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Published: April 2nd 2007
Very cute or very weird...Cairo-Asyut
A sleepy goat rests on the back of a buffalo in the dusty backstreets of Asyut
Taxi music... Thanks to the anti-government Islamist uprising that happened in this part of the world in the 1990s, Middle Egypt is a largely unexplored section of the country.
There hasn't been a major attack on tourists since the awful massacre at Hatshepsut's temple in 1997, and the insurgency against Hosni Mubarak's one-party regime has largely died down, but the authorities aren't taking any chances. They warn tourists off any of the towns between Cairo and Luxor, and in El-Minya, the heart of resistance, any foreigners who dare get off the train are trailed around town by armed police until they leave. Asyut isn't that bad - or so I was told. Yesterday I spent the day getting around the place on my own, meeting and greeting the locals no worries. But by this morning, my personal security contingent had been arranged - two cops with sidearms and ill-fitting uniforms. I tried to leave the hotel to visit the Egypt Air office, and was tailed around by a constable called Kemal. He spent an hour guiding me into taxis, watching me cross roads, and trying to figure out what my plans for the day were so he could stay with me. Now,
A white-sailed felucca moored along the bank of the Nile, Asyut
I'm not big on people shadowing me, be it for criminal, protective or paranoid reasons. So I brought Kemal back to the hotel, and then, when his back was turned, nipped off as quickly as I could. I spent seven hours walking around town and didn't have any problems. He looked ever so upset when I returned to the hotel just before, and I gave him a very sheepish grin when he asked where I'd been. He wanted to accompany me to the net cafe as well, but that's taking things a bit far, so I convinced him to relax in the hotel lobby.
Despite the perceived need for an armed escort, I had heard that Asyut would be a chilled place to break the 10-hour journey down to Luxor, and so I decided to drop in and see what was happening. I took the morning train from Cairo, which follows the path of the Nile River exactly, as it winds down from the fertile delta lands to the settlements in the south. During Ancient Egyptian times, the country was divided into two regions: Lower Egypt (confusingly situated at the northern top, around the Nile delta), and Upper Egypt
Dodging Constable Kemal
Kemal, my assigned police guard...who I have successfully avoided all day
( equally confusingly, at the southern bottom). The early pharaohs kept their capital, Memphis, in Lower Egypt; in later dynasties, it was moved to Thebes (modern-day Luxor) in Upper Egypt. The hundreds of kilometres of fertile agricultural land between the two is popularly known today as Middle Egypt.
The nation's 65 million people are concentrated rather heavily along the Nile. In fact, most Egyptians live in Cairo, the Nile delta, or the 5-kilometre-or-so-wide strip of land that borders the river from south to north. As you trundle along the railway, you are surrounded by verdant wheat fields and palm groves; but, clearly visible in the distance on either side is the harsh Egyptian desert. The ride here is truly romantic: not only do you see grizzled old farmers riding mules through the fields, and camels being loaded with sacks of grain, but you also pass the incredible pyramids south of Cairo, soaring out of the sands just above the Nile valley. Seeing the peasants, pastures, palms and pyramids really brings home the fact that life hasn't changed much in this area for millennia.
When I arrived here, I really had no idea what was going on - Asyut
My mentor and all-round friendly guy, Atef, posing by the Nile
is not in my Lonely Planet, and tourism hasn't exactly taken off here due to the security situation. So I wandered aimlessly, until a friendly local named Atef took me under his wing. As he showed me around, my first African Reality Check began to hit. This guy, 40 years old, affable, with a young family and a good education, is chronically unemployed. He walks around town all day, trying to find work, and following up literally every Position Vacant sign he sees. He longs to earn enough money to care for his wife and two sons, yet is forced to live in his retired father's crumbling apartment, and rely on whatever living he can scrape together by writing spreadsheets for local shopkeepers on his anceint computer. He loves the internet, and longs to use it to find work, but his connection was cut off long ago as he can't pay for it. He relies for entertainment on a busted old cassette player that doesn't even play cassettes anymore. This man is desperate. Yet he has just spent two days leading me around, paying for tea, and taxis, and soft drinks, and food. He invited me to his home, where
View from Convent of the Virgin Mary
The view from the desert's edge, back over the green pastures of the Nile Valley
I met his beautiful sons, his shy and pretty wife, and his water-pipe smoking dad. He has shown me every part of town, and introduced me to all of his friends. He lives in Asyut's working-class suburb of Mubarak City, where it is all dangling wires, vegetable stalls and kids playing soccer in the dirt roads, and where most people are out of work or terribly poor. Yet I was made to feel like royalty by these folks. It was humbling stuff.
Today Atef took me on a taxi ride to the edge of the desert, where we saw perhaps Asyut's only real tourist sight, the Convent of the Virgin Mary. A lovely nun showed us around the convent's main church, inside a man-made 4500-year old cave, which apparently housed Jesus, Mary and Joseph during their travels at some point. Asyut has a huge minority of Christians, and churches seem to outnumber mosques in the city. In fact, the past two days have had something of a religious flavour - by coincidence, yesterday was both Easter and
the Prophet Muhammad's birthday.
I have never been in such a welcoming town in my life. I have had to acknowledge
The Pickle Girl
The little girl who sells pickled vegetables and olives in one of Asyut's souks, or markets
more 'Welcomes' than I can recall, had to return more salaam alekums
than is healthy. I feel like I have met everyone here, and every one of them is thirsty to know about me, my country, my family, my children(!), my job, my likes, my name... it is very exhausting, but also very wonderful. These people shake my hand and ply me with enough tea to drown a herd of camels, and they expect nothing in return.
I couldn't help Atef find a job, or get a visa for Australia, or get enough money together to travel to Cairo and find work. So I did all I could and bought him lunch and a new cassette player. When I gave it to him, he straight away found a music shop and we chose a tape of awful Egyptian pop music. I hope his kindness to me is repaid by many hours of happy listening...
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