Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Photo Essay: The Demise of Cotton’s Influence on Egyptian Culture

photos and text by Ahmed Safyeldin (twitter: @ElKharouf)

                  This is the second installment in a series of photo essays about the harvest of traditionally important crops in Egypt, their current state, and the farmers that tend their fields. These articles are an attempt to forge a new bond with my ancestral village of Ahnasya Elkhadra in Beni Suef that my grandfather abandoned fifty years ago to settle in Cairo. The articles also give me the excuse to travel to my village and examine the situation on the ground.

                 The cotton shrub is native to tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The Cotton plant was independently domesticated in India and Central America 7,000 years ago, and woven into textiles for clothing and fishing nets. Egypt’s cotton production began in earnest in the 1860s as a result of the American Civil War disrupting Europe’s supply of raw cotton. The Europeans invested heavily in Egypt, which resulted in a booming economy, and encouraged Khedive Ismail (the Ottoman ruler of Egypt) to borrow heavily from British creditors. After the American Civil War, the Europeans abandoned Egypt’s cotton for the cheaper American variety. This resulted in a financial crisis that forced Egypt to declare bankruptcy in 1873, and the direct intervention of foreign powers in Egypt’s internal affairs, thereafter.

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                  I began a one-day trip to my father’s cotton fields in Ahnasya Elkhadra with the typical train ride to Upper Egypt from the Giza railroad station.  The train station’s Neo-Pharaonic architecture evokes the images of the ancient Egyptian temples of Luxor and Aswan, and reminds the passengers of their financial and ancestral ties to Upper Egypt.  Jostling at the carriage door gave way to a foyer with old red buttons on an open electrical board, and a luggage compartment used as a bedroom by the porters. This led to a dimly lit passengers’ section flooded by a yellowish sickly sleep-inducing color. I inherited my preference for the train as the mode of transportation to and from Beni Suef from my father who prefers its reliability. The uneventful train ride brings back memories and anxieties of the trips my father and I took to Beni Suef and the occasional adventures that entailed. The first pyramid I went inside was on one of our rare return trips by car, my father stopped at the Meydoum Pyramid (the symbol of the governorate of Beni Suef) and paid off the policeman to take us inside.  The ride also evokes the anxieties I have towards my relatives in Ahnasya Elkhadra who I could never relate to due to our differences in backgrounds and cultures. For example, my relatives always ask me to find a job for an acquaintance of theirs in my uncle’s company which embarrasses me into promising that I will, but never deliver.

                  I reached Beni Suef at 7:30 am and Hajj Ali Bakri, my father’s cousin, was waiting for me on the platform to take me to Ahnasya Elkhadra. Half an hour later, I was in the middle of my father’s cotton field outside our village taking photographs of the workers harvesting the crop since dawn prayers.  The Egyptian farmer traditionally harvests cotton in the early morning to take advantage of the dew it which makes the bales heavier and so commands a higher price at the scale. My father has a sharecropping agreement with two farmers to grow crops on this plot of land in return for half the revenue.  I commented to Hajj Ali on the height and size of the cotton bushes this year. He replied that unusually intense heat waves late in the season result in growth spurts that produce spoilt cotton pods.  Therefore, only the lower half of the plant was harvestable. Hajj Ali also complained about the new payment system which allows speculators to control prices and keep them secret until after the harvest. Under the old system which was installed by the Egyptian government after the 1952 Revolution, the ministry of agriculture fixed the prices according to the international commodities market months in advance and was the sole buyer of cotton in Egypt. Then in the 1990s Egypt started borrowing from the World Bank under the stipulation to partially deregulate the agricultural sector causing the government to abandon its role as the sole dealer of Egyptian cotton.

                  One of the groups harvesting cotton was a band of about fifteen teenage girls wearing the niqab. After working, on their way back home, they removed their niqabs. I was surprised at their nonchalant attitude towards the niqab, especially because it is worn by religiously conservative women. I asked an old farmer about the girls’ behavior and he replied with a laugh: the girls wear a niqab during work to protect their fair skin from the sun and attract suitors because they are at the proper age to get married. By late morning the farmers rolled the huge cotton bales out from the field, and on to donkey carts to store them in Hajj Ali’s warehouse, adjacent to his home.

                   Egypt’s relationship with cotton has been fundamentally altered. There are several reasons for this outcome. First, the Egyptian farmer can no longer grow cotton every year because of its detrimental effect on the soil; before the High Dam was built this was possible because the flood replenished the soil with the nutrients consumed by the preceding year’s crop. Second, the quality of Egyptian cotton decreased because after the 1952 Revolution, the government fixed the price, regardless of the quality; therefore there was little incentive to grow quality cotton. Third, the domestic demand for cotton has decreased because of the privatization of Egypt’s textile industry and strong competition from cheaper textiles from China. Cotton’s fall in commercial value was accompanied by an erosion of the cultural trappings that surrounded it. I asked around on my trip if anybody remembered the songs farmers used to sing during the cotton harvest; I was met with puzzled looks. In addition, farmers used to wait until the harvest to have weddings and make financial transactions because of the cash that cotton brought in around this time of year. All of these factors played a role in the demise of cotton’s cultural and commercial value to Egyptians.

                  In conclusion, my trip to Ahnasya Elkhadra introduced me to the challenges facing Egyptian cotton. Poor government policies compounded with the mounting financial challenges of the Egyptian farmer led to this situation. Unless both parties start working together to combine their efforts to raise the quality and cultivation standards of this cash crop, Egypt will lose one of its main resources of agricultural income.

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