Sohag… The Egypt of Upper Emotions


You are mistaken to think that all plots of land belong to the people who pay for it. There is land, which masters and owns you; Upper Egypt is such land. If you live on it, you belong to it; it does not belong to you.

Sohag was a turning point in my life. It shattered the glass ceiling that I had unwittingly created around my understanding of what it meant to be human. I grew more in the 48 hours I spent on this trip than I could have anticipated. I experienced the fullness and richness of diversity, of love, of culture and of people’s need for a hero and for a dreamer to encourage them to dream. This wasn’t going to just be an election campaign; this was a campaign for a future owned by the people, a promise of change if the people believed in it and until you hear the cheers from the poor, the oppressed, till you are shaken by the clapping of those who could no longer afford to dream, then I understand that you may not totally get this post in its entirety.

The seven-hour train ride to Sohag was incredible. As you left the capital, if felt like you were shedding skin. You were moving away from fake into the raw. But it wasn’t just the scenery; the company I was in was just as breath taking. Mostafa Alnagar and the stories he was telling me about his own personal journey for change left you humbled by any glory that you had personally achieved. He celebrated, in his narratives, not only his own successes, but the contributions of so many others and did not have a bad thing to say about anyone. The optimism with which he spoke was contagious. I stepped off the train feeling we could change the world.


We arrived about half an hour before sunset. The air was thick with stories. At the station the family of the candidate running for a seat in the next parliament greeted us. There were more cars than we could split our selves to get into and this was after Dr Ahmed Khalil had spent the entire journey assuring others that we had more than enough people waiting for us at our arrival. This was the first sign of the generosity that was soon to engulf us.

I stopped taking photos at some point in the car ride from the Sohag train station to Jerja. I felt like a traitor holding this camera. No matter how advanced the technology, how big the lens, there was a betrayal to the suffering of this town by trying to capture it in photos, or in words. I shamefully hid the camera and freed myself to absorb as much as I could, the secrets this place was telling me.

The moon in this part of the world is different to any other time you have seen it. I have travelled to many countries and the moon has always been one of my fixed foundations… it’s always a kind companion that maintains its common ground for me so that I am comforted by the familiar. But there was nothing familiar about the moon this night. This may have been the same moon, but it was not one that shone to give you comfort. It had a different face. It was there not as a means to light this way we were travelling but a witness that we were travelling it. It was witnessing the suffering and poverty that we were seeing and would follow is back and watch over and remind us silently if we failed to work. This moon would follow us back and would stay with us whispering reminders of this night forever.

The man driving us to Jerja gave us a humanitarian tour during our journey. I was struggling to keep up with the stories of poverty while at the same time taking in the absolute beauty of the Nile, the greenery and the mountains. It felt like this land was too kind to be as cruel as he was telling us it was. We passed the famous sugar factory, which he told us, employed 2000-3000 people and had a pool and playing grounds inside, that it was a village in its own right. The factory seemed to refuse the reality of the land on which it was built. Arriving at the entrance of the village we didn’t need to be told of the nightmare of getting in. We had to wait till the train crossing was open. He told us about the number of people who died in this traffic light that wanted to cross to the one hospital that catered for the 400,000 people of Jerja. The hour journey unravelled stories of corruption, disappointment and a reality that had no place for dreams.

We arrived to the house of the elder amidst a big and noisy reception. I was tagging along with someone they considered their hero and whose presence reassured everyone of change. Having just spent over 9 hours on the road with him, listening to his struggle, I understood why this was the people’s hero and why so much was being put on his shoulders to carry. Today I was his companion and their guest and in that I felt proud.

The home we were welcomed into was full; we were invited to all three rooms at once, one to change and rest, one to sit and be greeted and the other to eat. Of course we got through the first two quickly because they were eager to express their welcome in the way they knew best, to feed us as much as humanly possible! The food was exquisite. The amount of food was surreal and as soon as you ate the smallest amount it was replaced quickly by at least thrice its quantity and you had to eat to show that you appreciated the reception that was so warmly and genuinely given to you. You could taste the love and pride in this.

We eventually convinced our hosts that we could no longer live if we took another bite and so were given leave to get up, freshen up after our long journey and for Mostafa to change before going to the conference where people were already gathered to hear the main speaker. The mood of celebration while he was getting ready was beautiful, it was like a bride was about to leave the house with a promise of a better future, everyone wanted to help and he, with his sweet temperament and humbleness was finding it hard to be in such reception. Holding no other position but being his companions, Ahmed and I were afforded the same warmth and kindness.

We were driven to the conference that somehow represented, in terms of set up, a Balady wedding. We quickly realised how much effort and pride they had in showing us this set up that we all quickly fell into congratulating them for the outcome. We didn’t have a lot of time to do this though. As soon as Mostafa stepped out of the car he was greeted as a saviour! He was going to be the people’s hero and not just here. He deserved this. He had already won his seat in Parliament, he already represented over a million people officially and yet instead of going to take photos and pick up the ID card for his place in Parliament, he was in upper Egypt listening to and understanding and sharing the misery of those that have for so long been forgotten by authority. Despite how tired he was he was asking about the roads, the schools, the water, the hospitals. He cared and took the feedback with him, I knew that if it was up to him, if he had any say in it, this part of the country he loved so much would not remain on the margins of care much longer.

I took my seat at a spot I chose so I could be near the stage to watch him but as far as possible out of sight of the hosts who twice greeted me in the microphone by name as Mostafa’s guest, to my extreme embarrassment! He later explained coming with him on this trip was a message from him to them that they were important. I felt no pride in this. In fact I felt like such a fraud. I wanted to tell him why and how I was a no body compared to each one of them here who survived these conditions and still managed to be so loving, so generous and so pure. I wanted then to know how easy it was for me to be doing doctoral studies because I was born and lived in London and I had this opportunity almost thrown in my face. That my struggle was getting the underground in the rain and I never had to watch someone in my family die from a poisonous snake bite because we couldn’t get on the other side of a train crossing to get to the only hospital in town on the other side. That the schools I went to, inspected yearly meant that the education I was getting readied me to the path I was taking and that I didn’t have to walk to school via broken roads, shabby classrooms and to teachers that taught me knowing I had no chance to be anything other than a someone marginalised in the part of Egypt which other Egyptians chose as a the butt of their jokes.

The run up to Mostafa’s speech included the towns best Quran reciter. He chose verses from the Quran that spoke about witnesses and carrying messages of truth. These were appropriately chosen. The parliamentary candidate spoke much about the peoples right to vote, how the vote this time was different because it would be heard, because for the first time it mattered. The oration was different in this conference; it was loaded, delivered in classical Arabic, passionate. Mostafa’s introduction was moving because of its simplicity. There was not much that needed to be added to the rawness of who he was, his experience and his dreams to make the introduction more exciting, to make you sit in awe of who the next speaker was. The introduction was long and moving, but the most prominent thing said was “many describe Mostafa as gentle and tame, those who know him know this is true, but he is not just that; he is what the late Sha’rawy described as the “Rightful Revolter” one who revolts against injustice and then calms down to think how to rebuild what has been broken.” This, I felt, was the best way to describe this man.

The microphone was put in front of him and he started off wringing his hands in his nervousness. This did not match his tone, however, that was strong, determined, rooted in experience and hope. He soon untangled his fingers and he was on fire. He had gently knocked on the hearts of those listening to him, and as soon as he felt that the hearts had opened, he galloped with his dreams, he made the audience part of his pride, part of the future that he believed in and as soon as he had finished, the thundering of applause was proof that he had recruited their enthusiasm, he had won them on the side of optimism, he had given them what they were there to receive; not just reassurance to vote for the party, but the hope of a different future for their children which they had come here thirsty for. He displayed how much of a leader he was in the way he answered the questions put to him. You could tell how happy he was to see so many youth there, he did not simply answer their questions, but he expressed his awe of them and of their articulation in the way they presented their questions encouraging them to always be part of discussion. In everything he did during this conference he displayed he was not going to be a ruler, but a leader and this was what the people needed, this was what I wanted the person I stood 6 hours to vote for to be. Omar Soliman was wrong to say the people of Egypt were not ready for democracy! It was their rulers that were not ready for it, but the leaders emerging were putting out their hands to empower people and encourage them to enjoy the freedom that so many had died for.

We made it into the car that was driving us away and people surrounded it dancing joyfully outside chanting for justice and victory and as we drove back no one could talk. I sat and found myself praying again, this time a personal and special prayer for Mostafa, that people’s reception of him and that his popularity amongst them would only drive him to help them and represent them and to never fall in the trap of false pride or egotism.

Mostafa was dropped off at a cafe on the way back to meet the locals. His popularity with them outdid that in his own constituency. They had been following him on the talk shows and discussed with them the talk down with his opposition recently before the round one election re runs. While he was standing answering people’s questions, I was taken upstairs to talk with the women, offered more drinks and fruit and found myself chatting to the very handsome and gentle 14 year old Mohannad, a secondary school pupil who had much to say about the education, or lack of, that he was receiving. He spoke in rhetorical questions and I felt he had much blame that needed attention. He questioned whether it was on purpose that those in upper Egypt were given a poor education to ensure that they would remain the butt of Egyptian jokes and he told me his patriotism was shaken when he goes to other cities on vacation and is sworn at or belittled by those who read the number plates and know where they have come from. I pray that what I spoke to him about after would manifest itself and that I was right and realistic when I tell him that this is why it’s time for change, that the blood spilt in all the squares of this country was spilt to nourish change and freedom and advancement, but that it was a personal struggle as well to refuse to the limits and glass ceilings and hold on to the will and need to grow and be better. I don’t think I will ever forget Mohannad and I pray that in years to come I hear how well he is doing and much he has achieved.

We arrived back to the home that was going to host us till the train to Cairo was due. They had cancelled our night ticket and rebooked for the morning so that they could feed us (again!) and empty the flat for us to sleep the night and rest because it was, according to them, only polite. Mostafa, his ego obviously unaffected by the super star treatment he was receiving stood at the sink to wash his socks and hung them up to dry to the surprise of the hosts! His behaviour and their reaction to it made me giggle; it also became a running joke through the night to his repeated embarrassment. Before the food arrived we sat between men in traditional dress and a female parliamentary candidate. This was exciting; hearing people passionate about a political life they had previously been excluded from was refreshing. I could sense it filling Mostafa with joy. He was sharing his views and learning so much from them.

I am not so naïve as to think that the people of Jerja would find salvation through an elections process. Far from it and I know this. But, as Wael Abbas put it, each person who took part in this revolution was good at doing something different to the others. Some were good at throwing rocks, others at first aiding the injured, others knew how to talk and describe what was happening well. Mostafa had tapped into his talent. He chose to inspire people to work towards bettering their situations, involving them in the bigger picture, helping them to have the courage to dream. People surrounding Mostafa wanted to be close to breathe the same air that a believer in dreams was breathing, they wanted to be close enough for him to understand their belief in him, to put individually on his shoulders the burden of their broken dreams, to engrave in his soul a commitment towards the basic and simple circumstances needed for a life of dignity. Mostafa had been through a lot in the past year, but I knew that today was pivotal not only in his career as a politician, but also his life as a person.


  1. Miss Ali,

    I enjoyed reading that.

    Your ability to notice human feeling, empathize and relate to people is commendable. I enjoy your ability to reflect your own feeling of the love of Egypt and the high hopes you have for it on your description of human feeling around you like generosity, warmth, hospitality, humility and optimism.
    Your incorporation of the green fields and the moon and other natural phenomena is so subtle yet adds a geopolitical dimension to a heart-felt piece of writing. I can almost smell the fields and the dust and the smoke produced by the diesel train entangling the smell of the food and the soap used to wash the socks.

    I like your English as it strikes a great balance between sophistication and simplicity. Sophistication that makes it very engaging and simplicity that conveys the feeling and avoids pretentiousness.

    Your hope and patriotism shine through unashamed and unpolluted yet your last paragraph is a quick reality check that reflects realism. Realism that the events and the experiences of the Egyptian revolution must have matured in you.

    Keep up the great work my soon-to-be doctor friend and my ever always companion.

    Yours always,

    Mohammed EL-Haddad
    Leeds, Yorkshire on 15 December 2011

  2. Nelly,

    This blog is absolutely brilliant ! Your description of all your emotions is amazing. It’s as though we are there with you. Through your eyes you opened a window for us to see Sohag, and through your words you told us that it is the people who have the power and not those who govern them.

    Thank you.

    Shariff Elwardany

  3. Pingback: Kafr Elzayaat – Where Women Don’t Hang The Clothes To Dry 24/12/2011 | nellyali

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