The MENA Dilemma
This article is part of a series of photo-essays for Arab photographers, funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and edited by the photographer Muzafar Salman.
A heavy mist covers everything, and the smell of the river interlaces with flowers, breezing coolly through the early morning. The only sounds are the birds shooting upward as soon as they hear footsteps approach.
In a field nearby, Ghazal collects flowers to prepare the bouquet I came here for: basil, cloves, orchids and Damask roses with violets.
After a long search around the fields, I see Ghazal waving me over with my bouquet. Once I arrive, he offers a ride down the Nile on his boat, and I agree without even thinking. I know it will be cheap because it's still early morning. Since the COVID outbreak, he’s barely had any visitors from nearby villages, families who used to hire boat rides to relax.
Ghazal is a 35-year-old fisherman. Like other fishermen around, he uses his small rowboat for these Nile trips. He also farms on the side. On the riverbank, timeworn wooden boats assemble, bobbing gently with the waves. Carefully, I follow Ghazal down the rocky slope to his boat as local children and adults swim despite the health risks of the Nile water. Fishermen traverse the area back and forth to check their nets.
People’s lives in this place have become intertwined with the river like threads of a well woven garment. Flooding season started last month, and despite recent construction of the Renaissance dam much farther upstream in Ethiopia, the little isles here remain surrounded by river water one day when I pay a visit. “The river was a gift from our gracious God and we have been using it ever since,” said Dahey, interrupting the silence while sipping from his tea. He offers some to me. Dahey is a 70-year-old local fisherman, from the city of al-Qanateer.
I couldn’t hide my curiosity about the source of the water he used in the tea. Dahey eased my nerves, assuring me it wasn’t from the river. “I don’t drink from it anymore since I got kidney problems, but before that I used to drink it my whole life.”
Dahey recounts adventures with his siblings when they were children, as if they happened yesterday. “After the slow regression of the river, we used to collect fish off the ground while they were still alive. They’d leap out of our hands while we fell down in the mud laughing, and we’d get up again to start collecting more. At the end of the day, our family and neighbors used to gather in our neighbor's orchard enjoying the breezy evening while the smell of fried fish mixed with the smell of the citrus trees,” Dahey tells me.
In the afternoon, children from nearby villages assemble around the nearby reservoir to swim in the warm water while others fly kites, enjoying the view of the sun setting bit by bit. Others go on their last boat ride with Dahey, Ghazal and their colleagues, while some of the fishermen draw their worn boats to the shore and flip them upside down to let them dry until tomorrow. Some will spend the night here. The boats are their homes.
I asked Dahey if it’s possible for rowing near the drowned Isle, he responded immediately.
I couldn’t resist being close and observing ibis, storks and other birds that had migrated from cold Europe to the warmNile during the winter. During a maneuver between drowned tree trunks Dahey talked about his memories of catching fishes after nile regression when he was kid.
I remember the day I thought about heaven for the first time and for some reason I imagined it as an isle in the middle of the Nile river. I used to go for a walk with friends on the Nile bank in our neighbourhood and we used to observe kids swimming and enjoying it, but never had the courage to participate. Observing was my key to understanding how people are interwinding with Nile.
It's heaven! , that’s what jumped into my mind during my solo walks between flower orchards.
The beautiful colors of flowers overlapped each other to create a beautiful mosaic mural that possessed my eyes and mind from the first sight.
Can you help me ? Yes, what should I do ?Just hold this kite for me and don’t leave it before I start grabbing it. That was a talk between me and one of the kids playing around with their kites.
My dad had built a big one but he wouldn’t let me fly so he made a smaller one for me. We enjoy flying it together but he is still fishing right there said the kid while pointing at a group of people fishing in a boat. But what do you like more, fishing or flying the kite ? I wondered why he is not with his dad. I like flying kites, but I'm also like the fish in the water. When they leave water they die but they keep looking at the skyes all the time.
Near the huge water gates, a usual scene of fishermen and their families rowing back and forth in the river. Usually the woman rowing, the man either throwing or pulling his net while the young member on the boat helps in disentangling the net after pulling it and collecting fishes. “Most of them are living on their boats here and sometimes are traveling to other governorates in pursuit of sustenance”, said Ghazal.
The place was cozy and breezy, I was sitting in silence on the isle after the regression observing the birds hunting fishes. “ The river has regressed and many people are taking their livestock for grazing on the isles”, said one of the residents who interrupted the silence. He just arrived at the isle with some of his sheep obviously for grazing. We will leave them here till the sacrifice feast “ eid al adha” and we will start selling them at least 2 weeks before it, Said the man who just offered some tea.