The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (0)

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Arrivals

The road from Kharga is an isolated strip of asphalt winding through arid desert that alternates between flat, uneventful plains and more spectacular sand-dunes. Seventy kilometres before you arrive to the village of Mūt, the landscape bursts with numerous shades of pastel colours: the desert alternates with lush vegetation, plain fields, and palm tree groves bounded on the Northern side by a mountain chain and on the Southern side by more flat desert. Several villages dot the remainder of the road, some tucked in the bosom of the mountain and barely visible and others, like Asmant, start right at the road and sprawl into the distance. A few villages later the vegetation is overtaken by the low-lying buildings of Mūt; a curious mix of half-completed one and two-storey concrete buildings and traditional mud brick dwellings. This is the largest village in Dakhla, the Inner Oasis and the third most populated in the Western desert.

Oases of the Western Desert: An Historical Snapshot

Extending west of the Nile-valley and occupying two thirds of the land surface of Egypt, the Western Desert – otherwise an arid expanse of over 680,000 square kilometres – is dotted by six depressions: the oases of Siwa, Fayyoum, Bahariyya, Farafra, Dakhla, and Kharga. Beyond the Western political border of Egypt, it becomes the Libyan Desert, and shortly after merges in with the Sahara. With Cairo as a reference point, Fayyoum is the closest, largest and most populated of the six oases. Siwa lies only 50 km east of the Libyan border and, traditionally, has been the most isolated. The other four oases lie on an arc that starts at Cairo, curves West into the desert and 1330 km later returns to the Nile-valley at Luxor. Farafra lies at the Western-most point of that arc, followed by Dakhla.

According to the 2006 national census, the population of the locality of Dakhla is 79,812 (CAPMAS 2007). This is the total population of each locality including the main town, Mūt, and the many villages surrounding it. The oases have seen a significant population boost over the past few decades. Throughout its history, however, the population of the oases tended to fluctuate dramatically for reasons to do with diminishing water supplies and the ever-present danger of Bedouin raids.

What we know from archaeological remains is that Dakhla has seen human activity since Palaeolithic times (Kubiak and Zabowski 1995, 10). In the Pharaonic period, Egyptians from the Nile-valley appear to have arrived at Dakhla in 2300 BC (Mills 1999). Ohat R’seit – the Southern Oasis – was part of the same administrative division as the oasis of Kharga, and evidence indicates that the responsible authority sought to maintain and develop the oases primarily as a first line of defence against incoming raids from the West and South (Abu-Zayd 1997). Papyri from the Graeco-Roman period indicate that Dakhla was governed through a tight organisational structure, with the population mainly of Libyan Berber origin and engaged in agriculture (Wagner 1987). Prior to the introduction of Christianity, religion was a form of paganism; late Egypto-Hellenic syncretism. The Roman period is considered to have been unusually prosperous for the oases but at a price. Intensive farming and the use of new irrigation techniques have, as Thurston wrote, “sucked the oasis dry of easily accessible water” and meant that during the Byzantine period, Dakhla was “unable to provide more than a subsistence living for a greatly reduced and declining population” (2003, 320). That did not preclude the spread of Christianity to the oases, with evidence of dominant Christian presence persisting up till the 10th century; four centuries after the Arab (Muslim) conquest of Egypt.

By 644 AD the Arabs had already conquered all of Arabia, Syrian and Egyptian parts of the Byzantine Empire, and parts of Persia. The decline of the oases in later Roman and Byzantine empires continued into the first few centuries of Arab rule: wells were not maintained, and the population were offered no protection against Bedouin raids, which resulted in immigration to safer areas and a relative depopulation of the oases between the 11th and 15th centuries (Fakhry 2003; Beadnell 1909). By the 14th and 15th centuries (towards the end of Mamluk rule) the oases experienced a second period of prosperity. The outcome of this period has been likened to that of its earlier Roman equivalent in that the extensive use of water was not accompanied by a concern for the “long-term consequences for the residents or the productivity of the land itself” (Thurston 2003, 324; see also Keall 1981). It was during this period that the medieval walled city of El-Qasr would be built in Dakhla. It survives to this day, unlike the similarly named city in Farafra which collapsed after heavy rains in 1945. Here is Thurston describing El-Qasr in Dakhla:

Heavy acacia gates divided the city into neighbourhoods, each of which would have been the precinct of a tribe-based clan. The gates were locked at night, as were the main city gates, against the threat of raids, which continued into the 19th c. (2003, 323).

The Ottoman conquest of 1517 signalled the end of Mamluk rule in Egypt. The three centuries that followed witnessed a decline in farming areas and the oases were not spared. They were also three centuries with no information on the oases, a fact that has been linked to the general cultural decline in Egypt under Ottoman rule (Kubiak and Zabowski 1995). It was only with the rise of European exploration by the early 19th century that the oases began to be mentioned again in various topographical and geological works. Absent from the work of these explorers, which is perhaps expected considering their interests, are consistent observations or accounts of social and cultural life in the oases. And in the case where such accounts exist, as in W. J. Harding King’s (1925), they take the form of travelogues with superficial observations that would now seem to us ethnocentric and biased, if not racist. The paucity of historical material has only been partly rectified by Ahmed Fakhry, the first Egyptian Egyptologist. Fakhry (2003) visited Farafra and Bahariyya several times between 1938 and 1968 and wrote in an informal style about archaeological findings as well as brief comments on life in the oases.

In 1938, according to Fakhry, the only link between Farafra and the neighbouring oases (Bahariyya and Dakhla) was a four day camel trip. There were no modern means of communication or any form of “mechanized transport”. There was no electricity, and in the whole oasis only three watches existed. Houses, as Fakhry described them, were similar in form to those found on the edges of cultivated areas in the Nile-valley: a central courtyard with a dwelling in one corner, a small garden and a well. The inhabitants, he observed, had a different dialect to those of Bahariyya and Dakhla, a fact he attributed to their Bedouin blood. They were more religious and stricter than their neighbours; women did not mix with strangers, unlike in Bahariyya, which had been a place of forced exile for Siwan women accused of adultery. He described a total absence of what he called “European clothing” in 1938, but by 1968 teachers and the few government officials in the oasis could be seen in trousers and coats. This seemingly minor observation, however, was an indication of significant changes that began to happen in the oases of the Western desert. The “new-valley project” had already been conceived by the Egyptian government, and it was only a few years into the project, and as he was leaving Farafra in 1968 that he wrote:

I thought of the rapidly changing life in the oasis and wondered how long the inhabitants could keep their old traditions alive. The concept of bringing several thousand immigrants here from the Nile Valley when the new irrigation projects opening (sic) thousands of feddans take place, saddened and distressed me. Will the honest, peaceful citizens of Farafra be pushed into a corner by the new, aggressive immigrants, as has happened in Kharga? (2003, 180)

The New-Valley Project

Land reclamation in the Western desert began in the 1960s under the guidance of President Gamal ‘Abdel-Nasser. The idea was to counter overpopulation in the Nile-valley by reclaiming desert land, creating new villages, and boosting agricultural production (Gudowski and Raubo 1995). The Western desert was seen as a land of opportunity that could potentially solve the problems of a “new Egypt” freed of British and Monarchic rule and set to modernise and develop:

Escaping the confines of the narrow and over-populated Nile-Valley into the wide expanse of Egypt’s land is the only way to build a future for Egypt, by absorbing the increasing population, and opening wide horizons for development and progress (Abu-Zayd 1997, 17).

Throughout the 60s and 70s hundreds of wells were dug, bringing to the surface millions of cubic metres of the non-renewable fossil water under the desert (Thurston 2003). Roads were built connecting the four oases with the Nile-valley (Kuzak 1995, Mills 1999). The project slowed down during the two wars with Israel and the six years in between (1967 to 1973) and large scale reclamation properly began in the 1980s. Despite intense development, the New-valley project did not fulfil the grand ambitions of the Egyptian government which included an estimated post-reclamation population of 2 million (current population of the area originally included in the project is 210,352 (CAPMAS 2007)). Part of the reason was the expense of land reclamation and the reluctance of Egyptians to leave the Nile-valley for the desert. Concerns about the falling water table further slowed down the digging of new wells. The water situation is such that unless alternative projects for transporting water from the Nile succeed, the water under Dakhla oasis could be depleted in 50 years, in which case the oasis will gradually cease to exist (Thurston 2003).

A recent document issued by the State Information Service entitled ‘New-Valley Panorama’ (Abu-Zayd 1997) acknowledged that development in the New-Valley has not fulfilled the “dreams” of Egyptians and has failed to mine the huge potential of the region. Mubarak’s government has been attempting since the mid-nineties to rectify this situation by constructing a canal, the ‘New-Valley Canal’, which carries Nile water from Lake Nasser south of the country for a distance of 850 kilometres passing by Uweinat, Kharga, Dakhla and terminating in Farafra. The grand plan is not just land reclamation but the construction of eighteen new towns, a hundred industrial sites, and a number of tourism projects. The ultimate goal is to build “a new civilisation, parallel to that of the old [Nile] Valley”. This project has met immense technical difficulties, not least due to the intense heat in this part of Egypt which salinates the water before it can cover a fraction of the intended distance; the reliance on underground water continues.

Dakhla Today

Today, Dakhla is a major oasis with 33 villages and an urban centre, Mūt, with a population of ten thousand. Agriculture remains the main activity, although the inhabitants supplement their income through various other means. All families own land and the men usually rotate tending for it. Prior to the New-Valley project the local leader, the ‘Umda, controlled most of the land and was the one who rented and sold to others. In the sixties this changed, and the government started digging wells and offering local families and immigrants 5 feddans and a cow for symbolic prices. If a family are particularly well-to-do they could dig their own well, otherwise they must rent water from the government for a symbolic fee of forty Egyptian pounds a year.

Water is rarely owned by a single family, and a well is shared among several plots of land. Owners must observe a specific water rota, and intentional or inadvertent violations of the rota may lead to problems which are usually resolved locally and very rarely involve the police. When a well dries and the family cannot afford to dig deeper or buy a bigger pump to pull the water, the owners must accept the slow death of their land. Land owned by families tends to be small, and the families grow less for profit and primarily for subsistence. Many families own livestock kept in a shed on their plot of land. Once a year they may sell a cow which would bring about 4000 to 6000 Egyptian pounds.

Contrasting with the small plots of lands that locals own, the government has been offering areas of up to thousands of Feddans for investment. Huge plots of land, in Uweinat and to a lesser extent Dakhla, have been bought by Egyptian and foreign investors who have launched major projects with the sole purpose of profit. Occasionally I saw huge trucks passing through Mūt and carrying produce straight to Suez and Alexandria for export. These projects are subject to modern irrigation standards in order to reduce water loss. Recently the government began to interfere in what the families could grow. Rice was banned a few years ago in view of the huge water waste involved in growing it. This has been met with disdain by the locals who are big rice eaters and must now buy it at a greater expense from Asyut, the nearest city. Concerns regarding the water supply do not strike a chord here. Most people reject the scientific evidence that underground water is non-renewable, and many argue that water is replenished directly from the Nile. The government’s grand project of the ‘New-Valley canal’ is branded as mere propaganda. The water issue for the people of Dakhla is a financial issue: enough money means more wells, and pumps that can bring water from deeper levels.

The fact remains, if you exclude a few families, that agriculture on its own cannot be the sole financial sustenance. Many men and women are employed as civil servants in the various government institutions that accompanied the development of the region. These positions are sought for the consistent income they offer and the guarantee of a pension. Otherwise people get by through working in multiple jobs. A man will work as a civil-servant in the morning and tend the land in the evening or early in the morning before heading off to work. Trading in livestock, running a shop or a coffee-house, or driving a micro-bus are all common sources of income. Tourism is not as big as in Bahariyya or Farafra, and consists mainly in arranging safaris for European tourists to the Great Sand Sea and El-Gilf Al-Kabeer. Free time is rare amid multiple jobs, and the few free hours of the day are spent at the coffee-house or at home. The reality remains, however, that the land must be preserved and tended regardless of any other jobs a man takes on. A father expects his sons to take over the land from him as he grows older.

Despite the constant struggle to make ends meet, many of the older inhabitants – those who recall life in the fifties – acknowledge the significant improvements brought by the New-Valley project. Back then food was scarce, and the absence of electricity constrained the range of edible foods to what could be dried and stored safely. The scarcity of water required that vegetables and fruit be brought from Asyut on desert tracks at huge expense. The construction of roads linking the oasis with the Nile-Valley meant that more people could travel to Asyut and Cairo to seek work and send money back to their families. More recently, some men have taken to economic migration to Kuwait and Saudi-Arabia to the detriment of the land they leave behind for their neighbours to tend. However the New-Valley project resulted in a huge surge of immigrants, mostly men, descending on the oasis. Up to this day the inhabitants of Dakhla clearly distinguish between themselves – the natives – and the immigrants. Families who have lived in the oasis for over fifty years are still considered outsiders, and even though they have married local women, the preference remains to “give your daughter in marriage” to a local.

Up to, perhaps, two decades ago the old-town represented the physical boundary of the villages. Within its high gates the inhabitants lived, stored their grain, married, died and, when required, sought protection from marauding Bedouins and others. Today the old-town no longer fulfils its historic role since the majority of the population have descended to the plains below, leaving the old-town to crumble in disrepair. In any case it would not have accommodated the population increase, which perhaps explains why people in the villages continue to live in mud-brick houses. A few families continue to live in El-Kharaba (the ruins, and the name given to the crumbling old-town), and those who have moved out continue to use their old houses for storage of chickens and pigeons. Today, El-Kharaba is a cornucopia of interlocking dwellings and shaded corridors and mazes that form an asymmetrical, organic mass with a fluid horizontal and vertical perspective. The houses, which are entirely made of mud-bricks, palm reeds, and natural wood, are now mostly in ruins, although you can still see the occasional standing house in perfect condition with electric lights and a satellite dish on top. The ruins also lend themselves to more ominous uses: drug users and seekers of illicit sex frequent the ruins at night unmoved by the inherent dangers of being caught or the risk of unsettling evil spirits that tend to inhabit deserted spots.

The descent from Old Mūt to the plains below occurred gradually over a twenty year period, although some families do not want, or cannot afford, to leave their mud-brick house for a concrete one. My friend Tariq told me that the first concrete building in Mūt was raised about thirty years ago and was a government site. When I asked him when he moved out of the old-town he paused and said: “you can only extend your feet as far as your covers go”. They’ve moved out only three years ago and this, in Mūt, is very recent. Moving out of the old-town has acquired status significance over the years: everyone is expected to want to build and live in a concrete house. Even though people complain about the concrete houses – the manner in which they lock-in the heat unlike the mud-brick dwellings which are cool in the middle of summer – the majority agree that modern houses are more comfortable and require less maintenance.

The concrete and steel construction surge that accompanied the descent from Old-Mūt still shows no sign of abating. All over town you see one and two-floor storey buildings with concrete pillars jutting out of the roofs and exposed bare steel rods rising upwards, the whole construction eerily resembling a helpless upturned insect. Such constructions are scattered all over town, giving the place the feel of a perpetually developing building site. Later when I understood the economics and pragmatics of house construction I appreciated why all the houses must have these unsightly pillars and steel rods jutting out of them. These pillars stand testament to deficient funding and the intention of “raising another floor”. Families in Dakhla continue to live together. Whereas the older mud-brick dwellings were organised around a central court-yard surrounded by several rooms – one for each family, the newer concrete houses allow more privacy, since each family lives in a separate flat. Brothers tend to share a house and as they approach the marriage age and once a few thousand pounds are amassed, concrete and steel can be bought from Asyut and a further floor could be built. Fathers build for their sons, while daughters usually move in with their husband’s family.

Perhaps the best spot to observe Mūt is from the top of El-Kharaba. Up there you could see concrete buildings stretching all the way to the green fields, beyond which the desert and mountains start. Most of the buildings have the obligatory steel rods dangling upwards; few are painted from the outside, and are built of manufactured red-bricks. The amorphous brown mass that is old Mūt gives way to a chaotically arranged red mass of houses occasionally interspersed by palm tree groves until, finally, it gives way to the fields proper and then the desert. From this vantage point Mūt is a simple collage of four colours: Brown, Red, Green, and Yellow. The colours of the naturally sourced material that comprise the substance of the mud-brick dwellings blend in seamlessly with the green fields and the yellow desert, but the New Mūt with its manufactured red-bricks and steel rods breaks this harmony.

In addition to agriculture, work, and housing, modernisation has touched other elements of life in the oasis. The literacy rate here is one of the highest in the country (81.2%). There are several primary and secondary schools in Mūt alone, although seekers of higher education must head to Kharga or further to Asyut and Cairo. Secondary education may take one of two routes: the conventional academic route that allows the graduate to go to university, and the more common route of specialised education where the students are trained in a practical discipline of their choice: agricultural, industrial, religious or commercial.

Technology has taken on in the oasis rather quickly. Mobile phones are ubiquitous since their introduction nine years ago. Television and electricity were introduced in 1982, and satellite dishes made an appearance in the past seven years. Whether at home or at the coffee-houses people spend significant time watching Egyptian, Indian and foreign films as well as American wrestling which is extremely popular with the men here. A number of religious channels offer an alternative for the more conservative. There are a few internet cafes and it remains quite rare for a family to have their own connection at home, primarily because personal computers are still quite expensive. People in Dakhla remain ambivalent about the effects of technology on society. A primary school teacher complained that children are no longer as focused at school; they are distracted by what they see on the Internet. Mobile phones are blamed for limiting family visits; prior to their introduction visits among the extended family would happen at least once a week and now people suffice with a phone call. Elders blame television for changing people’s expectations regarding marriage: “The youth now want to fall in love and live in their own separate apartments; they are copying what they see in the Egyptian [read: Cairene] serials and films”.

Health care has also seen significant infrastructural development. Mūt has a central hospital with several medical and surgical specialties in addition to an accident and emergency department, although they have no psychiatry or neurology departments. There are a number of private clinics and two private hospitals. The consensus here is that doctors in Mūt are largely incompetent. Seriously ill individuals are frequently taken to Asyut, 600 kilometres away, where there is a teaching hospital with well-known specialists. Otherwise healers are consulted for a wide range of problems, including those which medical doctors would recognise as falling within their domain.

This sketch of the major changes that accompanied the inception of the New-Valley project shows that Dakhla in the first decade of the 21st century is a different place from what it was prior to the sixties. Elements of modernisation have touched all people’s lives, extending to the intimate areas of speech and dress. Under the influence of immigrants, television and local teachers (many of whom are from the Nile valley) the Dakhlan dialect is now all but absent, increasingly resembling the Cairene dialect, a fact that Woidich (2000) already observed towards the end of the 90s. Local dress is largely indistinguishable from that in the rest of Egypt, even among older women whom Rugh (1987) noted were the final preservers of traditional dress. These changes are most evident in Mūt which I find accurate to describe as an urban centre with a village feel. The changes which started rather abruptly about forty-five years ago have affected people’s lives, creating new problems and opportunities and constituting specific identities.

Cairo 2010

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The Dakhla Oasis: Stories from the ‘field’ (I)

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Marriage and Reputation

Tariq lives with his mother in a concrete house in the old part of town. They moved out of El-Kharaba only three years ago, a fact that he declares with slight embarrassment. A month ago his wife and three year old daughter would have been living with them, but they had fallen out and she moved in with her elder brothers; he remains reluctant to bring her back home. I first met Tariq at the coffee house at El-Midan (the square dominating the old part of Mūt); we instantly became friends. Tariq’s day starts at seven in the morning: he cycles to the government site where he rents out tractors and loaders by the hour. Like most civil-servants, he is expected to sign-in at eight-thirty in the morning and not to leave before two in the afternoon, and like many government employees he tries to negotiate this in order to have more time “earning his keep” through various other jobs.

Like most men in Dakhla, Tariq shares the responsibilities of the land with his brothers. A few days a week he has water duties which involve moving around the panels that regulate water supply to guarantee that others have their share. On Sunday and Thursday evenings he coaches table tennis at a modest ‘youth centre’ on the edge of town, a feat that involves a few informal strokes with high school students interspersed by several cigarette breaks. On Friday and Saturday mornings, his days off, he works a shift at a coffee-house that belongs to his friend, ‘Ali. I frequently accompanied Tariq to the fields helping him with the water, to the youth-centre for a few informal table tennis strokes, and on those early week-end mornings I joined him at the coffee-house where I would prepare my Turkish coffee and utilise the rarity of patrons to chat with him. On one such morning I first learnt that he had been married once before.

It would be hard to overestimate the importance of marriage. In my first week of field work I attended Friday prayers at the “big mosque”. The topic of the sermon was marriage and the imam was listing its benefits: “to marry is to complete your religion; marriage is half your faith. It provides you with companionship and offspring. It is the natural progression of life”. For the men and women of Mūt it is frequently their only sexual outlet. Hussein, a resident of the village of Asmant, told me when I visited him to talk to his mentally unwell and unmarried sister, Fayza, that spinsterhood is a mosiba (disaster).

Tariq’s first marriage was not consummated; they signed the contract but she continued living at her father’s house. Tariq was not pleased with her conduct: she did not ask his permission before leaving the house, she met her brother-in-law with her hair uncovered,[1] and on occasion he saw her conversing with male cousins and relatives in the street. Tariq did not receive the expected support when he approached her father complaining of his daughter’s conduct. “Until you’ve entered,”[2] he told him, “the final word remains with me”. Tariq refused to accept this and his mind was set on divorce but not before “teaching her a lesson” and leaving her “hanging for a few weeks”. He stopped visiting them at home, cut all contact, and took no steps towards a divorce. The bride’s family contacted his mother urging her to convince her son either to return or to divorce their daughter, and not to leave her in this disgraceful situation. “Don’t give them a reason to hurt us”, Tariq recalls his mother warning of the possibility of retaliatory magic: “divorce her now, and find another woman who can make you happy”. He finally complied.

A couple of years later he married his cousin and had a child with her. She moved in, as custom dictates, with him and his mother. Over the few years of their marriage it became apparent that they did not get along well. Their life was dominated by frequent quarrels, disagreements and fights usually over trivial matters. Sayyed, Tariq’s friend, believes their personalities do not match: “they are both hot-blooded”. On several occasions she would leave the family home and return to her brothers, only this last time he vowed not to make any effort to get her back. Despite reconciliatory interventions by her brothers he remains reluctant. “The very act of leaving the house like this,” he told me once, “is unforgivable; here it’s a big thing and could lead to divorce”. Both Tariq and Sayyed think the situation would have been different if her father was alive: “no one in the family has the authority to tell her to return home; this is something the father should be involved in”. A common story, one that I have heard several times and which I finally learned refers to Sayyed’s second cousin, drives the point home:

My relative has been having problems with her husband and returned to her father’s house. She asked for a divorce, and a meeting was arranged. I was there, and the father, brother and husband. The father asked his daughter: ‘I will divorce you from him right now, if you can do one thing: strip naked here in front of us’. The girl was shocked, and couldn’t understand why her father was saying this. Then he suddenly stood up and tore the dress off her. The girl, screaming, ran to her husband and took cover in his arms. The father then looked at her and said: ‘Your husband, and not me or your brother, is your satr [shelter/protection]; you must return with him.

His wife’s brothers, who also happen to be his cousins, played a role. One of them urged Tariq to treat her gently, to take her out for walks more frequently so she does not feel “suffocated” at home. Another, who happens to be more conservative, was opposed to the idea of divorce since it is religiously permissible but discouraged (abghad el-halal). The third raised the possibility that someone, probably the estranged first wife or her family, had sought a magician to prepare an ‘amal (hex) to separate them; the infamous ‘separation magic’. In fact, he had taken steps and visited a magician who confirmed the above and requested to see Tariq. I asked him in the presence of Sayyed whether he would go: “I don’t want to go down this route; its haram (prohibited), we must always refer back to Islamic teaching and engaging in magic is haram”. I said he would not be engaging in magic, only undoing it but he was not convinced: “the magician is probably a charlatan”. Sayyed interrupted him saying that magic is mentioned in the Qur’an and definitely exists. He suggested consulting a Qur’anic healer: “go to Sheikh Rayyes and he will read on you, there is nothing haram with that!” Tariq refused all our suggestions. At this point Sayyed looked at me and said: “he has decided, he doesn’t want her, he wants to change, it’s been three years now and he is bored; we shouldn’t try and solve the problem, we should find him a new wife”. Tariq was silent, but smiled at us meaningfully, a smile of complicity.

 That Tariq should be bored is not surprising. Excepting minor and infrequent youthful, sexual skirmishes most men here first encounter sex on their wedding night. Frequently their spouse would be the only sexual partner they will ever have. He once told me that the novelty of sex with your wife dissipates even after the first time. I half-jokingly suggested mot’a marriage,[3] but was told that marriage in Dakhla is no longer that simple; the bride’s parents always ask for an apartment and mahr (dowry). “In the old days”, Tariq explained, “it was halal [permitted] to sleep with maids that worked at your residence, but we can’t do this now; slavery is finished”. This narrows down his options to a second marriage. According to Islamic law a man can marry up to four women but only under strict criteria which include that his first wife must know and agree; if she does not she has a right to an immediate divorce. Tariq’s predicament is complicated by the fact that he does not wish to divorce his wife, yet remains obliged to declare his intention to marry a second time, upon which she will certainly ask for a divorce. A divorce will complicate several things for him: his rights to see his daughter, financial obligations, and it will constitute a blow to his reputation: a man who has been divorced twice is hardly eligible marriage material.

Divorce and second marriages remain rare in Dakhla, and in the absence of obvious and pressing legitimating reasons are frowned upon. This was apparent in the response to Hajj Sa’ad’s marriage to a twenty-four year old girl from Kafr El-Shiekh, one of the Nile-Delta governorates. Hajj Sa’ad is in his late forties and has been married for the past twenty-five years to a lady known for her good manners and religiosity; no one could understand why he would bring her another woman. I joined him and a friend once at the coffee-house. His friend was reprimanding him for marrying a second time: “since your marriage a month ago, people in town have been infuriated”. Hajj Sa’ad reasoned with him: “people don’t know the circumstances; she wasn’t taking good care of my mother who is an old woman now, what am I supposed to do? And my children are older and busy with their life. I told her I will marry another woman and I gave her the choice; she could ask for a divorce, or stay in the house with us, or I could get her a flat and move the furniture into it. She asked to move out but didn’t mention the divorce. And now two weeks later I get a letter from court saying she wants to terminate our marriage”.

In any case the reputation of Hajj Sa’ad, a man who has sustained a marriage for over twenty years, will not be affected that much by his decision to marry again, but this is not so for a young man like Tariq or indeed for young men in general. Reputation in Dakhla, for men and women alike, is a fragile attribute, subject to various factors that may elevate or reduce ‘it’. A positive reputation in men involves desirable traits such as generosity and kindness to parents, pre-marital celibacy in addition to financial ability. In women, virginity is paramount and contact with other men problematic. With both sexes, physical integrity, mental stability, and absence of chronic illness are crucial. This is Mahdi, a twenty-six year old chicken and vegetable trader, telling me about a potential bride:

A few months ago I was attracted to this girl who works at a shop by the hospital. Day by day I noticed that every time I pass by her house on my way home and she would be standing outside she would immediately run inside. I met her at the shop and asked her why she runs away every time she sees me, have I done something wrong? She said she does that with any man passing by the house. I liked that. I went to speak with her mother and told her that I am interested in her daughter, and we agreed that we will get to know each other for a short time by talking on the mobile phone before informing the father or anyone else about my intention to marry her. This is more common now, although not everyone does it. It’s not like the old days where you wouldn’t have spoken to the bride at all. Its better this way; if we find that we are not compatible then things end without the whole town knowing about it, and so they don’t count another engagement on us. As the engagements pile on you, any future family will demand to know why the engagements failed and you could develop a reputation around town that you are a difficult, unstable person. It’s worse for the woman. It’s not like Egypt [Cairo], where you could get engaged without the whole town knowing; here news travels immediately, and your reputation is always at stake.

A few weeks later he formally proposed and the father followed the customary procedure of “asking around” about him. Fortunately for Mahdi, he is neither involved in drug use, nor is he indolent; a “hard-working, honest man” is how he describes himself. The engagement went ahead. For others it may not fare that well. Mohammed Kamal is a young man who has been mentally unwell for several years; we will meet him in later chapters. A few months into my fieldwork I discussed with Hajj Khedr, the owner of a local stationery shop, whether he has a chance of getting married one day:

He doesn’t really. If he stays reasonable, calm and settled like he is now for the next five years he may have a chance of marrying, and then not from Mūt, but from the villages, where people might not know his past, or if they do, wouldn’t have seen him in the state people in Mūt have. Even his brother had to marry from outside Mūt. People here worry that problems like this run in the family – the branch extends, and they are wary of marrying their daughters or sons into the family. But there will always be men and women who for some reason or other will settle for a husband or wife with such a history; those who have missed the marriage train or those who don’t have a particularly good reputation.

Behavioural and psychological disturbances constitute such a major blow to a person’s reputation that a disgruntled son allegedly feigned ‘madness’ in order to prevent his father bringing home a step-mother:

I learnt today about a sixty year old man who had lost his wife three years ago and who recently sought marriage in order to have someone take care of him and the house. His youngest son, the only one still living with him, was opposed to this: he didn’t want another woman to replace his mother’s place and have a share in the inheritance. To ruin his father’s chances at marrying he began to behave in aggressive and bizarre ways in town, and to cause trouble. He works in a shop selling chicken and livestock fodder and he began to be rude to customers, refusing to sell to some people without any reason and causing fights when someone objected. He was frequently shouting around town, cursing the people sitting by the coffee-houses, and once took off his shirt and walked half-naked. Some thought he was possessed; the only thing that could explain this sudden change in behaviour. Tariq thought he was doing this intentionally to ruin his father’s chances of getting married. If a family think of marrying their daughter to his father they would now think twice. First they wouldn’t want her to move into a house where a disturbed man lives; this would no doubt cause her problems and grief. Second, they would worry that his father too might be unstable. Even if they think he is possessed and not mentally ill, they would take care and avoid this family. Ever since his father gave up the idea, his son seems to have stopped his disruptive behaviours.

In the quiet squares and streets of Mūt, extreme behavioural and psychological disturbances cannot be missed; they are right there for all to see and hear. A disturbed person can hardly escape being judged by others, but reputation is subject to judgment in the absence of such exotic displays. This is because Mūt is a small place; people know each other and gossip is rife at the coffee-houses, among women in the privacy of their homes, and news travels around at surprisingly fast speeds. This was demonstrated to me one night when I was chatting to some Christian youths who frequent a coffee-house on the outskirts of town. When I returned to El-Midan an hour later I was told by Tariq: “you were sitting with two Christian boys at Sayyed’s coffee-house; see? Your news reaches me”. Perhaps there was a question why, as a Muslim, I was socialising with Christians, a point I will attend to later, but the webs of gossip are most dangerous when someone commits a transgression; the threat to a person’s reputation is at its greatest.

One night while drinking tea with Sayyed and Tariq, the former suggested that we go for a picnic on the dunes just outside town. It was a moon-lit night, and the prospect of leaving town for the cool sand was welcome. Beer and mezza would sustain the night, and Sayyed offered to take the drive-of-shame to the only beer shop in town himself. I started walking with Tariq and mid-way Sayyed picked us up on his motorbike. Drinking alcohol is certainly frowned upon in Dakhla, and we had to keep our wits about us lest someone saw us. Up there on the dunes it was definitely safe. Sayyed was the least concerned about this though; he has a turbulent history of drug use, and has previously told me stories of spectacular drug-fuelled shows in town. But the concern was there nevertheless; Tariq put it this way: “the town is small and talk goes around, if someone sees us here drinking, by the time we return to town the word will be that we had women with us”.

Well into our second beer, we saw a seventies jeep coming fast down the sandy track. We expected it would continue around the dune but it veered left sharply, gained some speed and climbed up the dune adjacent to ours; we heard a woman let out a playful scream. Initially Tariq and Sayyed thought they were foreigners, but then we heard a woman addressing a child “come here!”. My companions’ interest was aroused: they wanted to know who was there and what they were up to. They left me for a brief reconnaissance trip and when they were close enough they saw two children playing in the sand a short distance from the car. The man and woman were not outside and so were obviously in the car. Tariq and Sayyed were convinced the couple were up to some sort of brief sexual liaison, perhaps an engaged couple ‘making out’ and bringing the children with them as an excuse; chaperones who are let loose to play in the sand while they have some private time. This seemed to unsettle my friends; Sayyed was surprised why anyone would “commit dirty acts on this pure sand”. I pointed out that we were drinking alcohol, but he excluded that and said “adultery? I would never do that, everything but penetration, yes, which must be halal (religiously permissible)”.

Perhaps what struck me the most in this incident was my friends’ inconsistency. While they complained of the gossipy nature of their brethren they simultaneously partook in the surveillance of others, and with an intention to expose them if they had known who they were. Several men here have told me with visible pride that they have previously caught couples ‘making out’ in El-Kharaba or other hidden ‘hot-spots’ in Mūt, the same men who have disclosed in confidence that they have previously stolen a kiss or a hug from a girl they once knew. One evening when visiting Hisham at the Dakhla youth-centre I was expected to intervene and ‘catch’ a couple who were kissing in the dark. While waiting for him to finish some errands, I saw a young man walking towards the gate followed shortly by a girl. He was turning periodically and shouting at her “walk, quick!” Half a minute later came the night-guard panting: “catch these two!”

The speed with which news travels around town is guaranteed by the tendency for gossip and the fact that most people know each other, and its efficacy is maintained by the ever present worry of the implications of a tarnished reputation. To me this presented a serious constraint on personal freedom, a view that others did not share. Tariq asked rhetorically: “what would you want to do behind people’s back, sex? If you do this here it will be known, you will know people know without them having to tell you; you will see it in the way they look at you. It’s a good thing that people know each other and news spreads; it keeps the dirtiness at bay”. A quintessential example of such ‘dirtiness’ and the power of the mechanisms to counteract it were demonstrated to me over the course of my stay through the developing story of a Christian boy and a Muslim girl who were caught in the act.

I first heard about them on a visit to Youssef at his office in El-Sha’arawy primary school. We were discussing the details of a lecture on mental health I was about to deliver to school teachers two days later. The school guard came to his office and asked us if we had heard: “an hour ago a young man and a girl were found at the back of a store, they were undressed and the man was taken to the police station”. The following evening I overheard an independent update on the event. The girl wears a niqab (full face veil) as a decoy, her husband had been working in Saudi Arabia for the past three months and the consensus was that she was looking for sex. A month later I learnt that her husband had divorced her and she was forced to leave Mūt and live in one of the villages where people might not know about the scandal. The boy was placed under surveillance, the purpose of which was to protect him: the incident had enraged Muslim men. While this incident demonstrates the serious consequences of sexual transgressions in general, the seriousness of the transgression in this instance was amplified by the fact that the man was Christian and the woman Muslim. What happened was an affront to Islam, and Islam for the people of Dakhla is the global basis of their identity.

[1] This is problematic since, not being a brother or uncle, he remains permissible in marriage.

[2] This refers to the wedding night when bride and groom move to the marital abode and experience their first moment of intimacy.

[3] The literal translation of mot’a is enjoyment or pleasure. A mot’a marriage is a temporary marriage conducted in order to legalise and render permissible the union between a man and a woman primarily to facilitate temporary sexual relations. Nowadays it is rare and is generally frowned upon.

To Untie or Knot (and a change of opinion)

And this is what, now, seems to me an uncharacteristic ode to individualism. what had gone in to me at the time? I was probably too fed up with Mut; now I am not: in fact I am nostalgic. Which goes to show that intellectual positions can be emotionally laden too !

http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2009/963/cu4.htm

To Judge or not to Judge: Confrontations with Rabt in the Dakhla Oasis

My destination was Mūt, the ‘urban’ centre of the Dakhla oasis. As I disembarked the ‘Upper Egypt Travel’ flea-ridden, cramped bus into the deserted streets of an August siesta, I was struck by the enormity of the mission that lay ahead: investigating Madness in the Western desert of Egypt, the practical part of my doctoral thesis. I wouldn’t say I wasn’t prepared; I had done my literature reviews, I had a good idea of the representations people employ to make sense of psychological and behavioural deviance, and I knew of the ubiquity of Jinn possession and magic, not only in the Western desert but all over Egypt. My initial fears of the impossibility of genuine access to the community turned out to be unfounded: within a few days I had already started my initiation in to the Dakhlan world-view. One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the extent my rational and moral sensibilities required stretching to accommodate what I was about to confront. It is one thing to understand why a people do what they do, but it’s quite another to take a moral stance towards their beliefs and practices. But here I was, wearing the Anthropologist’s hat, constantly reminding myself that I am here to understand and not to judge, yet frequently fighting the urge to throw it off and soothe my moral outrage.

It was at moments like this when I would reminisce on the tarnished history of anthropology. It is no secret that the systematic study of alien cultures started life as the intellectual arm of the late-imperialist enterprise. Back in those days (think late 19th, early 20th century) the world was simple and you were either civilised (meaning Euro-American) or not. Within the world-view prevalent at the time, the belief systems, practices, and more generally the way of life of the communities studied were judged against the intellectually, morally, and technologically advanced Europe and obviously found wanting, inferior. Magic was at best seen a symbolic practice, and at worst a form of proto-technology, a primitive attempt to control events in the world, something science is much, much better at. Outside anthropology, sentiments of superiority found expression in the myth of the Arian race and the Eugenics movement.

But things have changed: now a day it is common place for academics and thinkers to pride themselves in cultural relativism: “we live in different moral and cognitive worlds”, and to shy away from judgments based on a theory of linear progress. Relativism, it seems, became a moral imperative, a doctrine that no serious thinker or good man could risk writing off. An intended implication of relativism was to eliminate the possibility of hierarchical judgment, mainly by highlighting the coherence and meaningfulness of beliefs and practices when seen in the context of an overarching world-view. While it may seem obvious that sacrificial offerings to the gods of rain are an inferior method of begetting rain than modern rain-making technologies such as cloud seeding, the case remains that sacrificial practices cannot be assessed on the basis of a secular, technology-based world-view; this would completely miss the point of the practice, which in this case involves a confirmation and re-creation of the essential affinity of the individual with society and of both with a god imbued nature, precisely the stuff that a secular, technology-based world-view has eschewed.

So it was with an open-mind and a gentle-heart that I approached what I heard and saw. A week in to my stay in Mūt I made the acquaintance of a feisty thirty-four year old who practically accosted me off the coffee-shop near the old city. Old Mūt, by now mostly deserted, is a cornucopia of interlocking dwellings and shaded avenues built of mud-bricks on top of a low hill and was once completely surrounded by a wall with a gate that was locked at night. Some two decades ago the residents of the old city began to descend to the flatlands below and a surge of concrete and steel construction began that still shows no signs of abating. All over town you see one and two-floor buildings with concrete pillars sticking out of the roofs and bare steel rods dangling upwards, the whole construction eerily resembling a helpless upturned insect. But the beauty of Mūt is at its most magnificent just after sunrise, and just outside town, when the pastel coloured fields and the bordering sand dunes are bathed in golden light.

I spent many evenings with my feisty friend in the vicinity of the old city. He told me about the healers and magicians in town, introduced me to the local mad-men, shared with me insider-knowledge of the local prostitutes, and briefed me on the extent of Jinn possession. Naturally muscular and fairly handsome, he had tiny intelligent eyes that betrayed a degree of mischief, his whole demeanour and attitude seemingly non-conformist. Among all the people I later met he was the most critical of his brethren’s gullibility; their unwavering belief in magic and their tendency to invoke possession as an explanation for most ills. So it came as a surprise, several weeks later, when he told me that he has sought one of the local healers to help him with a domestic problem. For a week his wife had not been her usual self; she was pushing him away in bed, demanding to leave home, neglecting her duties, and displaying uncharacteristic episodes of anger and unexplainable tempers. This, he explained, is Rabt, and a healer must be sought to undo it. Up to this point my acquaintance with Rabt was seriously limited; I might have heard the term before, but it struck no chords. It was this phenomenon, however, that seriously challenged my relativistic tendencies.

Rabt is common all over Egypt, and particularly so in Dakhla. Literally ‘to be tied’, it is invoked to account for a range of problems from flaccid penises on wedding nights to marital discord and spinsterhood. Rabt is a form of magic, and therefore involves an envious or evil person taking the trouble to visit a magician with the goal of hurting or embarrassing some foe or nemesis. Like all magic, the harmful effects are mediated through a Jinni, or simply a direct consequence of the script embedded in the ‘Amal (think of it as an amulet that harms rather than protects). The Jinni may wreak havoc in a variety of ways: it may enter the body and settle inside the corpora of the penis preventing erection on the wedding night, it may aggravate the person’s Qarin (some sort of spirit double) resulting in bad tempers and mood swings (a.k.a marital discord), it may infatuate the person rendering them immune to human attraction and possibly leading to spinsterhood. In short Rabt works through a conglomerate of effects on its victims, ranging from the crudely physical to the psycho-emotional.

In my moral commitment to neutrality, I tried to understand Rabt in the context of the values and social constraints of this community. Isn’t Rabt an ingenious explanation for containing the painful irony of a flaccid penis on a wedding night that follows at least a decade of sexual expectation? Isn’t the externalisation of causation much more effective at protecting the married couple and their families from the disastrous possibility of male impotence, at least temporarily? And isn’t it much better to blame the evil actions of others for inter-relationship problems than to consider the actual relationship, its faults and merits, a consideration that may lead to divorce, an evil we must try to avoid? Yes, I thought to myself, Rabt makes sense, a lot of sense, if only we are charitable enough to see it within the wider context of a society trying to maintain the status co, to keep things as they are, and in the process to avoid facing the darker inevitabilities of life: some women and men will never marry, may not even want to marry, and some relationships just don’t work and must be brought to an end. Rabt then is a major device of mystification, side-stepping the working through that I am personally inclined to see as essential to managing relationships and life-situations in general. And herein lays the problem.

I can no longer keep on the Anthropologist’s hat; I have understood but that doesn’t seem to make me less inclined to judge. I have no trouble (or maybe some) stretching my rational sensibilities and accepting folk theories of spirits entering and exiting bodies and settling in penises, in fact I find them somewhat endearing. My problem is with a framework that functions to limit human potential, to nip change in the bud, and to subvert freedom by allowing no space for individual expression. This seems to me a powerful ideological onslaught targeting the individual. Its an onslaught that tries to deny my prerogative to express my wishes and desires, to be able to express my discontent at a lousy relationship through my tempers and moods, and not to have my mental states subverted of all possible referents, save for one that functions to keep me where I am: in a lousy relationship. Yet it is an onslaught maintained by each and every person who subscribes to it. My friend, who was not devoid of intelligence or critical tendencies, could not see in his wife’s revolt anything more than the doings of a malicious person. This is not to say he wasn’t aware their relationship was far from ideal. It was clear from our extended conversations that their personalities frequently clashed: him a strong-headed authoritarian, her a spoilt only-child who usually had it her way. But such is the power of subversive representations: they do not leave us with the truth, and instead appease our fears and serve collective rather than individual interests.

I still like my friend. I enjoy his energy and his impressive capacity at transforming a potentially boring coffee-shop in to a locus of contention, mainly by cheekily infuriating everyone and arguing over every little thing: without him the place would be far too serious. But I just can’t shake the thought that we are different, and fundamentally so. Whereas I carry through life privileging experience and change over social stasis, he is happy to fall back on constraining traditional representations when ever the potential for change shows itself. And while I can understand the power of society over the hapless individual, I cannot bring myself to regard this haplessness as absolute. I am therefore entitled to conceive an order of things, an order where Rabt is morally inferior.

To judge is to be human, and it is a myth of academic anthropological discourse that we must eschew judgement from our interpretive, descriptive account of how things are. To be sure we need to understand before we hasten to make judgments, but in the absence of a moral and rational ordering of things, the whole research endeavour will suffer from a sterility that renders it merely a topic of scholarly debate, with little relevance to the important, constructive vision of how the confrontation of world-views can lead to a critical assessment of both.

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed 2009

The Dakhla Diaries (3): Wedding Invitation

Place: Dakhla Sports and Social club

Time: 10pm to 3am

Dress Code: What’ever

Setting and Behaviour: A rectangular green space with a small platform in the North-Eastern corner. Six, long cables dotted with small light bulbs (that go on and off in some sort of coordinated medley of colours) radiate from a central, wooden mother-pole to daughter-poles at the periphery of the green space. You will find several rows of wooden benches arranged in two piles; if you are a woman please occupy the left, otherwise bear right. Remember that early on in the night, many of the benches on the left side will already be occupied by large groups of women. Boys may clamour around the edge of the wedding space and wait for events to unfold. Men, of course, will be dressed in unassuming, unpretentious clothes, but women may make some effort: the obligatory veil of course, but with a tighter waist, a sized down dress, a slightly smaller skirt than the usual (you get the point: a subtle increase in bodily definition). Teenage boys are allowed, as long as they limit their participation to sustained visual ogling of the arriving females, hungry eyes optional.

Entertainment: A band will arrive by 11pm. They will jam for what seems an indefinite amount of time, and there will be a perpetually lengthening singer-is-arriving-moment, for him to actually arrive when you no longer care he does. Massive speakers will dominate each corner and deliver extremely loud music. The band will consist of two tablas, a dof, re2, keyboard, and an unbelievably camp compere who will address you, dear attendees, and urge the women to deliver some zaghareet. We assure you that the band will be more sophisticated than any you’ve heard at other weddings, a fact that may pass unnoticed in the infinite reverberations of the sound system.

Preparation: Unless you are one of the seven V.I.P.s (small-town, insignificant – in the bigger picture – local politicians) who will be sitting at the back and served tea, no drinks or anything will be on offer. You are advised to bring your own cigarettes. If you think that Beer or Hashish will be going around then you are seriously lost: this is Dakhla not ‘Ard El-Lewa you idiot. Notwithstanding the absence of drugs, you will notice five teenagers hanging at the back of the wedding looking seriously wasted. Do not rejoice, this will not be the effect of Hashish; look around for empty pill-blisters. We advise either that you leave any sense of music appreciation at home or wear extremely effective ear-plugs: the band will play continuously for several hours and with such frenzy that – preparations bypassed – we guarantee absolute manic-excitement to infect everyone at the wedding.

Key Moment: Just after 11pm two cars will arrive, yes two (it’s a double wedding), bedecked with flowers and colourful ribbons and preceding them will be a gang of motorcycles, all vehicles honking their horns rhythmically. The couples will slowly descend and will be immediately surrounded by numerous individuals. A man will take charge of an extremely unusual small box – perhaps the size of a Nokia-6600-Phone Box – that emits a tiny firework with each shake. The necessity of shaking the box means that the firing trajectory will correspond to the movement-range of the shoulder joint thus increasing the risk of a firework launching horizontally with potential loss of eyes and other facial bits. Be careful.

Warning: We hope you enjoy today’s wedding and entertainment. Please remember that the groom must not be compromised on his entry-night; any person seen shaking the groom’s hand will have his palms examined for suspicious traces of Musk, Saffron, and – God forbid -Deer’s Blood.