Inside Egypt - II: Where Arab, African identities merge
By Kesava Menon
EDFU (UPPER EGYPT), MARCH 27. A line of worshippers straggles down a
bare hill- side from the turquoise blue mosque perched atop it. In
five days of travel up and down the Nile this is a rare occasion in
which religious observances are to be seen in open assertive display.
Too many centuries have passed for the regular observance of
religious custom in the pagan temples of Old Egypt but it seems
fitting with Egypt's dichotomous soul that this display should be
associated with a small non-descript shrine rather than one of the
Turkish style mosques in some of the villages.
Some of the 10 per cent of Egyptians who are Copts (Christians) live
in pockets in this stretch of southern Egypt and there is one
spanking new church to be seen along the banks of the Nile. But most
villagers in these parts, like the majority of Egyptians, are Sunni
Muslims and their mosques form the centre of village life. In their
architecture these mosques convey a message. Most of these mosques
are neither imitations of the style favoured by conquering Muslim
dynasties of the past (of which the Turks were the latest) nor are
they the confections conjured up by the architectural imagination and
wealth of the Gulf. For the most part, they can at best be described
as mud- igloos that convey the message that religion, while central
to the lives of the people, does not dominate. Is it because a
religion born in the desert can only penetrate so deep into the
consciousness of a people whose ancestors were among the first on the
earth to live in settled agricultural communities? Islam, perhaps the
entire Semitic religious tradition, was forged in a harsher clime
where the raw power of nature overwhelms and the strongest emotion
evoked is gratitude for being alive. The Nile valley might well be a
``600- mile oasis'' since this rich riparian land, that is just 12
miles across at its broadest, has barren desert on either side. But
while the geographical setting as a whole brings out the contrast
between life and death vividly, the Almighty's caprices impact on the
lives of the valley's people in finer detail - snake-bites, disease
or the variations of plenty and need. In the latter situation, it is
not a matter of bending before the Almighty's power but of adjusting
to its moods or of invoking it to be more beneficial than punitive.
Islam has perhaps not penetrated into the consciousness of the Upper
Egyptians as deeply as it has in other parts of the world because it
is still in some ways considered an alien import. The people in these
parts are most definitely African in their physiognomy and culture.
Traces of other races are noticeable in physical features and Arabic
is, of course, the sole spoken language. But for all that the pride
in being African is unmistakable. At a factory producing alabaster
figurines for sale to tourists a Saidi (as the denizens of Upper
Egypt are called) points to three phallic figures of different sizes.
``This is Egyptian'', he says pointing to the largest one and then at
the middle-sized one, ``that is Nubian''. (The Nubians are the
African people who live in the stretch between the southern Egyptian
town of Aswan and Sudan). Then pointing to the smallest- sized he
says with a smirk, ``And that is Arab''.
Besides being proud of their Africanness, the people of Upper Egypt
also appear to be stubbornly rural. Like the peasantry in large parts
of India these people seem to be in deliberate resistance to
sophistication and even to look on some of the mores of modern life
as being beneath their dignity. They look well-fed but even those
farmers who seem more prosperous than their brethren seem to look on
modern conveniences as something not really relevant to their lives.
TV antennae sprout from every house-top (and as always, Mr. Amitabh
Bachhan is a topic of conversation).
Day-to-day living does not appear to have changed in its essentials
from what it was centuries ago but the wine that Egypt was once
famous for is no longer on open sale.
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