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February 3, 2015

Upper Egypt: conservative Muslim but not extremist

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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I strongly believe that Upper Egypt (the Sa'id) can offer the rest of the country and the world a model Muslim society that is conservative, but not extremist; traditional, but modern; humble, yet proud in the values of practical self-reliance and acceptance of others. While no society is perfect, I found that the Sa'id models so much that a healthy society can and should be - yet it is all but unknown, even to other Egyptians.

While the rest of Egypt has recently suffered from multiple terrorist attacks by the Muslim Brotherhood or their associates, Upper Egypt has experienced almost none. Amazing? Not really.

I have had the good fortune to live and visit among the people of Qena and Luxor, as well as a number of villages near these cities in the geographical south of my native land. Here, I have met elders and youth, men and women, professionals and farmers, Muslims and Christians. I was impressed at every encounter.

Upper Egypt (called “upper” because it is closer to the upper reaches and source of the Nile River) is more conservative than Cairo, which sprawls over a vast northern area where the Nile delta feeds into the Mediterranean.

Yet here you’ll find a far lower percentage of women wearing the Niqab (a face-veil that leaves only the eyes uncovered) compared to Cairo. When I asked why, I was told that women of Upper Egypt cannot afford the “luxury” of wearing the Niqab. They are too practical – it does not fit well with a busy lifestyle that includes attending university, working professionally outside the family home, or raising active children in a 21st-century world.

Family ties here are very strong and extended family members nearly always live nearby.  Most families even own their own homes – despite this area being officially designated as poorer than the rest of Egypt. One can always depend on social support from friends and neighbors as well. In this tightly knit society the values of courtesy and respect for all, young and old alike, are practiced daily.

The Imams who administer local mosques in this region are moderate, forward-thinking and well-respected by their congregations. They not only function as spiritual guides and leaders, but also act as social workers.

I never heard any of them label Christians, non-Muslims, or non-practicing Muslims as "infidels." In fact, I heard no extremist views expressed; not surprising, because Muslims and Christians have lived side-by-side here for more than 1400 years. You can wander through any city or village here and be unable to differentiate between a Muslim farmer and a Christian one.

Even more “radical” is the Upper Egypt habit of forming Muslim-Christian committees of elders in every village to resolve disputes and to offer alternative solutions outside of going to court.

Against this backdrop of practical resilience and inter-faith understanding, fundamentalist organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood face a stiff challenge gaining any recruits in Upper Egypt.

My experience is that Upper Egyptians work hard at practicing Islam as it should and its core teachings have enriched the minds of people here from a very young age. Much of the credit goes to Sufi teachings that promote love and mindfulness – love between the believer and the Almighty, love between individual people, love between humanity and all God’s creatures on planet Earth, and love for the limitless cosmos beyond our little world of animals, birds, insects, mountains, seas and deserts.

The rest of Egypt seems to know or care very little about Upper Egypt. Worse still, the people of this tranquil region are often the butt of jokes from their northern compatriots, who mock them for being not too smart. Of course, that is not true!

It is time that the rest of Egypt came to know the Sa’id and its beautiful people much better. They are amazing in many ways, not least for being direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians. During periods of history when northern (or “lower”) Egypt was under the control of Greece, and then Rome, many indigenous Egyptians moved south to be as far as possible from their foreign rulers and the Mediterranean Sea.

It is also interesting to note that when migratory Arab tribes came to settle in Egypt they did so in Upper Egypt - the Sa’id. There were more people in Upper Egypt at the time, and therefore greater opportunities for trading and livelihood. To this day, many people here trace their roots to those ancient Arab tribes.

Charity is widely practiced here. In Luxor I visited a large compound containing a mosque, a school, a medical clinic and a community center, all donated and maintained by the local Al-Tayeb family.

One of their members, Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, is currently the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim post in the world, as well as being a world renowned university professor. When Dr. Al-Tayeb accepted his current post at a significant increase over his professorship salary, he donated all of his additional income to charity.

He has also been instrumental and courageous in spreading the teachings of moderate Islam. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood launched a smear campaign against him, further escalating it to death threats when Al-Tayeb issued a fatwa (a religious edict) saying that terrorism is a great sin against the Almighty, as stated in the Qur’an.

Another example of a great charity, this time south of Luxor and done by a Christian; Professor Sir Dr. Magdi Yacoub, is his Heart Center in Aswan. The Egyptian British Yacoub is a world renowned cardiothoracic surgeon. 

While material poverty is officially much higher here than in the rest of the country, if you measure wealth by quality of life, the Sa’id region is surely the richest of Egypt.

I noticed, for example, that the streets of even the humblest villages are much cleaner than those of Cairo. Upper Egyptians are also excellent and enthusiastic hosts, for they are brought up to be kind and generous to guests, whether friends or strangers. And compared to Cairo, societal ills such as sexual harassment are virtually unknown.

The weather of Upper Egypt is dry and hot in summer and moderate during the rest of the year. This dry climate is a primary reason why the ancient Egyptians chose Thebes (now called Luxor) to be their capital and seat of power. Around it, and on both sides of the Nile, they erected some of the most beautiful places of worship and graveyards in the world. All are must-see sites for travelers.

Geographically, the Sa’id extends from south of Cairo to Aswan, some 900 km to the south. The southernmost part of Upper Egypt is divided into four administrative districts, or governorates; Sohag, Qena, Luxor and Aswan. The prime productive land of the region consists of a narrow cultivated strip, some 20 km wide from one edge of the Nile Valley to the other. Beyond this on either side there is vast desert, separated from the cultivated area by deep escarpments.

Few books have justly addressed the true breadth and diversity of the Sa’id and its people. Upper Egypt: Identity and Change edited by Nicholas Hopkins and Reem Saad, is a rare and enlightening exception. Published in 2004 by the American University in Cairo Press, its chapters (each by an expert in the field) clear away misunderstandings about the history, politics and society of the region.

Demographically, Upper Egypt is home to nearly one-third of Egypt’s 90 million people. Roughly one-quarter of them live in urban areas (less than the Egyptian average) with the rest engaged in rural livelihoods. Sugar cane is the main crop and refined sugar production the main industry. But there isn’t an overabundance of sugar in the healthy local diet; obesity is rare here.

In the historic city of El-Tode, some 20 km south of Luxor, I visited the High Institute for Engineering and Technology, Upper Egypt’s first technical university. Only three years old, it already has 500 students, with more than half of them young women. Many of the Institute’s buildings are still under construction.

The entire facility is a growing work-in-progress, the brainchild of local leaders to make university education more accessible to their youth. Now students no longer have to travel long distances for higher education and perhaps never come back.

It was memorable to end my visit to Upper Egypt by seeing this promising new center of higher learning emerging less than a kilometer away from the impressive historical buildings of Kidiseen Coptic Church and Monastery – a vivid reminder that new and old, Muslim and Christian, modern and ancient, all merge beautifully in the rich culture of Upper Egypt, the serene and surprising Sa’id.

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