A Tale of Three Villages

Today we got to experience and learn some things of daily life here on the West Bank that few tourists ever get to see. Jane (remember our lovely tour guide and hostess here at the flat) took us out to meet some friends in the area. She first took us to meet her friend Mohammed, a guide to the ancient sites, who lives in Old Gurna. We got to visit with him and his family (his mother, wife and four of his six children) at their 150 year-old family home that is built into the hillside at the Valley of the Nobles. His home is spacious and cheery with outdoor space and several rooms, including an ancient tomb! The tomb part of the house is used as a kitchen and for keeping their pigeons (a regular part of the Egyptian diet) and general storage. Mohammed gave us a tour of the house and his daughters served us shai (tea). We had a nice visit that was clouded only by the knowledge that within a week they will be evicted and their home will be destroyed.

The Egyptian government has been trying to remove the people from the village of Old Gurna since the 1930’s. The government claims that they are trying to protect the tombs and antiquities, but that is a bit hard to believe when you see the bulldozers (not a common or fine archaeological tool) they are using to tear down homes and tear up the hillside. Rather, it is suspected that the government would like to “clean up” this highly touristed area so that foreigners and tourists don’t have to see the poverty of the common people of Egypt. Even then the clean up never happens, and the evicted homes are left in piles of ruble and trash. It was so odd for us to sit in this 150+ year-old, soon to be demolished home, knowing that if such a thing existed back home in California, every effort would be made to preserve such a structure of antiquity. Here, not only is this community and its own unique history about to be destroyed, but the people have absolutely no say in the matter.

Mohammed knows more about ancient Egypt and archaeology than all of us put together and makes his living giving tours in his area. Now he and his family will be assigned to a new government house out in New Gurna. It is a fraction of the size of their present home and will have to do for the nine people that live together. (Definitely no room for pigeons or donkeys.) It is also several (maybe 5) kilometers from where Mohammed makes his living. Now he will have to walk that far every day or incur the added expense of finding transportation. Add to all this, the fact that New Gurna has a decidedly “government housing project” feel to it, and you have a very sad situation indeed.

After leaving Mohammed and his family, we headed over to New Gurna to meet a widow who, along with her son, is one of the first to occupy the new government housing. She had the “privilege” of being the showcase house and so was equipped with furniture when she moved in. Jane was relieved to find that she still has the furniture (unlike the nearby playground that was built for good publicity, but has already been torn down). Her house was clean, simple and small. The kitchen is so small that the refrigerator has to live in a bedroom. It is sufficient for two. Sardines for nine.

After leaving New Gurna, we stopped at the village of Hassan Fathy, a small development built in the forties and named after the famous Egyptian architect who designed and built the structures. This was the first attempt at providing alternate housing for the people of Old Gurna. He studied the family and village structures of Old Gurna in an attempt to design housing that made sense for the people. He used traditional materials (mud brick) and beautiful Nubian design that allowed for appropriate heat in winter and comfort and ventilation in summer. The homes have indoor and outdoor spaces, room for pigeons and space for living. He even designed a built-in platform for a bed that provided protection from scorpions via a trough of water that ran alongside. A young woman, whose grandfather was the first to move here in the forties, showed us around her home which doubles as a museum. Included in the design for this village were a mosque, a schoolroom and storefronts. Because the people of Old Gurna primarily make their living off the tourist trade, they needed a place to sell their wares to tourists. It was a brilliant design in every way except that the tourists didn’t stop here at this spot along the road to the Valley of the Kings. The government did nothing to recognize this new location and the tourist industry didn’t bother to take notice either. Very quickly, most of the families that moved to Hassan Fathy went back to Old Gurna, reoccupying their mostly demolished homes. This was where the business was. The schoolroom of Hassan Fathy may never have even been used! The people of Old Gurna continued on with continued pressure and persecution over the decades. Now it seems their time there on the hillside has really come to an end.

It’s easy to lose perspective in a place like this. When one sees the amazing structures and art of the Egyptians from three and four thousand years ago, the first century Roman ruins mixed in look funny and new. The graffiti of Champoleon from the early 1800’s hardly looks like history, and a 150 year-old home seems quite disposable. But, if we stop and think about how we view the short history of America or California, or I consider how attached I feel to our home that we’ve only lived in for 12 years, we begin to have a more human view on it all. Isn’t the history of Old Gurna, or the relatively short history of Hassan Fathy, and even the soon-to-be-history of New Gurna a story worth telling too? I think so. I’m sure Mohammed would agree.

Mohammed's Old Gurna Home
Have a look around Mohammed's beautiful home in Old Gurna.

Hassan Fathy Museum Video
This video tells of the life and work of Hassan Fathy and was put together by a family that live in one of the homes he built here near Al-Gezira about 60 years ago. You can contact them if you like at hassanfathymuseum@hotmail.com


laura said...

Thanks for the story. And thanks for the video of Mohammed's house and his family. (When I travel I often am more attracted to the people and their lives than to all the historical and artistic sites I visit.) I watched the video before reading your blog and was facinated by the house. Then reading the story makes me feel priveleged that I got to see his house before it was destroyed. I'm saddened for this family. It reminds me how easy my life is!
Thanks Marty!

Marcus and Kerry said...

"progress" has ruined so many things here. Like the gigantic wall enclosing the pyramids and the surrounding desert, that devastates the natural beauty, and prevents all of the people, myself included from enjoying the pyramids from a safe distance on our horses. They also do stupid things like build walls so that visiting dignitaries like Clinton won't see the poverty. Few changes that they make here truly shows appreciation for the good that already exists, or true, long term planning. I have heard the argument that those old settlements are preventing archaeological digging, but they've got to find a way to meet the needs of those people in a positive way. Sometimes nothing makes sense here. Maybe it's time I leave, before doting on "the good old days" drives me nuts.

Marcus and Kerry said...

Sometimes nothing here makes sense. I've heard that too, that they want to get rid of those villages in order to dig in the area and study the tombs, but the housing projects, yet again, don't meet the needs of the people in any way, or support their current way of life. Frustrating! Unlike the US which treasures things 100 years old, the government sees these people as pests. The gov does lots of stupid things, build temporary walls so that visiting dignitaries like Clinton don't see the poverty rather than address the poverty,. or how about the fact that the very problems that were predicted about the Aswan dam are now coming to pass, and they still have no solution? The list goes on,. I guess just like it does in the States, of frustrations! Sometimes the good old days really are better than the so-called modern ones.

linnie said...

I was moved almost to tears by your narrative and the videos of Mohammed's House and the new beautiful development by an architect sensitive to the people's culture and the land, his work left unused due to politics and shortsightedness or selfishness by the government. What heartache for families like Mohammed's and for the architect. It seems it is a story repeated in many cultures, many nations, throughout history undoubtedly to be repeated in the future due to human nature. Sooooo sad.

judy (laura's mom) said...

Thanks Marty, you are creating a beautiful work! Even your music captures the poignancy of Mohammed's situation and I did have tears in my eyes. Jane must be a marvel to have guided you to this story.
This is the first time I have visited your blog and what a Grand Tour it is! What fun learning that Sara Jane and Karis lost their first tooth the same week and half a world apart. Emma's train video is a treasure and I'm sure that Daniel is with her is spirit.
Your blog will now become a part of my week along with Laura's. Safe and happy adventures to you all!

Anonymous said...

A priviledge to have been permitted to walk through your grand family home through the camera view. Such a pity that those in power do not perceive the life in the natural clay home. But hold your memories dear and near. They cannot take them away from you.