Last month I took a four days trip to my home village in Qena in Upper Egypt. I’m a second generation Sa’idi. Born and raised in Cairo by a Sa’idi. My father left his village for college in the sixties of last century and settled in Cairo ever since. Although I didn’t grow up there, I’m more
Sa’idi than I think (or hope). From theoutside, my father is as different from his family over there as I am. From the inside, we are both deeply rooted in that place. Once he came to Egypt, my
father embraced the city life full heartedly, yet Al-Sa’id never left him. There are no better words to describe this state than a poem by Amal Donkol “Al Ganoby” (the southern).
Before I took this short trip, I had a fantasy that after spending some years working in the States, I will come back to my home village and start a school. If I care for my country and my people, what could possibly be a better job for me than to educate them? What could possibly empower them more than education? What an elite fool I was!
This fantasy is the heart of the elite dilemma, or at least that part of the elite concerned with modernizing Egypt since the beginning of last century. They miss the point.
The village is not a happy place. The image of a nice calm countryside by the Nile is only good in pictures. In reality, it is crowded, it is poor, it is not pretty, and it is polluted. The Nile is two hundred meters from my Uncle’s home. The road to the Nile is too busy with traffic to walk on the sides. On the other bank of the Nile, the scene is not of nice palm trees. It is a scene of a smogy grim village of red breaks and unfinished columns with steel rods sticking out on the top. No wonder my uncle has not taken this walk in ten years. The people building few meters from the Niles chose voluntarily to build their houses overlooking the narrow road,
instead of the Nile. All houses are two stories tall at most, but people would rather build on cultivated land than raise their houses.
Like all the elite, when you are faced with all this you are tempted to transform it all. To tell them you don’t know what you are missing. There is much better life out there, I will teach you all how to live it. I will educate you, and make your houses prettier and more livable. I will teach
you how to build houses from materials friendly to the environment, you won’t need an air condition; your homes will naturally be cool. You can’t build a house and not paint the outside. Why would you choose to live in such an ugly landscape? I know what you need, you need education. Not the education in government schools, real education. One that teaches you about beauty and makes you better people. Never mind that I live in the city and do not consider air condition a luxury. You live in the countryside, and you can’t have an air condition in a village, this is just against my idea of a village. In the village you should live in houses that naturally circulate the air. I know the architect who can do it for you. On my flight to Luxor I read an
article about the last few standing buildings of Ahmed Fathy experimental village he built in the sixties for the Nubian people before they were forced out of their home villages to give way for Lake Nasser. The house he built for his servant is now open for tourists, the rest of the houses he built were torn down to build ugly cement houses. Those fools do not know what is good for
them. Who tears down an architecture master piece for such ugly houses?
Dear elitist, Screw you! You simply miss the point.
People in my village are not uneducated. They are educated enough. There are three schools in my village alone (around 15,000 people) plus an Azhar institute. My cousin’s son is only five but he can spell words correctly and know some English. The electricity is uninterrupted, and running water is in every house. Transportation is available. Thanks to TV and satellite dishes, people know what is happening in the world like Carienes. Their political opinions are generally insightful, as good as any other part of Egypt. They might even be wiser because they haven’t lost their common sense and sanity; a quality that is becoming increasingly rare in Cairo.
What they are missing is not a transformative force. They do not need nobody teaching them what to build and what not to build. Better education is desirable but not a priority. And the education they will seek is probably going to be different from what I have in mind. They do not want houses that naturally circulate the air, surprisingly just like you and me they would rather live in an air conditioned house. Build them a house friendly to the environment from indigenous material, and one generation later it will be torn down just like Ahmad Fathi’s.
The village is a very poor place. This is the heart of the problem. Poverty is crippling. The main
economic activity in the village is agriculture and services (transportation, education etc.). One Fedan (one acre or 4200 square meter) of sugar cane makes around 1500 pounds a year (300
USD). A Fedan of vegetables makes three to four times this amount, but nobody grows it because it is too much work. The main real source of income is
the remittances from workers in the gulf and this is shrinking. At least one of every three of young males in working age is working outside the village either in the gulf or in tourism. Most of them maintain strong ties to the village. They come regularly, marry from relatives, and keep their wives and kids in the village. They invest portion of their money back home mainly in real estate or trade because there is nothing else to invest in.
The lesson of the last century is simple and clear, transformative modernization does not work.
What they are missing is not schools; better education will come naturally with higher standard of living. What they are missing is profitable economic activities, they will take care of the rest, on their own pace and their own way.
This is not to say that all initiatives of modernization are misguided. On the contrary, building a school that offers real education is never wrong anywhere on earth. It is the approach that is misguided. It is the fantasy that us (as “elite”) are responsible for teaching, modernizing and transforming the rest of the country, according to our own values, and in our own pace. It is the fantasy that you can force people you don’t really understand to change mentality in one generation. Nobody is responsible or capable of doing that. The best that you can do is to give incentives for people to invest, and make money. Everything else will take care of itself.