All photos and text by Ahmed Safyeldin (twitter: @ElKharouf)
It was in my town of Ahnasya-El-Khadra, in the governorate of Beni-Suef, that the subject matter of his photo essay presented itself. I went on a Friday morning to volunteer at an NGO oblivious that the countryside was being strangled by a severe gas and diesel shortage. I had to put aside my plans to return on the same day and spend the night with a relative. As my relatives made phone calls around town to fetch me gas off the black market, they expounded on the adverse effects of this crisis on their livelihood, especially since the wheat harvest is coming up and the process of harvesting is mechanized. These revelations stirred my imagination since wheat is a staple of Egyptian diets and the Nile Delta was one of the first places that domesticated wheat 9,000 years ago.
The wheat harvesting process begins in early May by reaping the wheat and leaving it out to dry for a day or two on the field. Then the wheat is bound together and put through a machine that threshes (loosens the head of the grain from the chaff) and winnows (separates the head of the grain from the chaff) it. Finally the cereal is hauled away in sacks to the town’s market or government storage centers.
I photographed two locations at different stages of the harvest. The first location was a farm owned and operated by a single family that was at the stage of binding, threshing, and winnowing the wheat. The mood was joyous, welcoming, and put me at ease right away. I sat by an old lady (a great grand-mother) making tea in a blackened beat up pot using corn cobs as fuel. The old lady went on to tell me how easy farm life had become compared to when she was young and the harvesting process was done by hand. The most interesting stages were threshing and winnowing, which began by passing a special cart over the wheat to loosen the grain from the stalks and husks. The mixture was then winnowed by throwing it into the wind so the chaff flew away and the heavier grain fell to the ground.
The commercial farm was owned by a distant relative of mine who contracted a foreman to provide manpower during harvests. Interestingly, the group of peasants that worked for the foreman was an extended family. While sipping on a cup of sweet tea brewed over a gas stove in the middle of a reaped field, the farm owner informed me that these workers are a group of nomads that roam between farming communities providing labor and are infamous for committing petty crimes. He also went over modernity’s impact on the farmer and how it strained his resources. The advent of government provided utilities gave the farmer the opportunity to buy electrical appliances and goods that burdened them financially. In addition, farming subsidies such as seeds and pesticides are stolen by government officials and sold on the black market for higher prices to the farmers who have no choice but to buy these products.
I went to Ahnasya-El-Khadra to witness a thousand year old agricultural tradition that captured my imagination, but found reality quite different. The fact is that the Egyptian peasant’s life has been far from idyllic since the beginning of time. However, it is fair to say that materially this is the richest he has been. But what does that translate into? Does that count as improvement?