Ripples of Iraq war reach farming villages in Egypt

Cairo: Young men who moved to the capital for work find the country's tourist industry drying up, and their jobs with it.

War in Iraq

April 03, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KFAR MIT EL-EZZ, Egypt - The narrow streets in this village in the fertile Nile Delta are made of mud baked hard under an unforgiving sun. Children play barefoot. Traffic jams occur only when donkey carts, goats and roosters vie for the same bare patch of dirt.

But even here, far from the choking exhaust fumes of Cairo, and far from the universities and newspaper headlines that feed anti-war fervor, the American-led invasion of Iraq has taken its toll.

The farmers here are hemmed in between the Nile and other villages and thus find it impossible to expand their fields, no matter how large their families become. So many young men climb aboard buses and vans for a harrowing 90-minute ride south to Cairo.

There they join legions of menial laborers who clean rooms, tend bathrooms or provide security at posh hotels in the city's most affluent neighborhoods. Then the war all but halted the flow of tourists, and ended their jobs.

Shafik Metwaly, 36, was put on unpaid leave last week from his housekeeping job at the Intercontinental Hotel; his brother was laid off from the Marriott. Another brother managed to keep his hotel job, but they can no longer afford their small shared apartment in a Cairo slum that saved them a daily commute.

"That is our fate," said Metwaly, whiling away the time in his parents' house here this week. "There are no more opportunities in this village, and now the war has taken away our jobs in Cairo."

There are other concerns. The matriarch of this family is Nefisa Ibrahim, a firm but caring 66-year-old who insisted on serving recent visitors a farmer's lunch of fresh lettuce and bread, ripe salty goat cheese and hard-boiled eggs deep-fried in animal fat and cream.

She has six children and at least 15 grandchildren - relatives debated the exact number - and several of the young women are approaching marrying age. The prices of sugar, salt and cooking oil have soared since the war began, and so has gold, putting the traditional engagement gift, or shabka, out of range for most villagers.

"What will happen?" said a worried Ibrahim, who clings to tradition and attributes the success of her 40-plus years of marriage to the knotted necklace she received from her husband. "People will just get married, but without any gold."

Kfar Mit el-Ezz is not a place where people protest, but the farmers here are no less impassioned and bitter about a war they view as unjust than the more vocal opponents taking to the streets in capitals in much of the Arab world.

Villagers here also are rattled by newspaper headlines, reports from relatives returning from Cairo and the television images that reach the several dozen homes with satellite dishes that provide access to Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language station.

Ibrahim said she wept seeing Iraqi civilians injured by U.S. bombs in Baghdad and frightened American prisoners of war: "There is so much unnecessary killing. It's a big loss for everyone. My heart goes out to all the people."

A stroll through the streets here turns into a parade of curious children and adults eager to impart their views on the war. "Don't you know we don't want Americans here?" one man shouted.

Villagers were more interested in posing questions than giving answers, and wanted to know why President Bush had launched the war and - in their view - seeks to impose one kind of democracy on another.

"America does not understand that we have true democracy in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon," said Reda Abdullah, 43, who runs a small grocery store. "We're not afraid of America. The resistance in Iraq is legitimate."

On the banks of the Nile, the dusty browns of the villages turn luscious green. Peach and orange groves provide welcome shade, and farmers till their fields along riverbanks lined with towering banana trees.

Mohsen el-Sayed, 38, waded into knee-deep water and buried his arms in mud to shape a dam and redirect water from one tiny plot of land to another.

Sayed teaches computer science in the mornings and works his family's fields in the afternoons. He once had a better job as a craftsman making ornate tiles. That was in northern Iraq, and his career there was cut short by the Persian Gulf war 12 years ago.

He has been harmed by the United States three times, he said - "by having to leave because of the first war, not being able to go back because of the sanctions and by what is happening now."

When he left Iraq, he lost his life savings during a botched bank transfer between Iraq and Egypt. He was forced to start his life over.

"American view Arabs as worthless," he said. "They just lump us all together."

Sayed said he longs for the day he can return to Iraq and resume his work, but he is not waiting for the post-Saddam Hussein era. Now, he said, he must wait until the end of what he calls the new American regime.

"If it gets better, I will go back," he said, his bare feet sinking into the mud. "But America will never make it better. They always make things more difficult."

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