Of all the things I learned while on my recent all-too-brief 3 week trip to Egypt, one particular factoid stands out. When building the (second) Aswan Dam in 1970, all the crocodiles in the river Nile were herded into Lake Nasser, the massive reservoir of water created by the dam. Some 90,000 Nubians were forced out of their ancestral homes as a result of this construction, as were ancient statues, temples, and monuments.
Let me backtrack. As I was walking around the smallish area known as Abu Simbel, where Ramses' incredible (yet egomaniacal) homage to himself had been moved before it was flooded by the creation of the lake, I asked our guide for the morning (required part of the ticket cost) why no one was swimming in the gorgeous lake. And it is gorgeous, feeling more like an ocean right in the middle of the desert, it creates a coolish breeze that blows across sun-baked skin that is mostly covered as a courtesy to the women who are fully covered. The guide laughed when I asked why no one was swimming, "No, no, no! No one swims in the lake!" "Why?" I asked. "Too many crocodiles!" Then I laughed, "No!" as I scanned the lake from west to east, not seeing the slightest sign of crocodiles, or of any life really. All I could see were rocks, sand, and water. He then proceeded to tell me that when they built the dam, they forced all the crocodiles from the entire length of the Nile, from the Delta in the North to Lake Nasser in the South (known as "Upper Egypt" as the Nile flows down to the Mediterranean delta) into the giant desert pool known as Lake Nasser. Think about this a little. How long did it take? Just how did they do it? Were there transgressors? Did people put up a stink? Were there deaths involved? I can imagine that it made life easier along the banks of the river, especially for the boy children who are allowed to swim in the river. And what of the Nubians? Forced out of their ancestral homes, much like the Navajo in this country when the Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1966, the Nubians have adapted to their new communities, but as I spoke with them in the Nubian village of Gharb Sihell where I stayed, there was a very clear upset still quite visible when they talked about how they have less water now and have had to leave their homes.
Why do I relive this conversation and factoid over and over again? I wake early still (4:30 am seems to be my internal Egypt-America alarm) with thoughts of crocodiles being chased and caught and forced into their sterile home of the lake. They are yet another population that has been forced to moved by the whims of men; "We Can So We Will." The implementation of these technologies is always at the expense of someone and for the profit of others. From a child's information site: "The Aswan Dam generates up to 10 billion kilowatts per hour of hydroelectric power. This is enough electricity to run 1 million colour televisions for more than 20 years" (1). Nice to know that this unnatural dam construction can power 1 million TV sets for 20 years, right?
The real issue is that the dam has also stopped the annual flooding of the Nile, and this has prevented the river from depositing nutrient rich silt onto the traditionally flooded areas--and when I say traditionally, I mean thousands of years of traditional stewardship of the land. It takes 40 years to cripple thousands of years of human-land learning and agreement in sharing and prosperity. Mind blowing.
Sitting in the dark as Oum Kalthoum's voice wafted in the soft wind and one of the 3-4 daily blackouts rolled through our El-Souk alley, I asked one of our gracious hosts why Egypt wasn't the leader in solar power, seeing that the entire country is desert and sun. He informed me that the government has begun to look into the infrastructure needed to make this happen. I said that if Germany can do it, Egypt could do it. I see now that the lag in technology, for a country that is born for solar power, lies in the crocodiles and the dams. The dam was designed by the British and constructed by the Russians and it has created hydroelectric power and a steady flow of water to the 97% of the country's population that lives along the banks of the world's longest river. The city folk have adapted to things like rolling blackouts; shops and cafes simply turn on their generators and the people working see it as break time. It's those who work the land who feel the disappearing and much-needed river nutrients.
As is often the case, the colonizers determine what will or will not be and, personally, I see global dam construction as being of an era when white supremacy ruled and all others were at the mercy of these powers. As the dams come down now I wonder how we will talk about them and the lessons learned in the future. While I was in Bahariya, one of the five Oasis villages in the Western Desert of the Sahara, I was told that they hadn't had a drop of rain in 25 years. 25 years. The only reason villages exist there is because the area is a geologic depression that formed an aquifer below the surface. So, in the middle of a 25-year drought, palm and dates, and mangoes and oranges grow all around. The air temperature at the lowest point is downright cool at night. Once the government makes the shift to solar, Egypt could make enough clean energy to support itself for another 10,000 years.
Hapi, the god of the flooding of the Nile. This flooding provided fertile soil in an area that was otherwise desert, and as its patron, symbolized fertility. He had large female breasts because he was said to bring a rich and nourishing harvest. He was considered to be a caring father who helped to maintain the balance of the cosmos, the world or universe regarded as an orderly, harmonious system. This included the crocodiles. Hapi ain't too happy right now.
Who am I to say? I was smitten with a world so very different, yet so much like, my own. Kids are kids wherever you go and so are mothers. I was honored to have spent time--unveiled time--with women living very different lives to me, but when we got down to it (through our wonderful friend Soad who acted as interpreter), mothers have the same concerns and worries no matter what they wear on the outside. The times spent with women were the most relaxed, although it seemed to me that men thoroughly enjoyed socializing with women and I enjoyed these times immensely. Very seldom did socializing involve both men and women, so I was often moving back and forth between the two groups. In some ways, it's easy to comment on a culture of which we are not a part. I find it difficult with Egypt, perhaps because I'm still processing. I guess that part will come later. Today, I think of the Nile and the crocodiles, Hapi and the Nubians. Eka Dolli means "I Love You" in Nubian and was the name of the guesthouse where I stayed in Gharb Sihell. I was very comfortable in this part of Egypt, where it was clean and everyone moved at a pace in keeping with the sun. No forced marches here, although the building of the Aswan Dam in 1970 was one giant march from northern Sudan/southern Egypt and the location of Lake Nasser to their new locations now on the West bank of the Nile from Aswan and Elephantine Island. Those in Power Could So They Did. The whims of men that alter the perfection of nature eventually fall away and then the rivers, crocodiles, and humans might play as they did long long ago.
Eka Dolli Masr.