Home > 2011 Posts > On a Knife’s Edge

On a Knife’s Edge

February 12, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Not too long ago, I spent time in Egypt doing research for a book and photo essay. When I returned home, I summed up my thoughts and feelings about modern Egypt in one phrase: on a knife’s edge. But it may not be the knife of freedom and representative government that we’ve heard about these past few weeks.

I won’t describe the knife that I saw. Instead, I’ll post a few photos from the essay, together with captions about who is in them and where they were shot. Then, you can decide for yourself whether there is a knife, and which one it might be.

AlexandriaThe woman in the blue scarf is a PhD Anthropoligist leaving her upper-middle-class Alexandria neighborhood. She told me that whenever any woman is outdoors near a residential area, thugs are always waiting to intimidate (and worse) if she is not wearing a head scarf. The law, of course, says that head scarfs are not required in public.  But, somehow, the police don’t seem concerned about the thugs, or willing to help a woman brave enough to register a complaint.

More than 80% of Egyptians live like these guys, called fellaheen, who are about to set up an ad hoc roadside vegetable stand.

Military service is compulsory for males.  Finding real work for each soldier after basic training is very hard. This guy is guarding a road to a small building at the Saqqara archaeological site.

On the other hand, he also isn’t selling vegetables off a donkey cart.

Alexandria and Cairo are the most modern and upscale cities in Egypt. The tourist areas are carefully and heavily patrolled. This defaced poster advertizing cell phones was one of 50 or so identical ones that I passed along the median of the lovely boulevard leading to the Giza archaeological site.  Each was spray-painted like this one.

  1. mary
    February 12, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    i enjoyed these pictures. tell me more about the people…how do you know about the girl in the scarf? and what do you mean when you say 80% live like the fellaheen?

  2. February 13, 2011 at 8:41 am

    mary :

    …tell me more about the people…how do you know about the girl in the scarf? and what do you mean when you say 80% live like the fellaheen?

    The lady in the blue scarf was in her mid-30’s and guided me through the Greek and Roman ruins of Alexandria’s harbor, giving a very good feel for how things were back then. Over the course of the day, we also talked about how different the streets of Egypt seemed from the streets of Turkey. I took her photo from the back so no one could identify her face if I chose to publish it and tell her story.

    As for the fellaheen, most of inhabitable Egypt is rural, irrigated farmland and most people are quite poor. Many farmers’ homes have neither electricity nor running fresh water. The middle-class is very small compared to the US. I got the 80% figure both from the anthropologist and from a helpful young army sergeant who was assigned to provide security during the trip to Saqqara. The hard-number figure may be as low as 65%, but surely not less. Whether 80% or 65%, that’s still lots of very poor working people.

  3. February 13, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    Thoughtful shots that tell a good story. Thanks for posting.

  1. March 30, 2011 at 7:03 am
  2. April 30, 2011 at 7:17 am
  3. December 14, 2011 at 7:34 am

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