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Archive for January, 2012

Sustainable Architecture for the Poor

The Old Gourna Village is built on top of ancient tombs. The village has been evicted in 2009, today it is supposedly off limit to residents and tourists, but one could slip past the guard and get a closer look.

“Villagers said my father was mad, even our family thought the same, when he decided to restore the house. Why save a crumbling house? Why not just pull it down and build a new one?” says 28-year-old Sara as she gives my sister and I a tour of her mud-brick home in New Gourna Village.

The house was a legacy of Hassan Fathy (1900-1989), a renowned Egyptian architect dubbed the Father of Architecture for the Poor. The New Gourna Village was an experiment project built between 1946 and 1952, it was meant to relocate a community living on top of ancient Egyptian Pharaonic tombs to reduce damages to ancient treasures.

For nearly two centuries, the residents of Old Gourna Village literally living off the dead. They are landless peasants sitting on a gold mine of archaeological treasures, their ancestors mined the tombs, illegally excavating and trading ancient artefacts, or melting ancient jewellery to sell them for the current price of gold; but mostly, they are peasants in poverty, as they channelled their loot to antique dealers for a fraction of the real value.

As time passed, laws and enforcement tightened, meanwhile ancient treasures diminished, some residents ventured into forgeries of artifacts, while some turned to tourism, selling souvenirs that are replicas of ancient artefacts, or offering tour of their homes leading straight to ancient tombs.

In the 1940s, Egypt’s Department of Antiquity commissioned Hassan Fathy to design a pilot housing project to entice some 7,000 residents to leave Old Gourna. Sara’s grandfather was one of the first villagers to embrace the experiment, when others resisted the relocation plan (which failed back then, but forced demolition came in 2009, Old Gourna is today truly a ghost town, leaving the dead to rest in peace).

In 1947, Sara’s grandfather was compensated under the relocation scheme with a spacious adobe custom-made by Hassan Fathy, who engaged the villagers to learn of each household size, each family’s functional needs, lifestyle, working space, and community interaction pattern prior to design and build. (more…)

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Walking along the bank of Nile in Luxor or Aswan, you would be asked a hundredth time a day if you want to ride a felucca, the traditional wooden single-mast sailing boat, which is still commonly used in upper Egypt and Sudan. Powered by the wind, feluccas glide graciously in a zig-zagging way across the Nile River. Piloting a felucca seems easy enough, as our felucca captain Abdul appears to be half-reclining in a relaxing post most of the time, but when my sister and I take turns to sail the boat, we realize it requires quite a bit of strength.

An oar is attached to the rear of the boat, which would control the mast and the direction of the sail; to steady the mast against the wind power in order to move in the desired direction do need some strength, the reclining post is actually to press your feet on one side of the boat for support, and place your back against the oar, so that you use your whole body to steady the mast, it is quite tiring, and after just about 20-minute piloting the felucca, I have backache for two days!

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The Quest for Fair Price

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At times, I take pictures of empty shops and houses in Egypt, to avoid the hassle of being asked for money for photo shoot.

“Too much cheating here, worse than India!” this is a line often repeated by backpackers we met while traveling in Egypt. In the first two weeks of our stay in the country, my sister and I tend to disagree, but as we move further away from the capital Cairo, and into places heavily dependent on tourism, we too are becoming more distrustful by the day.

Double standard pricing is the main issue for us, though we have expected that everywhere in the world where tourism has taken hold, ripping off foreigners is kind of like a sport for those in the trade, and it’s common that foreigners are overcharged for tourism related services and souvenir; yet we have under estimated the difficulties in finding out the “real price” for basic necessity and daily goods, such as bread, tea, water, or simple food at roadside stall.

Most of the shops here do not display price tag, you either know the price and pay the exact amount, or you have to ask first before buying anything. Usually, in most countries, to avoid being overcharged, you could first ask locals with no business interest to get an idea of the daily living cost, but in some places in Egypt, like Luxor and Aswan, I would say the spirit of “unity” display by some locals are admirable.

Ask a local customer who is buying bread or sipping tea in the market how much is he paying for the goods, and very often, the customer would immediately call out to the shop owner to check what should be the “correct answer” for foreigners, and the answer would usually be double the normal price (which we eventually find out after further investigation, well, there’re still honest folks around).

Walk in to a local restaurant (mind you, not the fancy, touristy type), even if the menu and prices are listed on the wall (in Arabic of course), if I point to the cheapest item (which I can read the number but not the description), the answer would usually be “not available”, and if I press further for the next cheapest item (well, even the more expensive items on the list are usually way below the usual 10-25 Egyptian pounds {1USD to 6 pounds} charged on foreigners for a simple meal/ snack), the shop owner would change tactic and say that the menu is “old”, as the restaurant has recently undergone renovation and has yet to update the new price list.

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The Land of Exodus

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on the way up to Mt. Sinai, please show me sign how high more do I need to climb?

The wilderness of Sinai, according to biblical story, was where the Israelites from Egypt, led by Moses, wandered for 40 years before they reached the promised land flowing with milk and honey. That was how I first learned of Sinai, as a teenager attending bible study class, and for many years that followed, though I hardly recalled the details in the Book of Exodus nor have I turned a believer, Sinai remained in my memory as a surreal realm where severe hardships and miracles happened.

Eventhough I could locate the Sinai Peninsula on the map – an inverted triangle sandwiched between Africa and Asia – it remained obscure and unreal to me, even right until I have set foot onto its soil. Why on earth people choose to live here? It’s a landmass of arid, rocky, sandy, scorched earth void of green, in short, it seems unfit for habitation.

For six hours after crossing the Suez Canal into Sinai, whenever I stare out of the window of the moving bus, all that I could see are rocky mountains and desert that at times stretching right into the Red Sea, so much so that I could no longer tell if that’s a beach or desert. Though the view could be impressive especially during sun set, it is also depressingly lifeless, even the small towns (which are few and far apart) along the way seem to have blended into the landscape – blocks of matchbox-style low-rise apartments are quiet as stone, hardly any human activity visible.

The harsh environment has for centuries left Sinai sparsely populated, though its isolation has also provided passageway for conquerors, including Alexander the Great and later the Arabs, to mount surprise attacks on Egypt and vice-versa. Its remoteness too has harbored those seeking refuge, including the Israelite exodus and the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus, who ran away from the Massacre of the first born.

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(note: the above video contains gory images, it is shared by a group of Syrians I met on board the ferry)

They hardly look like refugees, they are not disheveled, they seem too cheery and they are in chatty mood, “I from Hama (Syria), he, my brother; this man, from Homs (Syria), our home, da da da da da….” speaking in disjointed English, 18-year-old Afwan emphasizes his point by making a gesture of shooting and mimicking the sound of machine gun in action; behind him, another man in his 20s rolls up his long pants to knee-length to reveal bullet wounds.

I am surrounded by a dozen of Syrians, mostly broad smiling teenagers, on board a ferry from Aqaba, Jordan, to Nuweiba, Egypt, on Friday; they are eager to share stories of their homeland, about the ongoing fights and casualties in the country that has been engulfed by popular uprising and severe crackdowns for months.

It is an expensive ferry, costing 75USD per person for a journey lasting one-and-a-half hour, yet more than half of those on board are Syrians fleeing what they described as “war zone”; Both Jordan and Egypt are just their transit point, as they are heading to Libya for a new leaf of life. “Why Libya? why not Saudi Arabia, or Jordan and Egypt?” I’m puzzled by their choice of final destination, to me, that sounds like jumping from a sinking ship to another.

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Counting Ships in Suez

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There’s nothing to do in Port Tawfiq, Suez, except watching cargo ships sailing by, but this seemingly dull way to kill time is rather entertaining and addictive, so much so that my sister and I sat through an afternoon and then the whole of next morning doing just that.

Upon leaving Cairo on our way to the Sinai Peninsular, we decide to do a pit-stop in Suez, located at the southern tip of the Suez Canal, where it flows into the Red Sea after traveling some 190km from the Mediterranean Sea.

We have come to see the Canal, which we learned since young that it’s an engineering feat built by the French, but we have never imagined it to be that narrow, only allowing a single lane sail, so in the afternoon, it is open for southbound ships, and in the morning for the northbound. It is amazing to see the canal sandwiched by golden desert plain, and the ships appear as if cruising through the desert.

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Christmas on Jan 7

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Christmas is coming in 5 days; no, I didn’t get it wrong, I know we usually celebrate Christmas before the New Year, but to the Coptic Christian community in Egypt, it falls on Jan 7 according to the ancient Egyptian civil year calculation, which is similar to the older Julian Calender, as opposed to the Gregorian Calender we have adopted today.

I’m ignorance of Orthodox Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus on a different date, until Marianna, a volunteer at the St. Sergius Church in Cairo, enlightened me. My sister and I had gone to the Old Cairo area (also known as Coptic Cairo to tourists) last week, where many ancient churches and monasteries located within a walled area, with narrow cobble stone paths and old buildings erected from rocks.

The Coptic is a term originally derived from the Greek designation for native Egyptian population in Roman Egypt (as distinct from Greeks, Romans, Jews, etc.). After the Muslim conquest of Egypt, it became restricted to those Egyptians adhering to the Christian religion. Today, the Coptics formed 10% of Egypt population, they are the largest religious minority in the country. (more…)

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