ALI MUBARAK, Egypt: It’s 11 am and Omayna Yousseff Abdel Aziz has already had a full days work. The bananas have been picked and left to soak up water from a running hose. The grapes are purple, not green and have been washed. She has visited the nearby supermarket which her friend Samia owns and operates together with her husband Ahmed; they have discussed their children, the local gossip and their families in the Delta.
From there, she swings by the village kindergarten, where she playfully teases the children and arranges their simple curriculum. Sometimes she goes to the local council to help manage village affairs before she calls it a day and heads back to her farm to rest. Such is life in Ali Mubarak.
Located some 150 kilometers northeast of Cairo, this village is hardly your run-of-the-mill Egyptian farm town. Only 12 years ago, these sprawling green fields full of fruits and vegetables consisted of nothing but desert as far as the eye could see. There were no inhabitants and certainly no green to be seen. Today, nearly 2,000 people living on some 300 farms call Ali Mubarak home.
In an effort to tackle the exploding population, overcrowded cities and falling per capita farm output, the Egyptian government, in collaboration with a number of local and international NGOs, has maintained committed to desert reclamation projects in all of Egypt’s desert communities. As with similar projects in the past, the Ali Mubarak project was a real gamble as there was no way of ensuring residents living in areas like the Delta, Cairo and North Coast would be willing to leave their families, sacrifice the lives they had grown accustomed to, including land that feeds itself, and start a new life in this barren region of the country. They needed an incentive package.
In the early 1990s, the Ministry of Agriculture placed ads in local newspapers publicizing land for sale to university graduates. The graduates would fill out applications for the land and hundreds would be awarded 5 feddans of desert land each. Many of them would move not just to establish individual farms, but viable desert communities.
“Everything I had read about the Ali Mubarak project prior to coming out here was very critical about the project because it sounded like people were forced to move out here, explains Hanne Kirstine Adriansen, a senior researcher from the Danish Institute for International Studies studying the Ali Mubarak project. “Most of the people I’ve met were really pleased living in their new village for a number of different reasons. Many of the women like it because they are away from their in-laws; it changes the social control of the family. They can behave differently. I think they like that.
Currently, 385 graduates live with their families in Ali Mubarak. Of those, more than 80 are women. Some graduates have come and gone, in some cases, selling their land to outsiders, in other cases, selling to graduates who stayed behind. It is rare to find any elderly residents in Ali Mubarak as the majority of the inhabitants in this small village are no more than 45 years old. Graduates had to be less than 30 years of age to be eligible for land. Many of them immigrated to the village unmarried. They met other unmarried graduates. Some of them married each other, a union of hearts and feddans.
Through the Desert Development Program (DDC), a research and training center affiliated with the American University in Cairo, they would receive free training courses since many of them had never farmed land before. They are continuously provided with tools, seeds (particularly citrus) and tips for breeding cattle. Those who found themselves struggling to make a profit would receive a greenhouse.
According to the DDC, a mere 4 percent of Egypt’s land is inhabited. President Hosni Mubarak has remained committed to the reclamation of desert land across Egypt, most recently vowing to reclaim some 1 million feddans of desert land during his presidential campaign last summer. Similar projects, such as the Toshka scheme of 2000 has sought to double the amount of cultivated land in Toshka, East Oweinat and the New Valley oases, spending some $90 million by 2017. Mubarak has also issued directives for the implementation of the Argin Project where 1.6 million feddans are currently being cultivated along the Egyptian-Sudanese border.
“We must develop the desert, insists Mohsen Nawara, desert-farm manager for the DDC. “The problem is that water is not enough. We cannot maintain the methods of irrigating water in the desert that we do in the Delta. We have to treat the desert as a desert.
Water remains a major challenge for the residents of Ali Mubarak. The village, which is outlined by a series of canals, works on a rotating schedule with a nearby village in a three days on and three days off rotation. Aside from the needed drinking water, desert land requires a substantial amount of water for fertility since the consistency of the soil is far different from the lush lands of the Delta. Says Omayna on this particular day: “Notice that the streets are empty. They’re turning off the water tomorrow morning so no one wants to waste a single minute.
“There is a way of rearing the nutrition in the water, adds Nawara. “We have to adapt many applications of modern irrigation systems to be suitable in the desert.
Electricity also remains a problem, although Nawara notes that it is a nationwide problem and not just one affecting this tiny desert-turned-farmland. Emergency medical services are also unavailable with the nearest clinic ibeing located some 25 kilometers away.
“I think some of the graduates have become better off that they can leave their land and just have the fellaheen work for them, notes Adriansen. “Some of the people have built really nice houses and have managed to make money there. But there are also extremely poor people there working for others. These were communities where they had very little differences socially because they were all graduates. It’s already changing and they themselves are not sure what will happen in the long run.
Women of the village complain more of social inefficiencies. There is only a kindergarten and primary school in Ali Mubarak, both of which residents say is poor in its quality education. Omayna sends her only child, 11-year old Ahmed, to school in the Delta where he lives with his grandmother. Owner of 25 feddans, the most owned by anyone in Ali Mubarak, Omayna, a divorcee, says she lives alone in this tiny village because she is committed to seeing it thrive, though it is a far cry from the point where she would want her son to live in it.
“We are missing a lot of things that service children, men, and women, she says. “If there is a garden, a child gets to go out and play, but also the mother is comforted knowing that he is safe, not running in the street and she worries that a passing car would hit him. The problem is there is no one really pushing for it.