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Christmas in Abu Qir – a wander through Egypt’s backstreets

Street performers entertain children in Abu Qir's backstreets. Colin Munro Photography
Street performers entertain children in Abu Qir's backstreets

Street performers entertain children in Abu Qir\’s backstreets

Christmas in Abu Qir
A little over ten years ago I spent Christmas in the small Egyptian seaport of Abu Qir. This was not a planned stopover, even in summer Abu Qir is not on any tourist route. Abu Qir is a freight and naval port situated at the end of a spindly headland jutting out into the Eastern Basin of the Mediterranean. Nitrogenous fertiliser production is the main industry in Abu Qir. Within the harbour it is stored in vast warehouses awaiting shipping. Fertiliser dust lines the trucks and blows into all crevices along the quays. After any time spent there it fills the tread in your boots; when the wind blow a light dusting coats most surfaces. Winter rains easily penetrate the warehouses and wash across the roads. On contact with water the fertiliser, presumably ammonium nitrate, decomposes to release ammonia fumes powerful enough to make you catch your breath and set your eyes streaming. This may be one factor in the lack of tourists or tourism infrastructure. Grain is a major import here. All day long one can watch trucks pull up beneath a large hopper. A fountain of grain cascades into the truck from on high whilst the hapless driver, or driver’s mate, stands beneath it and levels out the accumulating pile with a broom. This has to be one of the worst jobs in the world. With only a rag tied around his nose and mouth he is mostly obscured within a blizzard of wheat dust and chafe. Standing a hundred metres or so away the dust filled my nose and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of his lungs remain functional.

A dusty boulevard leads away from the port, becomes a tarmac road and soon after hooks up with the Trans-African Highway, the artery running across the top of Africa. Some twenty odd kilometres to the West, in its International Highway coastal detour, it skirts Alexandria, then joins the Trans-African Highway proper (TAH1 to be precise) heading endlessly West to finally hit the buffers at Dakar, over 8000 kilometres distant. To the East the route is much shorter. The Highway threads its way along the narrow strips of land that separate the Mediterranean proper from the coastal lagoons of the Nile Delta to Port Said on the Eastern bank. The intrepid can continue a further 240 kilometres along the edge of the Sinai Peninsula, before being stopped at the barricade at the Rafah border crossing into the West Bank. This is currently closed by Egypt, apparently under pressure from Israel.

Abu Qir is a small spike off this grand conduit linking most of the great cities of North Africa. The area is growing in significance with the current development of the Abu Qir gas field but the small town remains mostly unaffected. The main boulevard is wide and rather elegant, if pot-holed. In late December the sun still blazed, but every now and then the town was hit by sudden downpours that created great lakes over a foot deep, spanning road and pavement. Despite the inconvenience of having to carefully pick your way through these waterways the street was still bustling with people. Once the rain subsided sheets of polythene would be whipped back to reveal wooden stalls creaking under the weight of vast piles of aubergines, oranges, bananas, broad beans, tomatoes, courgettes, carrots, peppers and potatoes. Most of Egypt’s agricultural land is located in the fertile and well irrigated Delta region, and Abu Qir’s market stalls are testament to the productivity of the region. Though the Delta is not without problems, since the construction of the Aswan dams upstream the fertility has declined as fewer nutrients flow into the lower reaches of the Nile; pumping ground water to supply the growing urban population has lead to salt water intrusion rendering some land unusable for crop growing whilst urban sprawl is rapidly reducing the land available for cultivation. Perhaps the greatest threat to the region is global warming. Much of the delta is less than two metres above sea level. Current predictions suggest the area would suffer a double whammy: extensive loss of cultivated and developed land through sea level rise and increasing groundwater salinity, exacerbated by reduced freshwater inputs due to increased evaporation. Yet as I waded across a stretch of rainwater-flooded road, reduced freshwater inputs seemed a rather distant concern, but perhaps gave an indication of what future conditions may look like as the Mediterranean starts to encroach.

I had arrived in Abu Qir to work based on a local boat. Being a naval port they were rather touchy about cameras. Any found were confiscated, and wandering around the port with a camera would undoubtedly invite the attention of the military police. Although I have no interest in naval secrets I suspect that would cut little ice. Getting my camera aboard the boat was relatively straightforward. I simply gave it to my local taxi driver, who kept it beneath his jacket while we were searched. A wise move I thought as I hauled out my bags and watched the sentries carefully going through their contents at the roadside.

Stormy weather meant we spent a lot of time sitting in port, and so I was able venture out into the local town. However, getting my camera out with me was slightly trickier. As I was simply walking in to the local town I had to walk past the guards without the assistance of a trusted local. I did, however, have baggy trousers and a set of juggling balls. With juggling balls stuffed in my trouser pockets and digital SLR and zoom lens tucked in the front of my underpants I sauntered, as casually as possible given my attire, slowly towards the port gate. I walked slowly, partly because a faster pace required me to waddle, suggesting I had an incontinence problem, and partly because any sudden movement was likely to send my camera crashing to the ground down my trouser leg. With a big grin and a ‘kaif halak?’ I passed the guards my passport and jacket, which I had draped over my arm to conceal my odd appearance. This immediately drew attention to the bulges in my trousers and a request to empty my pockets. I withdrew the juggling balls being careful not to dislodge anything else which, naturally, led to requests for a demonstration. A twenty second flourish, a few handshakes and I was allowed on my way without further inspection.

The main boulevard, Abo Qeer, has a relaxed and rather timeless feel. There are of course trucks rolling to and from the port, and aged taxis that will take you to Alexandria much faster than any sane person would wish to travel on that road. But there is almost as much non-motorised transport. A popular means of transport by locals is horse-drawn cabs. These are marvellously inventive crosses between Victorian ‘Clarence’ carriages, gypsy caravans and buggies with jacked-up suspension. They are frequently drawn by horses so skinny they appear all but two-dimensional. Horses, mules or donkeys pulling carts loaded with cauliflowers, car axles or boisterous kids clip-clop past almost as frequently as internal combustion powered vehicles. They may exist, but I found no supermarkets, no Ronald MacDonald, no KFC, no chain stores, no glitzy glass and strip-lighting shop fronts. Indeed mains lighting was strictly limited; most shops lit only by kerosene lanterns and shopkeepers smiles. Scattered amongst the fruit and vegetable stalls were the obligatory chai and coffee houses, where groups of men stared seriously at backgammon boards or puffed on shisha pipes filled with fruit and molasses soaked tobacco and watched the World go by. If one ventures away from the main road the look of the town changes abruptly. Turn west and you enter a maze of narrow alleyways between tall tenements. Flocks of small chocolate-fleeced sheep wander about, often venturing into the open-fronted butchers’ shops where freshly skinned carcasses of their brethren hang from great meat hooks. As I wandered these alleyways I came across a street performer. Forty or fifty young children sat in doorways or hung from first floor windows, watching wide-eyed from between lines of washing. The act consisted of a showman, his younger assistant, a small dog and a spiked, steel triple hoop rigged on a stand in the centre of the alley. It was far too interesting an event to miss, but taking pictures in such situations is never easy. You do not want to offend anyone; nor do you want to detract from the main event. From experience I knew that pulling out a large camera was likely to have most of the children turn there attention away from the performers and focus on the westerner with the camera. A scrum of children shouting ‘take my picture’, leaving the show with no audience, was most definitely not what I wanted. I sat down in a doorway some distance back and waited for the initial curiosity to subside. I then casually took out my camera from under my jacket and sat it on my lap without looking at it. With minimal props the showman knew just how to work an audience; pacing slowly and deliberately back and fore he prepped the dog, which it seemed would be the star performer. All the while his sidekick beat out a roll on a small side drum. After a few minutes I was able to catch the showman’s eye. I lightly tapped the top of my camera and looked at him enquiringly. He gave a slight nod then turned his attention back to his canine protégé. Dressed in dapper brown trousers and waistcoat, with a rather dashing red scarf around its waist, the little white dog bounced into the centre of the street. Upon a slight hand gesture from the showman it rose onto its hind legs and tottered around to the beat of the drum. The drum beat increased in vigour and the audience clapped in time as the tiny dancer jigged to the beat in a slightly unbalanced manner, not altogether unlike a slightly tipsy girl dancing in way-too-high stilettos. To a round of applause the showman swept his star performer into his arms and carried him to the side where he carefully wrapped him in a damp blanket to cool off.

Returning to centre stage the build up for the finale commenced. Two flaming torches were produced with a theatrical flourish and used to light three similar-looking torch heads within the metal hoops. As I gazed at the flaming hoops I realized they were actually bicycle wheel rims bolted on to the tubular stand for a fan or similar. The inward pointing spikes were six-inch nails punched through the spoke holes. For a moment I though the diminutive pooch might be expected to leap through the fiery ring, hence the dampening blanket, but as the ring was raised to at least three times his height I dismissed that idea. Surely that would be a feat beyond even a dancing dog? The showman paced back and fore in front of the hoops, the drum roll intensified, the dog watched from beneath his blanket. I was impressed, not only was the showman going to leap through a flaming spiked hoop it appeared his shoulders would only just fit through, such was his confidence he had not even bothered to remove the bulky denim jacket or heavy boots he was wearing. With his young audience worked up into a frenzy of anticipation, he stood fifteen paces back from the ring and gave a nod. At this his young accomplice un-slung his drum, walked smartly to the centre of the street broke into a run and performed a perfect dive through the ring of fire. The crowd burst into spontaneous cheering, the performers bowed graciously and a collecting box was passed around. I dug a handful of piastres from my pocket as the box reached me, took a few pictures when asked to and showed the results in the cameras’ LCD screen to a chorus of giggles and screams. After congratulating the performers and thanking them for their indulgence I decided it was time to wander on.

African migrants, the unseen deaths.

African migrants, the unseen deaths.

Late on Friday the 13th of January this year the cruise liner Costa Concordia hit rocks near the island of Giglio, off the west coast of Italy. At the time of writing the confirmed death toll had risen to 17, with a further 21 still missing. This was an undoubted tragedy for all directly involved and their loved ones. It has reverberated around the World; the tiny island of Giglio has been overrun by correspondents and camera crew from CNN, ABC, BBC, Al Jazeera and just about every other major broadcaster and news media company; our television screens, radios and internet news has been flooded with images of the stricken ship and the survivors. It is an event that very few in the western world will be unaware of. Yet on the other side of the Mediterranean, off North Africa, a greater tragedy has been steadily unfolding, one that receives very little publicity.

In 2011, according to the UN Refugee Agency, at least 1500 people died or disappeared trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to a new life in Europe. This included 25 who died of asphyxiation due to being crammed in to a tiny, unventilated engine room. The boat, a mere 15 metres long, was carrying 271 refugees. This happened in August last year; anyone remember it making news headlines? Fifteen are believed to have drowned already in the first month of 2012, attempting to cross from Libya. The Mediterranean can be a forbidding place to be in a small vessel in the middle of winter. It takes no small measure of courage and probably an even larger measure of desperation to set off in an open wooden boat of dubious seaworthiness to cross hundred miles of sea to a destination you know little about. The wind will often rise suddenly off the coast of Libya; a mirror smooth sea will transform into a confusion of whitecaps in a couple of hours. The vessel that appeared large and robust in harbour now appears small and flimsy in such conditions. The fear that mounting seas in an open boat generates is a visceral thing, even when one is used to spending time at sea. In darkness, in winter, in what for most would be their first time at sea, the feeling of panic would be hard to control.

These small fishing boats carry no lifejackets, no flares, no radios, no lights. They are not guided by GPS; the ones I have been on do not even carry a compass. when we do hear of refugees drowning whilst heading for Southern Europe it is generally no more than a brief, factual snippet in the news. No camera crews are despatched, no interviews with survivors that are picked up. The mainstream media collectively determines it is probably of little interest to most of us, so we learn little about it from them, and thus it remains of little interest to us. A drip, drip of people dying trying to reach here, of which we are largely oblivious.

About four years ago I was working in Libya when one such, migrant-carrying, fishing boat capsized. It was a small boat, desperately overladen with people, many of whom probably could not swim. In any event it is unlikley the ability to swim would have saved them. The boat was still filled with fishing gear, monofilament line and attached hooks, most likely stashed loose in the middle of the boat. As the boat overturned in rough seas during the night, people, lines and hooks were tossed in to the black water. One can only guess at the horror as terrified men, women and children thrashed wildy in the darkness, only to become ensnared by fishing line and to have unseen fish hooks bite in to their flesh. Jerking like dancing marionettes tethered by unseen nylon strings. But not dancing. Drowning.

The next morning arrived warm, bright and perfectly calm. We were motoring out off sabratah port early when we spotted the first bodies. The bloated corpses bound in fishing line continued to wash ashore and be picked up by the authorities for several days. I don’t know the final count but certainly more than thirty. There were no known survivors. The tragedy made not a ripple in the western media. Local people were desperately sad, but sanguine. This was not the first such event they had known, it certainly would not be the last. Those dying are not Libyans, they come primarily from sub-saharan Africa: Senegal, the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the horn of Africa, Ethiopia and Somalia. Thus this was not the start of their bid for a new life but the final stage of a journey that probably began many months, possibly several years before.

The problem is far from unique to Libya; probably most deaths of migrants from Africa occur making the crossing from West Africa to the Canary Islands. Nor is it just an African problem, the poor are moving worldwide. Thousands are believed to have perished in the Arizona desert, crossing from Mexico. Figures are sketchy, but the US Border Patrol estimates just under 2000 deaths between 1998 and 2004. In the first six months of 2010 the office of Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce Parks (Arizona) received the bodes of 134 illegal migrants found in the desert.

We have a huge problem in this country regarding our perception of migration, illegal or otherwise. In the month (January just passed) when eighteen mostly Somali bodies, including women and children, washed up on the Libyan coastline (Libyian Coatsguard data, cited by UNHCR), the Daily Mail headline (12th Jan, 2012) was Average migrant worker earns more a year in the UK than British born , subtitled Childless couples from beyond Europe enjoy better standard of living than British. No mention was made in the article about hardship, poverty or deaths.

Update: At the start of this article I stated that fifteen irregular (as they are termed) immigrants had already drowned this year leaving Libya. More details. On Wednesday 25th January fifteen bodies, twelve women, two men and a baby girl, washed up on the shores of Libya, near Misrata. They boat they were on is believed to have been carrying between 50-55 immigrants. There are no reports of any survivors. All were beleived to be Somali refugees. (UNHCR, Migrants at Sea/AFP).

Drought and suffering in Garissa

Drought and suffering in Garissa

I last visited Garissa more than 30 years ago. It was a fairly wild journey to get there; three days waiting in Isiolo for an armed convoy to pass through, clambering on top of a load of grain sacks in the pitch dark early hours to join twenty-odd displaced Ethiopians, Kenyans and Somalis crouching precariously on an overloaded and ancient truck; hours spent standing alone in searing heat before being picked up by a passing Norwegian family working for VSO, then 90 long minutes hanging on the the cab rail on the back of a pickup driven by two crazy young Indian traders driving as if Somali shifta were on there tail (who knows maybe they were, few risked driving in this region without military escort at that time). I arrived in Garissa late afternoon, with still a couple of hours daylight remaining. I was young and brash then, I knew little of the politics of the region or the hardships of the local people; I was pissed because there was no beer in the town to be bought. I was coated in a layer of red desert dust and, after 10 hours on the back of open vehicles felt as dessicated as if I’d been in a drying oven. As far as I was concerned Garissa was just a transit point for me, one I hoped I wouldn’t be spending too much time in. I wandered past the truck stop, chatted to a few drivers and quickly ascertained that no-one was going anywhere soon, so I wandered to the end of town to pitch my tent. I was quickly disabused of this idea when a military truck pulled up and several soldiers informed me that it was too dangerous to camp out here. A little over an hour later I was sipping coffee sitting in my tent inside the military compound, surrounded by ten foot barb wire fences, surveying my supplies: coffee, margarine and some rather old bread. Jeez, this is going to be along night, I can’t even wander in to the local chai shops and chat to the truck drivers. As it happened I was quite wrong. I had barely finished my coffee when a young soldier walked up and announced that the camp commander wished to see me. This are going from bad to worse I thought; now I was about the get a dressing down for my stupidity and probably have my papers scrutinised in minute detail for errors. Not so! The commander was a young guy, no more than ten years older than me, from Nairobi; he appeared to feel as out of place here as I did and had seized upon the opportunity to discuss things other than the price of cattle or the latest incursions of shifta with someone from outside this dry and dusty world. I had a most entertaining evening learning about George Adamson’s encampment nearby (Kora, where George released lions was just a few miles away); Joy Adamson’s temper and temperatment and the problems cre3ated by lack of security in the region. A quite surreal touch was added when I first arrived at the commander’s lodge by a young Somali prisoner who was also in the building being questioned. He immediately began protesting that his handcuffs should be removed, as it was embarressing to be so shackled when a foreigner (especially a white person) was present.

I have always retained fond memories of Garissa, despite seeing little of the town. Garissa appears to have expanded enormously in that time; tarmac road have appeared and multi-storey buildings. But life is now probably harder than ever. Security is still a problem, twin grenade attacks on a local restuarant and the local prison occured in the town just four days ago, but that is not the main problem. Northern Kenya is in the grip of the worst drought in half a century. Displaced pastoralist tribespeople live in makeshift huts around the periphery of the town. Cattle, the sole income for many, are dying in their hundreds, thousands of families are now dependant on food aid, children no longer go to school as families move in search of water. In the attention-deficit disorded media world, such slow grinding misery rarely makes the news, yet the drought goes on. There are however, projects working to change this situation. One of the best seems to be the Tana River Drought Recovery Project, managed by Kenya’s Red Cross (Facebook album)

More information at dowser.org

Colin