h du soir on le verrouille. « Ce Marché était d’un très haut niveau, des voitures luxueuses y garent, des belles femmes viennent avec leurs femmes de ménage pour y acheter leur besoin. Le Marché sentait bon. Des parfums des femmes mélangés aux odeurs des légumes, des épices et de viande fraîche … Ce Marché approvisionnait les grands hôtels de la ville comme Hôtel Cecil, San Stefano et même le palais du Roi à Ras EL-Tin. ». Rêveur, Ahmed se souvient des pachas comme Mostafa Pacha El-Nahas, Mostafa pacha Said et d’autres qui se rendaient au Marché « Mon père y a vu même Churchill qui était en visite en Egypte, après la IIième guerre mondiale ». Les jambes croisées, il interrompt son récit, se redresse sur sa chaise en écoutant les plaintes d’un jeune ouvrier « Dis lui qu’il doit venir me voir demain, moi je vais te rendre l’argent qu’il t’a pris ». Mécontent et dégoûté, Ahmed el Bokl, regrettait le temps où les étrangers existaient au Marché. « Un étranger ne te dupe jamais, il te comble par sa politesse. Un respect mutuel et une amitié nous liaient autrefois avec les étrangers qui travaillaient au Souk ». Un métissage complet : des Grecs, des Italiens, des Maltais, des Suisses, et des Juifs, vivaient côte à côte avec les égyptiens. « Mon père parlait plus de 7 langues » se vante AL Bokl.
La menace de démolition s’abat Les jours heureux sont bel et bien finis pour le Marché. Difficile de le reconnaître aujourd’hui dans son état lamentable. Les fruitiers et les pâtisseries ont été remplacés par des grossistes, des artisans et les menuisiers. Les glaciers et le marbre ont disparu, les murs sont souillés par les cendres et le feu des forgerons. Dans tous les coins s’entassent des cartons vides, des tas de meubles, de la poubelle, des sacs de gratins et de bois de sciage. Tirant sur le tuyau de son narguilé, Am Ahmad Mahmoud, 73 ans, est assis devant de son échoppe de forgeron, à côté, des brindilles jaillissent du feu « L’état du Marché a commencé à se dégrader après que la compagnie française l’ait vendu au riche commerçant égyptien Mohamed Hassan Kassem ». C’était apres la deuxième guerre mondiale, vers la fin des années 40. Les étrangers qui vivaient à Alexandrie ont commencé à céder leur commerce et à quitter le pays. La situation ne faisait que s’aggraver notamment, après les années 50 avec le mouvement de Nationalisme qui était en vogue. Ainsi, petit à petit le Marché a perdu son éclat. La négligence a plané sur lui : le nettoyage et le lavage quotidien ont été suspendus. Les artisans ont commencé à s’emparer des devants de leur échoppes, retroussant de plus en plus les avenues qui séparent leurs ateliers les uns des autres. Sans compter les procès qui ont éclaté entre les héritiers et les habitants du Marché « Au début je payais 2 L.E de loyer mensuel, maintenant, je paye 73 L.E, c’est trop. » Se plaint Am Ahmed en laissant doucement échapper la fumée de ces narines. Avec un regard méfiant, les habitants du Marche suivent les nouveaux visiteurs du marche. Inaccoutumé à voir des nouveaux visages, ils considèrent chaque nouvelle tête, comme une menace. La nouvelle répandue les préoccupe : les propriétaires du Marche veulent le démolir. Le prix du terrain dépasserait les 50 millions L.E. « Ca ne serait pas la première fois qu’on tente de le faire – raconte Hag Farouk, 73 ans, cordonnier – Voila une vingtaine d’années, l’ancien propriétaire a essayé de vendre le bois du toit à 12 mille livres égyptiennes, et c’est nous qui l’avons arrêté ». Le bois du toit s’enfonce de 50 cm dans le corps même du bâtiment. Son arrachage serait fatal. Sous le coup, tout le marché s’effondrait. « Sans une loi civile pour protéger ces bâtiments, qui ne sont pas classés comme patrimoine, on pourrait les démolir de jour au lendemain – Insiste Mohamed Awad – Malheureusement, ce n’est pas un cas unique, il y a encore un problème de reconnaissance des bâtiments du XIX et du XX siècle », Depuis 1985, le militant architecte, avec ses associés du Centre de la Préservation d’Alexandrie, essayent de classer tous les bâtiments d’importance dans la ville d’Alexandrie. En 1989, ils ont présenté aux autorités une liste contenant plus de 1700 bâtiments, zones de protection ou zones de conservations y compris des quartiers entiers pour les protéger.
Symbolisme de l’endroit
Tout un patrimoine humain, commence à disparaître. Seule une génération, née dans les années 20, dont des octogénaires qui ont vécu dans le marché, peut éclairer cette période cosmopolite qu’a connu Alexandrie. L’un après l’autre disparaît emportant avec lui l’Histoire de la ville. A part la particularité architecturale, selon Alaa Khaled, l’endroit lui-même porte du symbolisme. C’est un lieu de rencontre, ce coin caché dans la ville qui s’enferme sur son propre Histoire humaine. Mais malheureusement, personne ne s’est intéressé à écouter ces gens et à documenter leur histoire. « Si en général, les intellectuels évoque le rapport de l’Egyptien avec les Etrangers qui vivaient au début du siècle, en étant un rapport de lutte et de rivalité interculturelle. Ces gens simples l’ont vécu différemment. ». L’Etranger était mieux intégré, et la pluralité ne choquait personne. Cette Histoire d’échange, d’harmonie et de tolérance, vécue par les habitants du Marché contredit toutes les Histoires documentées et lues jusqu’à nos jours qui ne représentent les étrangers qu’uniquement comme des colons. « Mais comment considérer un Grec ou un Italien, née et grandit en Egypte, comme un étranger ? », Se demande Alaa Khaled.
Pour en savoir plus:
– Twentieth Century impressions of Egypt, its history, people, commerce, industries, and resources [by] Arnold Wright, editor in chief [and] H.A. Cartwright, assistant editor, London, Lloyd’s Greater Britain Pub. Co.1909.
– Amkenah, Revue non périodique, n 1, Alaa Khaled [rédacteur en chef], Alexandrie, 1999,

مين مايعرفش عمارة رشدي؟

تم نشر هذا المقال بمجلة امكنة، العدد الثامن  وكان يدور عن الخيال وكيف يتفاعل الناس مع الأسطورة الشعبية ويتعايشوا معها

رشدي ابو قير لو سمحت”… “عارف العمارة المسكونة اللي هناك، ادام بنزينة التعاون؟! انا حانزل هناك”

، دون ان يطر ف له جفن او حتى تغطي عينيه نظرة التسائل والأندهاش التي توقعتها، هز سائق التاكسي رأسه واجابني ” ماشي، ماشي” نظرت حولي في التاكسي، الى السيدة التي ركبت بجانبي او الى الشاب الذي جلس بجوار السائق، لم تتغير وجوههم او حتى لم يطالني منهم اي نظرة استنكار او استغراب، كما لوكان شيء طبيعي وغير مستنكر ان تكون هناك بالفعل ” عمارة مسكونة” حيث العفاريت او الجن او كائن ما يكن قد اتخذ له مسكنا. والغريب اننا لسنا في قرية بعيدة مهجورة ولسنا بصدد بيت يقع في اعلى مدق ترابي فوق تل بعيد تحوم حوله الخفافيش وتضيئه اشعة القمر الزرقاء (او هكذا اتخيل ما يمكن ان يدور في عقل القاريء الذي لايقطن الأسكندرية ولا يعرف احيائها وهي صورة طالما تناقلتها افلام الرعب القديمة ) ، اود ان أؤكد اننا في وسط المدينة، في احد الأحياء الراقية المأهولة بالسكان، على شارع عمومي وهو شارع ابو قير و هو من اهم اكبر ثلاث شوارع رئيسية في الأسكندرية. هنا وسط زخم وصخب المدينة استقرت تلك الأسطورة في عقول الناس ومهما كانت خلفيتهم الأجتماعية او الثقافية أو الدينية فهي راسخة في عقولهم ، يتعاملون معها بطبيعية كجزء من حياتهم ـ رضوا بهاوتقبلوها وتعايشوا معها دون ان يتوقفوا عندها او يحاولون ان يتشككوا في اصلها. ” مين مايعرفش عمارة رشدي المسكونة؟ ” صحيح من لا يعرفها؟ فعلى احدى المنتديات على شبكة الأنترنت تجد الشباب يتداولون هذه القصة، حتى صديقي الأسباني الذي يعيش في الأسكندرية منذ ثلاث سنوات يعرف هذه العمارة فقد كتب لي في أحدى الأيام

“Hi Heba It’s funny, but it happens that I heard about this story and I know even where the building is. If I’m not mistaken, it is in Roushdy, in a corner of Aboukir street. Someone told me that people where living there and they became to feel that there were some phantoms or spirits living there, so they decided to leave the place (…)

“ هاي هبة من الغريب انني قد سمعت بهذه القصة ، وحتى انا اعرف اين تقع هذه العمارة، اذا لم اخطيء هي تقع في رشدي، في ركن من شارع ابوقير. هناك من حكى لي ان هناك بعض الاشخاص الذين كانوا يعيشون هناك شعروا ان في المكان اشباح وارواح تعيش فيه لذلك قرروا ان يتركوه..”

وهي القصة او الأسطورة التي انتشرت بين الناس ، فانا اتذكر حتى الأن اول مرة سمعت فيها بهذه القصة، كنت في المرحلة الأعدادية ، حكت لنا احدى صديقاتي عن العروسين اللذين وجدا اثاثهما ملقي من الشبابيك في صباح زواجهما ، وعن الحنافيات التي تسكب دما بدلا من الماء .. لم يسعني في هذا الوقت سوى الأستماع والتصديق وتجنب سؤال صديقتي اين بالضبط تقع هذه العمارة فأنا كما يقولون ” قلبي خفيف” وطالما احترمت حدود خوفي ولم احاول ان أعرضني لمثل هذه التجارب المقلقة والتي لن تسبب سوى المزيد من الأرق لاختي التي تشاركني الغرفة والتي ستضطر مرة أخرى الى النوم وضوء الغرفة مضاء ***توقف التاكسي امام العمارة بالضبط واشار السائق ” اهه، هي ديه العمارة” ترجلت ووقفت انظر اليها من بعيد، كيف يمكن لمكان ان يبدو مكفهر وكئيب هكذا، فالعمارة تبدو سوداء مكفهرة تطايرت معظم شبابيكها مكعبة الشكل دون اي لمسة جمال او زخارف تزينها ، قصيرة بالنسبة للعمائر العالية التي تحيط بها من اليمين، تقف كشخص غير محبوب او غير مرغوب في وجوده او هكذا بدت لي ام هي لمحة شاعرية صوّرها لي خيالي، وبدات افهم هذا الشعور المبهم بالخوف والقلق الذي قد يعتري الناظر اليها فاتذكر جميع ما تداوله الناس عن هذه العمارة من أقاويل وحكايات تبدأ دائما ب” سمعت، بيقولوا…” وغيرها من كلمات غير مثبتة او دقيقة تتناقلها الألسان ولكن بعد ان تضيف اليها شيء من الرؤية الذاتية والخيال الشخصي …فبالنسبة لامنية، البالغة من العمر 32 عاما تلك العمارة دائما “قبضت قلبها” ، ” فيها حاجة غريبة العمارة ديه، عمر الشمس ما بتنورها، اصل لما الشمس بتبقى طالعة بتنور وتدخل المكان الا العمارة ديه- الشمس مابتنورش جواها – شأنها شأن اي شخص ترك لمخيلته العنان ولكنه لايستطيع التاكد مما شعربه او انتابه فهو حقيقة بالنسبة اليه ولكن خلفيته العلمية والثقافية واحيانا الأجتماعية والدينية تأبى عليه تصديق ذلك فتضيف أمنية بصوت متردد- … او ممكن الواحد موهوم ، مش عارفة”، وتجربة أمنية، مع هذه العمارة تبدأ منذ ايام دراستها في تجارة انجليزي ” مرة كان عندي course أيام الجامعة وكنت حأركن جنبًّها ، اتلبشت خفت أركن جانبها فضلت الف على ركنة حتى أتأخرت على الدرس”. اما بالنسبة لرشا البالغة من العمر 32 عاما، وهي جارتنا التي اعتبرها كأخت لي فهي لاتجرء الأقتراب من هذه العمارة وهو شيء لا استغربه عليها فلطالما انزلتنا جميعا مهرولين على السلالم من جراء صراخها المتواصل حين رأت قطة صغيرة سوداء في بير السلم او عندما تحكم علينا ان تقف لاضاءة نور السلم اذا اطفأ حتى تبلغ شقتها في الدور الثالث، جلست رشا في هذا اليوم بصالة منزلنا وهي تحتسي الشاي تحكي ” انا بترعب منها، اصلها سودة قوي، من كتر الحرايق اللي كانت فيها، ايام ما كان فيها سكان ” ثم استطردت ” هما بيقولوا كده … انا عمري ماشفت فيها سكان” جالسا في مكتبه الأنيق في احدى الشركات متعددة الجنسيات، بين رنة تليفون واخرى، جلس ياسر،39 عاما، ينفث دخان سيجارته وينقر من حين ولاخر على ازرار الكمبيوتر المحمول الخاص به “آه عمارة رشدي .. طبعا عرفها ، أنا ليا تجارب شخصية مع العمارة ديه، انا كنت ساكن في رشدي وكان ليّا صحاب عايشين هناك، كنت ممكن ألاقي في يوم شيش للعمارة واليوم التاني مالاقيش ولا شيش ” ويحكي ياسر عن احد المغامرين الذين ارداوا ان يكسروا هذه الأسطورة ” كان فيه واحد ضابط شرطة قال ان ديه خرافات وقرر يعيش فيها بس شاف بلاوي …” غير ان ياسر لم يوضح ما كنه هذه البلاوي… ” ياستي لاعفاريت ولاحاجة، تكلم عم عطية بنزق وتأفف، انا بجالي بشتغل هنا عشر سنين ،اجولك الحجيجة انا جيت سمعت اللي بيتجال، طلعت فوج لجيتها نضيفة طلعت بالنهار ماشفتش حاجة طلعت بالليل برضه ماشفتش حاجة” وقف عم عطية السايس قصير القامة مشدود العود ينظم حركة العربات الداخلة والخارحة من جراج العمارة الواقع مدخله في الشارع الجانبي للعمارة والذي يفضي لطريق الترام من ناحية وشارع ابوقير من ناحية أخرى ومن حين لاخر يكشف سر من اسرار العمارة الغامضة بعبارات مقتضبة تشوبها السخرية احيانا “عفش بيطير وشبابيك بتختفي؟!!.. العمارة هي لسه ماتشطبتش مافيهاش بلاط ولا شيش ومفيش ولا حد سكنها جبل كده” من اول الشارع ، تتقدمان المرأتان تتهاديان وهما تضحكان، في جلاليبهما الملونة وطرحاتهما التي تغطيان الرأس والصدر بدتا كفلاحتين يتباين وجودهما مع هذه المنطقة الراقية والعربات الحديثة الفخمة المركونة بالشارع المستظل بالأشجار الوافرة، توقفتا قبال عم عطية ” ونبي ياعم عايزين شقة بالعمارة عندكم” ، اجاب بوجهه المكفهر يشوبه الملل “طب ياستي لسا مافتحناش لما نفتح نبجا نجولكم..” ، انه المشهد الذي على ما يبدو يتكرر بشكل او بآخر كل يوم كأنه نكتة متعارف عليها بين سُياس وبوابين الحي ولا يسع عم عطية البالغ من العمر 51 عاما وهو الواقف ليباشر عمله سوى التأفف من كثرة الفضوليين الذين طالما عطلوه عن عمله وضايقوه هو واسرته الساكنة بالركن المنزوي داخل الجراج فكل يوم يحمل لعم عطية المزيد من المضاياقات اما من وسائل الأعلام كالصحفيين المبتدئين الذين يبحثون عن سبق صحفي يعينهم في بداية مشوارهم المهني او من قبل اشخاص عادية ينتابها الفضول ” ممكن انا اجعد مع الواحد ساعه او اتنين اتحدت معاه واجول له ان العمارة مافيهاش حاجة وبعد كده يجولي انتَ كداب، طب انا مرة حطيت خرطوم ميه في قفا لواء، كنت باشتغل ولقيته دخل ورايا، اعد يجولي ” انت قولي قصة حياة العمارة ديه” طب يعني انا حأسيب شغلي واجعد احكيله جصة حياتها، قلت له عندك صاحب العمارة أسأله، يجولي ” لا انت تعرف انت قاعد فيها طول النهار” فآخر المتمة حطيت الخرطوم في قفاه والدنيا كانت تلج” يضيف عم عطية وشبح ابتسامة خبيثة ترتسم على وجهه. ولكن اكثر من يعاني من مثل هذه المضايقات هي زوجته واولاده ” ” يعني لما بيبقوا بنات يعني بنضيفهم انما لما يبقوا جدعان كده بيبقوا غلسين اقوي” تشتكي ام عطية وهي جالسة القرفصاء على الكرسي الخشبي الصغير تقشر البطاطس وتقطعها، من المحاولات السخيفة للفضوليين الذين لايحترمون احيانا حرمة البيت الصغير وحياء النساء القاطنات به. ما يثير الدهشة كيف تواجد هذا البيت الكامل المكون من غرفتين او ثلاث في هذا الركن الصغير المنزوي من الجراج والذي لاتحميه عن الأعين الفضولية سوى ستارة خفيفه. خلفها تقع غرفة الجلوس المجهزة بجهاز تلفيزيون وكنبة مرتبة ونظيفة والمطبخ وغرفة صغيرة خلفية. بين صخب حفيدها الصغير وهو يخبط بعصاه المعدنية على الارض ومحاولات زوجة ابنها لردعه، جلست ام عطية التي مازالت تتمتع بحلاوة الشباب وهي تحكي “للحج مافيش حاجة من ديه خالص، العمارة مافيهاش حاجة” الا ان ذلك لم يكن رأي ام عطية منذ البداية فمنذ قبول زوجها بالعمل في هذا المكان كانت ترفض رفضا قاطعا ان تنتقل للعيش اوتخطو رجلها هذه العمارة ، حيث بقت في دمنهور، مسقط رأسهما، العام الاول كله مما اضطر عم عطية ان ينزل اجازات للبلد ليراها ويترك ابنه الصغير في العمارة ليباشر العمل بدلا منه ” لما لجيت العيل الصغير ابني جاعد فيها وما فيش حاجة وكان بيجولي ياماما مافيش عفاريت ولاحاجة هنا بس رضيت انزل واعيش فيها” الا ان….. ” الحجيجة هي مرة واحدة بس شفت جنيّة- تستطرد ام عطية¬ – كنت بولع البوتاجاز ورميت عود كبريت في البلاعة فطلعت ليا هي وولادها تجولي “احنا ماآذيناكيش ليه تأذينا، هي كانت قزمة كده ماتجيش في طول الواد محمود (حفيدها) وولادها صغيرين كده حوليها، كانت شبه الأقزام اللى بيوجوا في التلفيزيون للأطفال، آه سبه الكرتون كده، جريت انا اتغطا ومعملتش حاجة- ثم اكملت وهي تضحك على استحياء- لما حاكيت لآبو عطية ضحك عليا “، ” لو كنت بصدج الحكايات دي ماكنتش حاعرف اعيش ، انا كنت في بلادنا بنام في المقابر، وكنت بأعيش في الجبل وأشوف تخيلات ولا بأحط في دماغي” اكد ابو عاطية وهو يساعد السيارة في الخروج من الجراج. فبعد ان باع اخوته ارضهم في دمنهور لم يبقى له “لقمة عيش” هناك انتقل للعيش والعمل في الأسكندرية وبعد التنقل بين عدة اماكن استقر به الحال للعمل عند صاحب هذه العمارة، وهو بالرغم من الأجر الزهيد يعيش راضي ومستقر في هذا المكان” **”الحكاية ان صاحب العمارة ديه، راجل غني عنده مادة مش محتاج، عنده زي العمارة ديه يجي خمس عمارات تانية، لما بناها كان عايز يعملها فندق ولكن المحافظة رفضوا يدوله تصريح لانها تقع على شارع عمومي ، منعا من التجمهر” هكذا يسرد الحقيقة عامل الكوافير الذي يعمل في المحل الوحيد الذي يقع في العمارة ، فهو يعمل في المنطقة منذ اكثر من خمسة واربعين عاما ولم يجد على العمارة ما يسوئها او يؤكد الأشاعات التي اطلقت عليها، وهو ما يؤكده كذلك ابو عاطية “ماهي الأسئلة اللى بدور في دماغك برده بدور في دماغي، بس هو كده ” من حكم في ماله، ماظلم، لما رفضوا يدوله التصريح سابها كده. هو مش متجوز ومالوش ورثة غير ولاد اخواته وحتى سدّ المدخل علشان لما لجى الناس بتحاول تدخلها تشوف فيه ايه”- ويستكمل ابو عطية ” هي ديه الحجيجة بس احنا ناس مابنحبش الحجيجة” بالطبع ان هذا التفسير البسيط لايمكن ان يرضي او يشبع فضول الكثير من الناس، ومن هنا بدأت الأشاعات وهي محاولة من العقل الأنساني لايجاد اجابة للسؤال الذي يساوره : لماذا؟ لماذا يترك هذا الرجل ، عمارة بهذا الأتساع مكونة من ستة اطباق، في هذا الموقع المتميز، مهملة هكذا دون ان يحاول ان يشطبها او يسّكنها او حتى ان يهدها ويبيعها ويكسب من ورائها الكثير… ولاتخرج التفسيرات التي تداولها الناس عن اربع مقولات، فهناك من يؤكد ان الكثير من العمال قد توفوا اثناء بناء العمارة ودفنوا تحت انقاضها، ” انا سمعت ان كان فيه واحد مغربي عايز يشتري شقة فيها… لأ لأ… كان عايز يشتري العمارة كلها وحصل خلاف مع صاحب العمارة– وانتي عرفة ازاي الناس المغاربة دول بيفهموا في السحر والحاجات ديه- فعزّم له عليها، حط مصاحف حوليها وعمل له عمل” هكذا تؤكد امنية ما سمعته في صغرها من اقاويل ، اما ياسر فله رؤية مختلفة وان تشابهت مع قصة امنية ” الراجل صاحب العمارة كان مشارك واحد سوداني ونصب عليه -وانتي عارفة ازاي الناس السودانيين دول بيعرفوا في السحر- فعمله عمل” اما المقولة الرابعة ان العمارة قد بنيت على انقاض مسجد ، وما تتعرض له العمارة ما هو الا انتقاما من الله لهدّ هذا المسجد. في محاولاتهم لتفسير اللغز ، حاول سكان المدينة ان يستمدوا من موروثاتهم الدينية والعقائدية ما يفسرون به هذا اللغز وهي في كل الأحتمالات تفسيرات مبينة على فكرة الاثم المرتكب والعقاب. ففي فكرنا وموروثاتنا يجب ان يكون هناك اثم قد وقع وعقاب مستحق، وهي فكرة يتقبلها العقل البشري بسهولة بل يلجأ اليها في كثير من الاحيان ليسد بها الكثير من الفراغات والابهامات التي تتواجد في محيطه وبيئته وحتى في حياته اليومية، وهي فراغات لم يتعود الانسان قاطن المدينة على وجودها نظرا لما تحتويه حياته من زخم فهي فكرة يطمئن لها الأنسان ويألفها ، فالعمارة وصاحبها لابد ان يكونا قد ارتكبا اثم ما ليستحقا ما وقع عليهما من هجر والا لماذا…. بدء النهار يمر سريعا واقترب وقت المغرب ، لذلك كان لابد ان اترك المكان قبل هبوط الظلام فعامة لم يكن المساء من الأوقات المفضلة لدي وخاصة في هذا اليوم الممطر بعد هبوب احدى نوات الاسكندرية الشهيرة، كما لم ارد ان اثقل على ام عطية واتركها لتكمل اعدادها للطعام ، فحاولت ان اترك المكان متجنبة المرور بالجانب الأخر من الجراج فلقد حكت لي ام عطية انها عندما تمر بهذا الركن الأيسر “روحها بتنسحب” الا انها عادت واكدت ان العمارة “ما فيهاش حاجة !!!”

Al Qasr – Dakhla Oasis

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?

–         No.

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)

–         Miss

–         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.