IndienIndien

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

I had imagined New Gurna as a modern town in Upper Egypt, isolated in its historical location in the Valley of the Kings. In the photographs I had come across it was still the fifties, and the houses stood along the narrow streets, new and bright against the blue skies. I had heard of New Gurna from a friend, and had been told that the architect, Hassan Fathy, was local. This town, compared to other modernist towns in the post-colonial world, had something different about it in its smaller scale and with its Arabian influences, something I found interesting. What would the place look like today? Who would be living there? How was the town used?

My encounter with New Gurna was a surprise. I felt myself removed to another time in history, and the town looked more like a village in my eyes. The inhabitants were mostly impoverished peasants. The modernism and social awareness I had read about in Hassan Fathy's book Architecture for the Poor seemed remote, but something else was all the more present. The tourists and their buses made stops up at Gurna to buy copies of famous antiques found in the tombs. It was hard to avoid being affected by all of this down at New Gurna, once intended to be all of what Gurna still is today: an exotic attraction for the tourists to visit between the various tombs, temples, and excavations.

In the daytime, the streets of New Gurna were empty. The men were at work in the sugar cane fields, the children were at school and the women were seldom seen. There was, however, one person who would show up wherever I went in the town. He claimed to be "the Chief" of the local Mosque. He asked me some questions about where I came from and what my purpose was. Did I want to visit his mosque? Just as suddenly as he had appeared he was gone. What did he want from me? This surveillance seemed strange to me. I began to feel observed, an easy matter in a small village of just a few streets and common spaces. Someone I met at the barrack where I was staying asked me if I was from Denmark. This was during the winter of 2006, when the controversy over the publication of the "Mohammed cartoons" in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper was just escalating. I attempted to explain the difference between Sweden and Denmark, but was having obvious difficulties making myself understood. However, the man became somewhat convinced of my peaceful intentions.

I met this suspicion again when I was in the Kharga Oasis in the Western (Lybian) Desert. A "guide" appeared in the deserted marketplace Bariz al Gedida, situated between two towns, so that I would not be left alone for the rest of my stay there. He arrived at the place just as I myself arrived with my police escort from the hotel at Al-Kharga. In this way, I was never alone. At Al-Kharga, a policeman followed me from the hotel and made sure I got to where I was going. Then he waited for me so he could follow me back to the hotel. He kept silent for the most part, perhaps trying to figure out where I would be heading next. Maybe it was the policeman who had sent word that I was on my way to Bariz al Gedida, and sent a "guide" to watch over me? The way they kept me under surveillance reminded me of "the Chief" in New Gurna, even though it was an absurd proposition to encounter anyone at all in this otherwise deserted and uninhabited place.

MATS ERIKSSON