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Egypt seen through dusty lenses

A laborer's story echoes those of hundreds of thousands who left to earn a living abroad and returned to a poorer nation.

September 22, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — He keeps his tools in a torn sack -- a hammer, three chisels, a sponge. He works in the shade, bent, blowing away dust, writing names of the dead in marble. He's carved 1,000 of them, probably more; he stopped counting long ago.

This was not his aspiration, but a dream changes along the way, and a man who starts out as a mechanic can end up carving gravestones. It happens. You find your craft, you take your pay.

"You need a skilled, sensitive hand," said Mohammed Halawany, sitting on a street of marble dust and hurried men, where epitaphs and holy verses are etched. "It took seven years to master this trade. The toughest thing is chiseling the marble around the word so it doesn't crack. One Egyptian in Germany wanted me to write a marker for his cat. Another guy wanted me to carve a statue of his dead mother, but we couldn't agree on a price."

Halawany is 75, a slight man with worn trousers and a ripped shirt. His thin forearms taper to wide hands, big and rough, the color of chalk. His life, unassuming, working beneath a tree, is the story of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, those who went abroad to make a living, watched their children grow from a distance and returned to a nation that, in many ways, had slipped backward in their absence. It is a story of good luck turning bad, of experience hardening into wisdom.

He was born in the port of Alexandria, the son of a railroad conductor. He worked as a textile mechanic but in the 1970s he traveled to Saudi Arabia to work as a chauffeur. It was a boom time of oil money and opportunity when Egyptian men with shiny passports and cheap suitcases headed toward Mecca and beyond to cities in eastern deserts. It lasted awhile but then, he said, "the Saudi king got rid of Egyptians for cheaper Asians. . . .

"So I went to work in Iraq," he smiles, rolling his eyes. "It was 1980 and when I got there the war between Iraq and Iran had broken out and I had to come home. I was there four months, painting walls and laying tile. It seemed like 14 years. My toughest days were in Iraq, but my happiest were in Saudi Arabia. I had a stable job. I was dealing with foreigners and worked for a good company. They gave us an annual vacation with a plane ticket."

All those years abroad had furnished his house in Egypt and helped support a wife and five children. He returned from Iraq with little savings. The reign of President Hosni Mubarak was beginning, and year by year, the simple business of living grew more expensive. Fishermen from along the Nile and farmers from its delta streamed into Cairo hoping for fortune. Few found it. Tenements went up at the same pace costs were rising; inflation ballooned to today's rate of nearly 24%, the highest in more than 15 years.

Halawany's brother, a marble cutter, handed him a hammer and a chisel, taught him to carve squiggles and lines in rock and stone. Sometimes he'd make a sign for a mosque, but mostly he copied into marble Koranic verses and names of the dead handed to him on slips of paper. He's done better than many, earning about $110 a month, including the pension for his old textile mechanic's job. But it goes; the money goes so quickly.

"You don't ask a marble writer what's wrong with the country," he said. "You ask the president and the prime minister: Why do we have this high inflation? Tell the president to go to the poor neighborhoods so he can see how people are living, instead of him asking his secretary what's going on out there. Then he'll know. These are bad times. I get paid OK. People are always dying so it's a good business, but this inflation sucks away any profit.

"Many people can't make it. This is the worst time in Egypt I've seen."

A man in the grave marker trade reaches conclusions about death and commerce: "No more people are dying now than before, but there's more deaths among men than women. Men are exposed to stress, I guess. I have stress," he said. "I support a wife, a divorced daughter and a grandson. My hope is to have enough money to go to the grave and to support my family until I get there."

He hammers, he works. But there are names, no matter how skilled the craftsman, that cannot be written. They are the ones dropped on you unexpectedly, like his daughter who went into the hospital for sinus surgery and died on the operating table. Complications. Anesthesia. A blur of words. It was 1994. Halawany remembers getting the news, remembers how his chisel wouldn't move, how the slate stayed blank.

"I can't write in marble for people I know," he said. "It's too emotional. Once, I was asked to write for the husband of my cousin. We were close and when I got the chisel to his name I burst into tears. In the end, I'm a human, not a machine. I'm always aware of death. When I write the Koran sayings, I contemplate it."

The shade on Halawany's street widens; the stonecutters break for tea and prayers. Sadaq M. El-Sayed's name waits unfinished in marble. Halawany will get to it. But it is a time to linger, to speak of those days in Saudi Arabia, an adventure born of necessity, but still an adventure. A man can leave part of himself somewhere, that younger, brash spirit that age, imperceptibly, chisels away.

"I'll write my own gravestone, and on it will be this verse: 'But ah! Thou soul at peace! Return to thy Lord, content in His good pleasure! Enter thou among My bondmen! Enter thou My garden!' "


Noha El-Hennawy of The Times' Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.

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