Finding The Sugarland: A journey of roots by the Nile (Photo-story)

Finding The Sugarland: A journey of roots by the Nile (Photo-story)

Story by : Asmaa Gamal

Arabic Editor : Karoline Kamel

My mother told me how she got her name “Masria” which means “Egyptian” when her father traveled from Upper Egypt to Cairo in search of work, and he received the news of the birth of his daughter in Esna, “Edfu Center” in Aswan, where his family resides.

My mother’s grandfather was not the only one who left his land in Upper Egypt, but my father also traveled to the capital in search of a job opportunity, just like hundreds of other people looking for a better future for themselves and their families after they had a hard time in agriculture.

Despite this migration, the majority of those who left their land return to visit the rest of their families in their distant villages, and our annual trip to Upper Egypt was for me to reach the land of happiness, the land of sugar as I like to call it, where the most famous feature is the shiny sugar cane sticks that I adore.

That trip in my family was not only for the nostalgia and maintaining the bonds between family members, but also to be blessed from the waters of the Nile, a ritual that the members of my family did not abandon, and I also did later with my son. My mother told me that it is a pharaonic custom, and whoever touches his face with the waters of the Nile cannot live away from it for long.

My mother would have preferred to take the train, as she would tell me because she and her family would spend it singing and dancing all the way.

Her story brought to my mind the song “oh you who approach between water and greenery… When will we meet the one with a beautiful face… We will connect tomorrow or evening… Our soul is the soul of the former wind”, the song performed by the singer Farid al-Atrash in the movie “You Are My Love” during his journey on a train. Heading to Upper Egypt, the passengers are happy, singing and clapping, and a beautiful dancer is dancing in the corridors of the train.

However, I prefer to take the trip in my father’s car, because it is a long trip that takes about 12 hours. My father is not very talkative and only smiles, but like many people who work in more than one job, I don’t get to spend much time with him, so on our trip to Upper Egypt, I can spend more time with him.

We start the journey by bidding farewell to the crowded cement buildings. The road adjacent to the Nile greets us, so my real pleasure begins by looking at the greenery. The journey continues along the river.

My mother tells me how “the sea,” as the people of Upper Egypt call the Nile, was responsible for the marriage of the girls of the country. “The water did not reach the houses, so the women went to the sea every day to get water. We used to hang seashells in our hair so it would make sounds and the men would see us and choose their brides.” My mother laughs as she recounts her memories, and continues the rest of the details of the women’s journey by passing through the tombs of their ancestors, watering the plants, and reciting the Qur’an. However, my mother met my father in Cairo and fell in love, and married him.

My grandfather and my grandmother met because of the Nile River. As she tells the story, my grandmother was on her way to the sea to fetch water and my grandfather saw her, admired her, and married her.

It seems that the magic of water extends in our family, as my mother told me that her grandfather met her grandmother because of a glass of water. One of the times her grandfather passed by her grandmother’s village, he felt thirsty and knocked on the first door in front of her grandmother’s house, so she offered him water. He loved her, married her, and lived with her in her village.

The bounties of the sea, the “Nile River” to the villagers and strangers, as my mother tells me.

The Nile river’s water connected them with goodness, joy, and even sadness. It was enough to describe it as the color of the Nile, “Atniel,” the colloquial word to describe the mud of the Nile that women used to paint their faces in times of sadness and distress and in cemeteries.

But my grandmother Maryam, who is 91 years old, says that the spirit of the house has dried up with the uprooting of trees from the surrounding land since the government decided to prevent cultivation inside the courtyards of houses near the Nile without paying taxes because it is personal exploitation.

My father used our annual trip to tell me the history of his family, and the tribe we come from “Al-Ja’afira”, which began its migration from the Arabian Peninsula and settled in several countries in the African continent including Egypt, Sudan, and Morocco.

In Egypt, the tribe to which my family belongs chose the south to settle in the area where the mountain embraces the two banks of the Nile, the mountainous nature that is similar to the environment in which they grew up, but in the presence of the Nile with its greenness and goodness. Agriculture attracted them, but sugarcane became the crop that fascinated them as they were fascinated by Upper Egypt in its entirety.

During our trips to Upper Egypt, my father always repaired for me the hand-written notebooks that my family relied on, the most important of which are the “inventory” books, which are the records in which the tribe records its offspring. All births are added to it so that the offspring can be preserved.

And I read in one of the old books that my father kept in our house, about the migration of our tribe, “Al-Ja’afira” from the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, to Egypt, and many concentrated in Upper Egypt. The texts say: “The younger Mr. Ja’far moved in the year 413 AH from the Hijaz to it.. He mentioned Imam Al-Sharif bin Utbah Al-Husseini in his book (Umdat Al-Talib fi Ansab Al Abi Talib)” and said what he uttered; Hassan bin Jaafar bin Ali Al-Rida followed him in the desert of Al-Madinah, and they are called Al-Sharjari (the ones that descended from trees).

This thus explains the reason why my father drew a tree that contains the names of our family on the leaves of the trees, which goes down to my grandfather, Hassan, and Hussein, and every time he had a grandson, he added their names on that tree.

In our small mountain village where my grandfather lives, near the shrine of “Sheikh Ali” where the women go every day, carrying water to irrigate the plants and birds, and they sit there.

My grandfather worked in agriculture, and just as he cared about the land and what grew from it, he cared about drawing the family tree that descended from the descendants of Hassan and Hussein, the grandchildren of the Prophet Muhammad. And he was always adding to it the grandchildren of their village who are born day after day. But this is not the state of the village now after many of its sons abandoned it to various places in search of livelihood.

Our long journey to my grandfather’s house ends with reaching the house and family gatherings to receive the returnees, my grandfather used to give us to plant seeds, call them by our names and put them in the garden of the house and water them with our hands, and we returned to them later on our separate visits to find that they had become tall plants; they have grown with us day after day.

The disappearing sugar

But one time we traveled, we found the garden empty of trees and our plants, and my grandfather told us that the government had forced him to raze the planting and considered it a personal benefit against the agrarian reform law. On this day my father stood by the only palm left in the garden and took a souvenir picture.

Traveling to my grandfather’s land after a while, I didn’t find the garden I used to see; I saw only one palm tree left standing alone in the garden. This happened gradually after the government limited the water quota coming to the agricultural land and mandated extra tax money for those who want to use more. Also, the government prohibited the cultivation of sugarcane in upper Egypt in the 1990s because it was used as a perfect shelter for the terrorists to hide in.

My grandfather recounted that in the nineties, the distribution of water quotas for agricultural lands in Egypt witnessed some changes in an attempt to rationalize the economy, in accordance with the amendments issued in 1994 and 1995 amending the provisions of the Irrigation and Drainage Law No. 12 of 1984. During this period, a lower water quota was imposed on my grandfather’s land. Because the government considered that he used more water than his share, which is a private benefit, if he wanted to continue with the same amount, he had to pay a higher tax.

Egypt’s current sugar production is about 2.4 million tons: 62 percent from sugar beet and 38 percent from sugarcane. Production of sugar beet has been increasing in recent years while sugarcane production has been decreasing. 

The economy of Upper Egypt is highly dependent on the production of sugarcane, despite the government's attempts to reduce sugarcane and increase the production of sugar beet instead, which consumes much less water. Sugar cane is irrigated only using the water from the Nile River, while sugar beet is able to be grown in reclaimed soils using modern surface irrigation systems, according to the 2019 Strategic Water Resources Analysis by the Nile Basin Initiative.

The land of sugar for me is no longer the same for its people, after the nature of their lives and agricultural activity changed, which was affected by many factors, some of which were revealed to me by the son of our village Noor (54 years). He said to me, “The sugar cane crop is sick...because this disease [fungus] has spread to all of us. But the government does not help us, not even with insecticide so that the crop will grow well.” I felt the tone of sorrow with which Noor talked about his cane crop, in the land he inherited from his ancestors who used to grow sugar cane.

It appears from Noor that the challenges facing Upper Egyptian farmers in continuing to cultivate sugarcane are great, given that it is not possible to replace it with sugar beet because it is not suitable in Upper Egypt, as Noor explains.

Noor clings to what he inherited from his ancestors, but to reduce the costs of farming, he works with livestock breeders, and in return, they help him in harvesting the crop for free, but by obtaining fodder for livestock from reed straw.

The book “The Ruling of the Experts” by British researcher Timothy Mitchell mentions “Abboud, the owner of sugar farms, or Ahmed Aboud Pasha, had the main monopoly on sugar cultivation due to his good relationship with the English at that time. Sugar cane cultivation is the main source of income for hundreds of people who live in Upper Egypt. Because of his suitability with the weather and the abundance of Nile water suitable for his growth there, Aboud was famous, the businessman who owned a large empire of companies working in the field of sugar worth millions of dollars.

During that period, as the researcher explains, the emigration of young people from Upper Egypt increased, as well as adults who were leaving their lands after suffering from monopoly, to the extent of walking on their feet to Cairo.

Whoever refuses to leave his land, his suffering worsens. Sabri Al-Durbaz (45 years old), one of the villagers, tells me that his land is not far from the Nile River, but it suffers from thirst. “The crops are sick and need fertilizer, and the water is not available for all of us, so the government tells us to stop planting cane,” he said.

Sabri needs help in harvesting his crop, so Jihan, who is 16 years old, his sister's daughter and a student at the school, offers it to him. "The cane is not visible...but it tastes different, too," Jihan says about the change that has taken place on the ground.

It is not possible to measure the change in agriculture and land in Egypt without the tools of modern observational and research studies, but on the social level it is possible to follow the change in the activity of children, generation after generation, and the abandonment of agriculture in favor of other activities, and perhaps the migration of the land itself has become the approach of many.

"Isn't it better to emigrate than to marry? Marriage is an internal migration," says our great Nobel-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz in his novel "Love in the Rain".

However, my father and other sons of our village and the land of sugar abandoned their lands and got married as well, but the longing for that land and the blessing of the Nile River was inherited by us, the sons of these immigrants, and we remain indebted to the sea “the Nile River” and its blessings.

This #EverydayNile story was supported by InfoNile with funding from IHE-Delft Global Partnership for Water and Development.

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