Behind Egypt’s ancient history lies the revolution of poverty and income disparity

Behind Egypt’s ancient history lies the revolution of poverty and income disparity

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The Sphinx before The Pyramid at Giza (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)
The Sphinx before The Pyramid at Giza (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

EGYPT, February 21, 2014 – The recent riots and dissatisfaction of so many of the Egyptian people is not surprising when you travel through Cairo. Present day images of Egypt are contrasting views of mythical progress and urban decay.

Egyptian street showing disparity of housing. Note the cable dish on the house on the right. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)
Egyptian street showing disparity of housing. Note the cable dish on the house on the right. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

The contrast between the two is stark. The luxury along the Nile enjoyed by a small percentage of Cairene and tourists juxtaposed against the poverty and slums where over 70 percent of the Egyptian people live is brutal.

In Cairo, it is impossible to ignore the disparity between the classes.

Cairo is filled with vast numbers of humans who live on all socio-economic and societal levels.

From the Western-style luxury hotels that line the Nile in Cairo’s Heliopolis to the buildings one-on-top-of-the-next visible from the upper floor of those same luxury buildings, Egypt’s economic disparity is stark.

From the thousands of people living in the crypts of Cairo cemeteries, to the ramshackle housing that lines the Nile canal’s banks as you travel further south toward those venerable  “bucket list” stops – the pyramids at Giza, Luxor, Karnak, the Valley of the Kings to the reality of daily life in Egypt — you can’t help but wonder why the government allocates so little to improving the lives of Egypt’s people.

A vendor at the Tomb of Mereuka (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)
A vendor at the Tomb of Mereuka (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

Visiting Egypt, you will often hear the phrase, “If you drink from the Nile, you will return,” as a form of greeting from friendly natives who want you to know you are welcome both now and when you return.

Because, of course, you will return.

This is a country filled with generous people who work hard, often for meager returns. Upon asking one man why he was so happy he replied “I will never be rich in money, but I can be in happy in life.”

The Nile River is the source of the sparse green fertile land that Egyptians live on. It is difficult to live in the desert, and Egypt has a lot of desert. Without the Nile, there would be nothing but desert here.

The country’s ancient name, Kemet, means “black land” and refers to the lush verdant plains created by the seasonal flooding of the Nile. In ancient times, the Nile’s flood cycle would move the rich silt from the river bed, creating fertile lands for growing crops such as wheat and barely.

The Nile also provided birds and fish that were the people’s main source of protein. People lived simply then, as they do now, only now they cannot rely on the earth for the simple products to sustain them. The birds and fish are harder to find and often inedible. The water is polluted; potable water for drinking and cooking is  a luxury.

This is because a natural event, flooding, has been tamed by a series of dams: The Roseires Dam, Sennar Dam, Aswan High Dam, and Owen Falls Dam all control the water that flows along the Nile River.

Taming the Nile means that she no longer floods, forcing farmers to rely on irrigation to water their crops. Progress has altered the cycle of water moving from the mountains of South Africa to the Mediterranean Sea, a “cleaned by Mother Nature” cycle; now the river is in many places far too polluted to swim in, much less drink from.

Irrigation canals, dug along side the river to handle flooding, are lined with garbage that children and women walk through to pull reeds that are used to make a “faux-papyrus” for tourists; the polluted water irrigates small to large garden patches.

The Nile Canal. Notice the banks; what might look like dirt is actually mounds of dirt covered plastic bags. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)
The Nile Canal. Notice the banks; what might look like dirt is actually mounds of dirt covered plastic bags. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

The Nile and canals are dumping grounds for commercial waste – from farming fertilizers to the industrial wastewater from chemical, electrical, metal, mining, oil, textile and wood industries, leading to schiostosomiasis — a disease caused by parasitic worms — and cancers caused by high levels of heavy metals and pesticide found in the soil and water.  (See 1 for references)

Are the people of Egypt better off without the flooding? For those who want to live in large cities, with high rise houses and paved streets, probably. But for millennia they lived with the flooding, anticipated it and used it to improve their crops and their daily lives.

It is difficult to conclude that Egyptians are better off without the flooding when the waters are beyond polluted by industry, infrastructure is often non-existent, and millions live in a cesspool.

Ask tourists about travel to Cairo, and the first thing you hear is “I was surprised by the garbage.”

The people who live among the canals and rely on the waters of the Nile for their sustenance are forgotten. It is pointless to differentiate between the Nile and the canals because they are one. They are not separate, their waters mingle.

The government officials, when asked, say the problem is too big because there are too many people. The Cairene, the people of Cairo, number more than 14 million with populations in Alexandria of 4.5 million and Giza, 2.9 million.

Giza is located on the West Bank of the Nile River, southwest of Cairo and along the banks of the Nile.  It is at the Giza Plateau that tourists flock to take photos of the pyramids, the Great Sphinx and the temples: They are magnificent.

Standing at the base of the Sphinx is empowering.  Its size is overwhelming, however it is the energy of the Sphinx that makes you pause. Though you know it is immovable, it truly seems to vibrate with power.

The Dream Stella between the paws of The Great Sphinx (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)
The Dream Stella between the paws of The Great Sphinx (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

Between the paws of the Sphinx is the Dream Stella, a stone engraved with hieroglyphs that tell of Thutmosis IV, who fell asleep below the Sphinx and had a dream that the Sphinx told him to dig the monument out of the sand.

In return, the Sphinx promised Thutmosis IV, that when he cleared the sands from the Sphinx he would become king of Egypt.

The Giza pyramids are overwhelming in their grandeur.  Sitting beneath the haze of the hot Egyptian sun, where it over 120 degrees in October, it is hard not to stand in awe, mouth agape.

The Great Pyramid, tomb of King Kufu, is overwhelming. As a stoic trio, they are really hard to accept as real. Walking up the ramp leading to the burial chamber of King Khufu’s pyramid, the largest of the three, is arduous.

Air is limited, the space dark, and there are many people coming and going.

Tourists often feel the effects of the strenuous exercise required to reach the top of the ramp. The ascent includes a half-hour climb, including rest stops, and doubling over to crawl into the inner sanctum.

The fatigue mystically disappears as one walks into the cool, dark room and sits down, back to the empty sarcophagus. Instantly, breathing calms; headaches brought on by heat and the pounding heart ease. The chamber makes you feel younger, calmer.

A camel working at pyramid of Giza (Photo: Jacquie Kubin
A camel working at pyramid of Giza (Photo: Jacquie Kubin

With the last uprising, those magnificent structures were endangered by radicals wanting to destroy them for their idolatry.

The tourism industry is suffering from the recent violence. From hawkers selling postcards and trinkets, to the “camel” jockeys who urge tourists onto the backs of colorfully clad dromedaries for a five-minute walk and photo opportunity, from tour operators to food sellers, the livelihoods of the people, and the animals, are now in danger due to the uprising and a now unstable tourism market.

While the monuments of Giza lord over a desert whose vastness seems boundless, the density of buildings in Cairo is overwhelming.

It is hard to find a space that does not have a building, most not finished and with rebar and satellite dishes placed between sheets of building material; these are the makeshift walls of the city’s homeless who are lucky enough to find a place on the rooftops above the street to live.

Generations of families are raised on the roofs of Old Cairo. You can see the informal, above-street housing from the road and from the windows of the luxury hotels.

Grandparents and young children live beneath ramshackle roofs made of discarded tin and old tires to keep out the occasional rains. The walls are often no more than thin cardboard, cardboard or cloth.

Statistics reflect that more than million people live in an area that is not much more than 15,000 square miles, leaving less than .000018 acres of land per person, and placing more than 99% of Egypt’s immense population onto less than 6% of it’s total land area.

This is a reality of Egypt and one, as a tourist, that is difficult to ignore with as much ease, as the government seems able to do.  It is shrugged off with the non-apologetic “Cairo was built to house only so many and instead we have so many more, there is little we can do.”

At the heart of modern Egypt is Muslim social dominance over the Coptic Christian and non-Muslim peoples of the country.

The Zabbaleen, or garbage people, are Coptic Christians living in a Muslim country where they have been collecting Cairo’s trash for decades.

For decades the Zabbaleen were paid minimally to pick up the trash, taking it back to Moqattam Village or “the garbage village” where they have the worlds “most effective and successful recycling program,” recycling or reusing over 80% of the trash they collect.

In comparison, few commercialized trash company recycles more than 20-30% of the trash they collect, effectively reducing the income structure of the Zabbaleen. The shortsighted government decisions to privatize garbage collection in 2003 have led to the Zabbaleen not being able to continue their enterprise, reducing their lives to non-producing poverty in exchange for a politically appointed system that simply does not work.

One only needs to look out the window as you drive by to see that it does not work. Trash, dead animals, car parts and other unidentifiable “stuff” liters the canal banks, sides of the roads, empty lots.  There is an abundance of trash that leads to unsanitary conditions, disease and a lower quality of life level.

If you drink from the Nile, you will return. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)
If you drink from the Nile, you will return. (Photo: Jacquie Kubin)

One of the results of the revolution was the coming together of young Egyptians and the native Coptic Christians that live in the cities.  Tales are told of Muslims coming together to protect the Coptic Christians as they gathered for Coptic Christmas Eve services, an early indication that things were changing in Egypt.

It was reported that Mubarek’s sons were among those standing guard during the Coptics holiest ceremonies.

The sands of time have begun to blow in a different direction, first for Egypt, a short revolution that was blessedly peaceful and now the tumultuous violence in Libya.

We watch the people of these countries as the youth show social evolution fostered by an internet that brings information, not only politically but also lifestyle based, to people who realize there should be more; children do not have to die because of unsanitary conditions.

We, the people, do not need to live beneath an iron fist.  We do not need to live in hate because of our differences.  Muslim can love Coptic Christian.  Man can respect woman.  That the people of Egypt can demand their lives be better. They have shown they are willing, ready and able to work toward that betterment

Visiting Egypt meant meeting people with as much resolve as those ancients that created pyramids and temples that are icons of an advanced civilization thousands of years old and a humanity that reaches back as far.

Jacquie Kubin is a 15-year, award-winning veteran of travel and culinary writing. 

1.   As found Water Politics in the Niles Basin NBI, 2005.Nile Basin Initiative, 2005. Nile Basin National Water Quality Monitoring Baseline Study Report for Egypt; Soliman, A, et al. 2005. Environmental Contamination and Toxicology: Geographical Clustering of Pancreatic Cancers in the Northeast Nile Delta Region of Egypt: Khairy, A. 1998. Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal: Water Contact Activities and Schistosomiasis Infection in menoufia, Nile Delta, Egypt: Volume 4, Issue 1 pp. 100-106; Nile Basin Initiative, 2005. Nile Basin National Water Quality Monitoring Baseline Study Report for Egypt

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