The view from Dronka. I didn’t want to leave
When you leave Cairo heading south, the further away you go and with each passing hour, the more you imagine that you have invented the city. On the train the horizon of never-ending soaring concrete gradually thins out into a thread, turns into the flat line of a weakening heart with only very occasional peaks of isolated towns and villages.
In between is all that green. Donkeys and buffalos and emptiness. At level-crossings people, animals and vehicles wait as the train storms through. On riverbeds women wash dirty clothes in filthy water, in a field of long grass a man rests on one side, propping himself up on one elbow and contemplates something, oblivious to the roar of the train. In the towns and ‘cities’ Cairo is again absent and in memory the idea of it grows more and more absurd. A mirror’s reflection, it stops existing unless you’re seeing it.
A second visit to Assiut, and this time it seemed even smaller. Only the huge, sprawling university campus seems to have grown. On Friday nights there are church meetings, and in the early evening doors open to let out hundreds of beautifully dressed, coiffeured women. We bought ice creams and the shella [Sharshar and his gang] watched the parade. Sharshar joked that at this time it is as if ma2soora el mozaz etkasaret – the “babes pipe” has burst.
A huge advertising hoarding bearing the image of a former police officer and the words, “el eltezaam mesh kalam” overlooked the church we were standing by. It was an election poster for the Shoura elections. Someone told me that in a previous incarnation the man was a state security officer known for being unusually tough and unforgiving. As you stand at the entrance of this particular church his giant face is the first, and in fact the only thing you see.
Assiut City is a city with three hotels and three restaurants the shella deem worthy of their patronage. It has a splendid governorate building which when we were there had a row of brand new Caterpillars parked in front of it. Its streets are filled with unveiled women, a fact I didn’t think I would notice, but I did. Drivers stop at red lights. It is extremely clean. It is hundreds of kilometres and a world away from Cairo, its downstream neighbour.
There are some similarities, of course, like the tiny, barefoot girl struggling along the corniche using both hands to carry a heavy plastic bag half her size. She looked somewhere between three and forty years old.
Assiut is so small that on the first night when two non-Assiuty members of our party decided to leave the hotel for an exploratory midnight stroll without our Assiuty hosts they inevitably ran into three of the Assiuty hosts. A fourth Assiuty host later ran into this party. All by chance and limited geography. They went to eat Koshary and then regretted it the next morning.
The purpose of this visit was to attend the engagement party of Fady the Child (another member of the shella) in the town of Mallawi, governorate of Minya. We set off at dusk for the roughly two-hour ride, passing by the corpse of the Safo soap factory and a hamlet where people’s front doors quite literally open onto the fast agricultural road. There have been numerous, bloody accidents.
We listened to this amazing song as we went.
Malawi, or at least the streets leading up the motraneya [main church, unsure of a better translation] where Fady the Child got engaged are incredibly narrow and crowded.
The narrowness led to an interesting occurrence. Upon the conclusion of the engagement ritual Fady the Child and his sweetheart got in a car adorned with flowers which was followed by friends and family in a convoy for the customary zaffa [wedding convoy]. We followed. We thought we were going to the Mallawi Swimming Pool Club where the engagement party would take place. Instead we left Mallawi proper and followed the happy couple’s car as it did the swerves into oncoming traffic that tradition dictates are necessary to mark and celebrate impending marriage.
At a crossroads the happy couple’s car made an abrupt stop. Two young men on a motorbike got off and started firing noisy blanks into the air. Suddenly a car started doing high-speed circles around the happy couple’s car, in the middle of this busy crossroads, which would be fine except that another driver decided to do the same in the opposite direction. The gun kept firing. Shella member Usha in his car had to make an emergency stop to avoid all this. Tragedy was narrowly avoided. And then a trailer lorry whose driver was unapprised of the festivities appeared and tragedy was narrowly avoided again. Everything in Mallawi is narrow. We concluded that marriage parties purposefully drive to this spot and slip traffic policemen fifty pounds to look the other way because it is the widest spot in Mallawi, and the only place big enough to allow zaffa madness.
We survived, and proceeded to the engagement party at the Mallawi Swimming Pool Club.
This was the largest engagement party I have ever been to. There must have been around 300 people sitting around that swimming pool. Fady the Child and fiancée sat on the throne (el koosha), as speakers played music at approximately a million decibels.
Fady the Child danced like his life depended on it, helped by the shella and a group of animated young men one of whom danced better than any woman I have ever seen. On the sidelines a cameraman walked through the 300 people and shone a light in their faces. Their image was shown on a projector screen. Girls put their heads together and smiled coyly, a group of three toughs with unbuttoned shirts and prominent necklaces smoked and winked. Some people just stared into the camera blankly. The shella occupied themselves with a cigar Haidar Wahm had brought.
The next day was the final day of the trip, and the Pig wanted to go to a monastery named after a saint he likes, called Anba Karas. It turned out to be a collection of seven churches whose entrance is opposite a furiously busy toc-toc and microbus stop, in Dairout.
Only one of the seven churches is built out of stone. The rest are makeshift constructions made out of wood, and even the church built out of stone has a wooden roof. A guide who took us around told us that they are forbidden from building permanent structures because of laws obliging them to obtain permits which never come, or depend on the mood of the governor in place at the time. Last year, during a sectarian incident, the monastery was attacked by mobs that tried to break down the door and threw Molotov cocktails.
You would never guess though, that this had happened. All is quiet, all is good. And outside el sa3eed, Upper Egypt, plods along, vast and remote, completely overshadowed by its upstart and anomalous little sister, Cairo.