Home away from home

On a visit to his village in Egypt, Sam Alexandroni finds he can't even count all his new-found rela

Thick palm trees and dark canals slid past my window as the train eased slowly into Minya, a city on the west bank of the River Nile about three hours south of Cairo. It was good to escape the glare of Nasr City, the district in outer Cairo where my father and I had rented an apartment.

We had come to Egypt so that I could get to know my father's side of the family. Sitting on the balcony of our apartment overlooking a busy intersection, I had got to know my uncle, his daughters and family friends during nights spent drinking mint tea and eating takeaway food. But this was the big one. My father was born in a village not far from Minya and most of the family still lived there.

On the station platform a little girl in a smart pink jacket was waiting with a shy smile in front of what I guessed must be the family delegation. "Welcome to Upper Egypt," she said in carefully rehearsed English, handing me a bunch of flowers. "My name is Basant."

"Shokran [thank you]," I said, unable to drag anything more elaborate from my small Arabic vocabulary. I found out later that she had been hoping for an exotic, blond, green-eyed giant.

Among the adults standing behind Basant was her mother, Nirmine, a lawyer and women's rights activist, my cousin Tamir, who looked after the land and studied pharaonic history in his spare time, and his best friend, Omar, a PE teacher who was planning to move to Cairo to make more money. I know this now. At the time, bewildered by so many first-time introductions, I shook hands, exchanged hugs and smiles and immediately mixed up or forgot names and everything else. I was used to life without an extended family.

A minibus, hired especially for the occasion, was waiting outside the station.

At the hotel, where my father and I were dropping off our bags, my British passport proved problematic. To my family, I was an Egyptian, but to the pretty, heavily made-up check-in girls, I was a tourist, and they expected me to pay the much higher, non-Egyptian room rate. My family wouldn't hear of it.

"He is an Egyptian. Have you no shame?"

"His passport says he is British."

"His father is Egyptian. This is his home."

"Yes, but he is British . . ."

Faced with a knot of determined locals ready to make a scene, the check-in girls backed down.

The police were more insistent. I needed a personal police escort, they said, to ensure my safety. Negotiations flared again in loud, rapid-fire Arabic. In the 1990s Minya and the surrounding countryside were the centre of an anti-government terror campaign led by the Islamist al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya. The group killed more than a thousand people and, to damage the economy, deliberately targeted tourists. In 1995 al- Islamiyya attempted to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak while he was at a conference in Ethiopia. He escaped unharmed in his armoured limousine, but, in the ruthless crackdown that followed, an estimated 20,000 Islamists were imprisoned and tanks and armoured cars became an everyday sight on Minya's streets.

Things were calm now, but security was still noticeably tighter here than almost anywhere else in Egypt. Tourists seldom visit. Eventually, the commanding officer, a tall energetic man, allowed some money "for tea" to be forced into his hand. His concerns for my well-being assuaged, we hustled back to the minibus.

The road from Minya to the village ran between palms and lush cane fields. We sped past a man on a battered Chinese motorbike and slowed for a boy in a red tracksuit riding a donkey. Approaching the village, Banabade, the first thing that caught my eye was a small boy dragging a dead dog by its tail. Three more dead dogs lay by the side of the road. "They were wild and dangerous," Omar explained, noticing my curi osity. "So we sent them straight to hell." They had been fed poisoned meat that morning.

"It's changed," my father said, nodding at the cluttered, box-shaped buildings. I had got used to hearing this in Cairo. The glossy shopping malls, the choked concrete flyovers that cut through the city, the new residential compounds on the outskirts, where the money had fled and where flashy villas with Doric columns were being built by the hundred: all of this was new. And the poverty, that was not new, but there was more of it. The cosmopolitan city with clean streets that my father and his friends liked to remember from their student days in the Sixties had mostly vanished. The miniskirts were gone.

The driver stopped beside a brick-walled side street. "This is it," my father announced, pointing at a chipped, blue sign with white lettering. "This is our street: al-Iskandirani Street," he said, giving the Arabic pronunciation of our family name. The street name was a relic: one of the little privileges that had survived my grand- father's disastrous tenure as head of the family. I didn't know much about my grandfather, just that he had been a gambling man with expensive tastes and that he had managed to lose most of a fortune that it had taken generations to acquire.

At the end of the street, an old lady in a black headscarf waited inside an open door, staring out at us through thick-lensed glasses: my aunt Bahega. In her younger days, when blood feuds were common and outlaws still camped in the dense sugar cane, she had single-handedly driven a gang of criminals from one of our fields with a tractor and a shotgun. Despite her apparent frailty, people were still afraid of her. She had ordered the inhabitants of the street to clean in front of their houses before we arrived. As I leaned forward to hug her, she gripped my arm and pulled me into the sitting room where everyone gathered on the heavy ormolu furniture.

Tamir's pregnant wife joined us, accompanied by my cousin Saher, head teacher of the local school. Unlike my uncle's glamorous older daughters in Cairo, who shopped in designer boutiques and, on an average day, would not have looked out of place in a Lebanese pop video, the women here dressed conservatively and wore headscarves. And the room was very full.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel