An author recounts his time among Egyptian farmers in this debut anthropological memoir.
Dissatisfied with the way his graduate classes on the Middle East ignored the everyday experiences of the region’s poor, Adams spent 20 months living in a remote village in Egypt to observe and gather research for his doctoral thesis. “My professors at Berkeley may well have thrown up their hands at my desire to become a latter-day T. E. Lawrence,” he writes, nearly 40 years later. “But I was determined. I was also more than a little naive.” This is not a book of scholarship, however: here Adams sets out to describe the lives of the Egyptian fellahin (the “tillers of the soil”) in a way that captures their rugged humanity, both as modern individuals and as practitioners of a way of life that stretches back 3,500 years. Adams gained access to the Upper Egyptian village of El-Diblah, where he quickly became embroiled in the local customs and rhythms, politics and feuds, of life in the narrow habitable zone on the banks of the Nile River. Adams’ narrative presents him as the perfect fish out of water: unsure, prudish, polite to a fault, and out of his depth in the thick local dialect of Arabic. Yet he perseveres, winning the admiration of the reader as he communicates his own appreciation for the fellahin. His self-deprecating, highly descriptive prose summons their world like a mirage out of the desert, evoking in the reader simultaneous feelings of wanderlust and gratitude for postindustrial standards of living. The most remarkable aspect of the book is the reader’s distance from it all: Adams was in El-Diblah in 1978 and yet, as one footnote acknowledges, the subsequent rise of Islamic fundamentalism has made such a project essentially impossible in 2015. An epilogue describes Adams’ brief return to El-Diblah six years later, offering some finality on a few of the dramatis personae. Even so, one wonders how much has changed for the fellahin in the intervening decades and whether such transformation represents progress or a loss of identity.
An affectionate examination of an enthralling world on the banks of the Nile River.