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Another unsung death on the Nile

COLUMN ONE

Struggling to make ends meet, Samir Asar took his life, torn between his new wife and his parents. For them his loss is catastrophic. But it is just one of many in Egypt's desperately poor delta area.

January 30, 2010|By Jeffrey Fleishman
  • Amer Asar shows a picture of his son, Samir, from his days in the army. Samir had helped support his parents since he was a boy, but now newly married he found himself torn between his wife and parents.
Amer Asar shows a picture of his son, Samir, from his days in the army. Samir… (Jeffrey Fleishman / Los…)

Reporting from Abu Nasser, Egypt — He hanged himself in a room above a donkey stall. He lived there with his new wife; he will not know the child she carries inside her; never again will he work the summer fields, walk home along the canal at dusk with his brother.

He didn't leave a note. He could write no more than his name. Others were left to tell the short story of Samir Asar, a man of no consequence beyond this village, who sought a life he couldn't find, a life the Nile Delta refused to grant him.

Winter light slants through the open door and shines on a platter of rice his mother, Fawzeya, balances on her lap, picking out chaff and smoothing. Picking and smoothing.

His father, Amer, sits next to her in a chair, not sure what to say or how, looking toward his wife to make sure he hasn't said too much. He found his son lying on the floor, a snapped rope around his neck. It was after dinner on the last day of November.

"There was a broken strand hanging from the ceiling and another around Samir," says Amer, the hem of his tunic hardened with mud, his skullcap bright against dull pink walls that hold only a mirror. "He was unconscious. His wife had splashed water on him. I sent his brother to run for help. My son was dead before the doctor came. I could see this."

Fawzeya says nothing, sifting rice, listening.

"My son worked since he was this high," Amer says. "He raised sheep and chickens for neighbors and when he grew he worked in the fields, or as a handyman, or a painter or in the rice factory. He could earn 30 pounds (less than $6 a day). Some weeks there was no work and he had to travel to other villages."

Work. It comes in bits and pieces here, fickle as the weather. Men carry tools in hopes of something. They seed furrows, haul bricks, fix tires. They scavenge, like the egrets that pick through garbage along the canal banks and fly to trees to perch, hundreds of them.

Samir's wife, Amal, had dreams -- small, yes, but still dreams -- and his mother and father had needs, and the money he held at the end of each day was never enough.

Amal wanted to move out of the room above the donkey stall in her in-laws' house. A baby was coming, a time to start new. Samir's father, a farmer with a wrecked shoulder that keeps him from the plow, hoped his son would stay. Samir gave his mother the equivalent of $3.60 a day for food; his wife was handed $1.80. He felt bad about that. But a man of 28 who had never set foot in a classroom learns to shrink his promises.

"Amal said, 'You leave your family or I divorce you,' " says Fawzeya, a blue scarf around her head, her face barely wrinkled. "My son was frightened of that. He told me he had to leave. That was his final decision."

A plan was made. Samir would go to Libya to sign on as a laborer to save enough money for an apartment. He had worked in Libya a few years before to raise a dowry -- $730 -- to offer his future wife's family. It wasn't much, but in the delta there is never much. Thousands of delta men work abroad, coming home every few months, or maybe once a year, to see wives and children, and walk fields that are soggy and brown in late autumn and lush in the spring.

Samir's village bends with the road. Motorized rickshaws wobble like beetles over ruts and potholes, their windshields aglitter with hanging trinkets and lights. They carry women to the markets and boys to other towns; they pass men sawing wood for windows and doors and donkey carts heavy with tin, trash and hay. They roll across bridges over the canal, where mothers and daughters scrub pots and linens, and fathers sit and wonder how such fertile land can be so sparse of opportunity.

Amer has a picture of his son. It's from the days when Samir marched in the army and spent three years guarding a military base. He looks out from beneath a beret, his nose strong like his mother's, his chin cut hard, his eyes clear. Amer studies the picture for a while, hands it around, his pride mixes with his grief. He slips it under a couch cushion, where it will be safe from field dust and grit.

"He had dinner and a few hours later he was dead," he says.

The notice of his suicide appeared in a newspaper, the same day the suicides of two other delta men were reported. One was a 32-year-old handyman with five children who earned $72 a month. He jumped from a building. The other was a 31-year-old who hanged himself after his fiancee's family threatened to call off their marriage if he couldn't afford a new flat. He was found lying next to a toppled chair and a frayed rope.

Suicide is on the rise in Egypt, where about 45% of the population lives on $2 a day or less. Gamal Zahran, a member of parliament, has blamed the government for unemployment and poverty that he says have caused thousands of Egyptians to kill themselves. He called for an investigation and told lawmakers that suicides rose from 1,160 in 2005 to 3,700 in 2007 to 4,200 in 2008. Figures for 2009 were not available.

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