A conversation with Hassan Gamal, a history teacher in Siwa, one of Egypt’s most isolated settlements — a Berber oasis in the desert 50 kilometers from Libya. We talked on the balcony of a hotel built into the ruins of the thirteenth century mud-brick fortress that melted during three days of unprecedented rain in 1926, as refugees of the Qaddafi regime wandered in and out.
Bidoun: Did Mubarak ever visit Siwa?
Hassan Gamal: In 1998, I was in primary school at the time. And they tell us Mubarak will come and we will see him, and we will stand on the streets and say hi. They bring all the students from the schools and we were waiting in the roads — and he doesn’t come.
B: What happened to him?
HG: We don’t know. And we were so sad. We had spent time putting his picture up everywhere. So we were young; when he didn’t come, we tore at his pictures. We began to take stones and throw them at the pictures. And after three hours, after school had finished and we go back to our houses, they say, “He changed his mind!” Maybe someone told him the Siwans were feeling sad. And Mubarak comes, and there he was in the car driving past. And he opened the glass like this much — just a teeny little bit — and looked out with his head ducked down. I remember his face — he has a very big face. That’s it: the only one time Mubarak visits Siwa.
B: So Siwans were the first to throw rocks at his picture.
HG: [Laughs] That’s true! Thirteen years ago.
B: What was happening in Siwa during the revolution? Were there any protests?
HG: Siwa was so quiet. There was one Friday when the protestors went to the state security headquarters to seize the files from the security police to keep them from destroying the papers, to hide their crimes. Everyone was going, in Cairo and Alexandria, to take the papers from the offices. The same thing happened in Siwa. Like, two or four thousand Siwans went out together to get the files and take them. It was crazy.
B: Did people find their own files in the police station and read them?
HG: Yes. They write everything, security police. They write everything. If someone goes to buy a tomato they write, He buy a tomato.
B: Did any violence happen here?
HG: No, there was no violence. Just during the revolution when the police wasn’t here, we made all the people go to the important places — all of us, each tribe brings thirty men every day, and we sent them everywhere — like to the hospital. They send people to protect it. And I go one day. A whole day I was working at a very important place.
B: So you had a neighborhood watch here, too.
HG: Yeah, Siwa is so quiet, but even here we had it, to just make sure that everything is good.
B: When Mubarak resigned, were the Siwans celebrating?
HG: Yeah, everyone was happy, everybody was saying, “Congratulations.” And “congratulations” in Arabic is “Mubarak.” [Laughs] We say mabrook. It is really a historic moment, and I will always feel proud to be Egyptian, and I’m really proud with our revolution. So this is my feeling — one of the moments I can’t forget. I write poetry about it. Yesterday I wrote a really nice poem. [Recites in Arabic]
All the nation’s leaders are servants, except for our leaders, we are servants to them.
We were oppressed by them and they stole our money in ways that were haram.
They were afraid of our enemies, so they allied with them.
They were tough on their people, so may toughness be on you governors.
We’ve met them with peace; they’ve met us with weapons; and for years they deluded us with peace.
HG: Yeah, there’s a lot of writing poetry in Siwa. I write in the Siwan language, but I love Arabic more. I told the poem to another teacher at the school, and when he was leaving for the day he says, “So may toughness be on you governors.” He liked that line. There are some words in poetry that stick like this. I have one about Qaddafi, too.
B: Were you surprised when the revolution happened?
HG: No, I expected the revolution, a long time ago. I told my students, “There is a revolution coming in Egypt.” Like five years ago.
B: How did you know?
HG: From the situation. The stealing of our money, and the police’s relationship with the people — everything shows that we would have a revolution. So I’m telling everybody that there would be a revolution. And one month before the revolution, I’m telling my cousin, “There is a revolution in Egypt coming.” I swear.
B: So that was before Tunisia? You just had a feeling. Maybe you were born with the power of oracle. [Siwa is the site of the Oracle of Amun, which Alexander the Great journeyed to consult. The oracle told him he was the god’s son — so Alexander considered himself divine.]
HG: Yeah. [Laughs] When they interviewed me at the school, the students say, “You make my mind more open and we understand a lot of stuff we didn’t understand before.”
B: So what do you predict will happen with the elections this fall?
HG: Oh, it’s very mysterious. [Laughs] I don’t know who I’m going to vote for in the next election for president. But I taught them in school that it is not necessary to have a good president but to have a very good constitution and very good laws, and if the president makes any mistake, we kick him out.
B: How does Siwa’s local government work?
HG: Siwa is under the governor of Marsa Matruh, the nearest city to Siwa, and we have all the systems that we have in other cities in Egypt. We have a police station. But the leaders of tribes figure out most of the problems between the people. Some of our problems they can’t fix — like a criminal, they send him to the police. But we can say eighty percent is resolved by the leader of tribes and only twenty percent by the police. Even if someone goes to the police, he should call the leader of tribes first.
B: What tribe are you a part of?
HG: We have eleven tribes. One of them is Bedouin, plus ten Siwan. We have five tribes in the east side and three in the west side. So, I live on the west side and I belong to the west side, and my father is leader of my tribe, called Shahayem.
B: Do Siwans consider themselves Egyptians, or is Siwan a different identity?
HG: Oh, yes. Siwans are completely Egyptian. In all our history we are living in this land, and this land is completely Egyptian. We come to Egypt like two thousand years ago, from Morocco, Libya, Algeria. We come before Islam. And there are some Romans and ancient Egyptians and Greek already here, and they mix it together.
B: So Siwans are Egyptian?
HG: If two thousand years doesn’t make us Egyptian, when will we be Egyptian?
B: Very good. So will you become the leader of your tribe after your father?
HG: Maybe I’ll be leader of tribe one day, but I’m not so interested in it.
B: Because it’s just too many problems?
HG: Yeah, it’s so much work. I have my main job as a teacher, and it’s hard to do both together. So maybe my uncle, or my brother — maybe him. I don’t know. I am so bored here, really. I feel it in my body.
B: Maybe the revolution has made things better though?
HG: Yes, the mentality of the people began to change. Everyone wants to change. After the revolution, Egypt be Egypt. How did that happen? Before, it wasn’t Egypt. We were living like in Somalia, in Congo — that’s not Egypt, who was for seven thousand years a very modern country. So now, after the revolution, Egypt be Egypt. We say we want to change our country, to work so hard. That’s the atmosphere everywhere, in Siwa too. We will have problems, the same we had yesterday and the day before yesterday, but I think everything will finish. Egypt will finish. I think Siwa will have a lot of change. And I know it is happening because, as I was walking to my school, I found people working so hard building sidewalks, which Siwa has never had. On all the roads. So after two months we have seen something — it is change.
B: What do you think should change in Siwa? What should be better?
HG: Everything, actually. Everything should be better. We have a lot of good stuff, but even if it is good we want better. The biggest problem in Siwa is agriculture — the people waste so much water, and it makes lakes outside of cities. And there’s no sewage system. We want better. More plan. Because the last thirty, forty years, in Mubarak time, they have only one plan: to steal our money. [Laughs]
B: I just noticed the “Mubarak Hotel” today.
HG: It’s not his business, Mubarak’s. It actually was a sports village. It has a stadium; it has each kind of sport. And it cost eighty-five million Egyptian pounds seven, eight years ago. That’s so much money; it’s like thirty million dollars. And they don’t do any work on it. Nothing. Thirty million dollars and for nothing. No one does anything. That’s how they waste our money.
B: So there is corruption in Siwa, too.
HG: Everywhere. Everywhere. This lamp on the street? Each one cost four thousand Egyptian pounds. And they say the brother of someone who works at the government, he has a factory for it—
B: Yeah, there are an absurd number of streetlights here.
HG: You can’t imagine.