Just kilometres from central Cairo is Gezirit Al-Waraq, an island of extreme poverty. After an initial tour while working for the World Health Organisation, journalist and activist Sarah El-Rashidi continued to visit the island where she met residents whom, she says, “are crying out for help from Egypt’s new leaders after decades of neglect.” El-Rashidi and fellow journalist and activist Sara Abou Bakr have recently directed and produced “The Forgotten Island”, a documentary about Waraq.
By Sarah El-Rashidi
Just a few kilometres downstream from the privileged leafy island of Zamalek in Egypt’s capital lays the island of Gezirit Al-Waraq. Despite its proximity to one of Cairo’s most exclusive enclaves, an air of mystery surrounds Gezirit Al-Waraq. Little information escapes from its murky shores.
To reach the island a dilapidated ferry boat charging 25 piasters (2p) per journey runs every 15 minutes, 24 hours per day. Rafat Abdel-Nebi, a local resident and former lawyer who is now a Justice Ministry employee, kindly offered to give me an exclusive tour of the island following my initial visit as an employee of the World Health Organization (WHO). That tour led to more visits given the patent need I found for documentation of Waraq.
“We are very proud people,” Rafat said. “My family has been here for 400 years.”
Whilst waiting for the ferry boat, the bleak silhouette of the island peering in the distance, Rafat began by discussing the political battle waged against the islanders by the former regime.
The previous government planned to transform the island into a luxury tourist resort and provide the residents with alternative housing on the mainland. However, after the islanders refused to move, the construction of a bridge connecting the island to the mainland was halted. This ensured the island’s continued isolation and prevented residents from accessing basic amenities such as clean water, sewage, bread, basic health and education facilities as well as transportation.
“A bridge would solve all of our problems,” asserted Hag Bakry Arafa, a local farmer.
The political struggle explains why there is so little progress on the island. The Egyptian Health Ministry and the World Health Organization initiated a collaborative project in mid-2011, yet much still needs to be done in terms of socio-economic development and infrastructure in all spheres. Accordingly, Rafat is establishing a grassroots NGO called ‘Gezirit Al-Waraq’.
The ferry’s arrival prompted herds of people to rush on to secure a place; many carrying huge water tanks, sacks of food and other heavy produce.
The boat was decrepit and unhygienic, most seats were broken and the engine was disturbingly loud. Accidents are a frequent occurrence. Recently, say some of the islanders, one of the boats sank and people died
“This method of transportation is inhumane.,” complained Hag Bakry Arafa.
Upon arrival on Gezirit Al-Waraq, there was a suffocating smell of rubbish and sewage. Next to the dock Toktoks (a small 3-wheel bike-car which seats 2 people and the driver in the front) were lined up, which apart from donkeys are the only means of transportation on the island. They cost 5LE (50P) each way.
“A taxi ride in Zamalek is often cheaper,” lamented Marwa Abbas.
Whilst walking through the narrow, poorly constructed streets which look more like dirt tracks, Rafat explained the political and socio-economic position of the residents.
“Some people are doctors, lawyers or teachers who work on the mainland because they are unable to find work on the island. But the majority are unemployed, extremely poor and illiterate.”
The Health Ministry and WHO sources state the island’s population is 40,000 but Rafat puts it much higher at approximately 80,000. Most of the islanders, say locals, are agricultural workers.
Al-Waraq is an Islamist stronghold. Old banners promoting former Islamist Presidential candidates, from the ultra-conservative Salafist school and Muslim Brotherhood, continue to cover the streets.
“If we follow Islamic law like Saudi Arabia, things in Egypt will improve quickly” said 17-year-old Hossam Khalid, in the midst of banners displaying bearded, smiling politicians.
“The islanders are pious people and support those following the word of God,” said Sayid El-Omda, the local mayor.
When asked if the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafist Nour Party had financially assisted the people on the island in exchange for their vote, the mayor said, “No one is helping us. We support the Islamists, in particular the Nour Party, for the sake of God only.”
Sayed Kamal, 45-years-old and a father of eight, said, “I support anyone with a beard.”
Religion is the most important galvanizing factor when amassing political support, Sayed said. Given the islanders’ experience with the secular Mubarak regime, he like many whom I interviewed believe that secularists don’t tend to care for the people.
Nevertheless, according to Rafat, the island community is disappointed with the current government. Previous enthusiasts for the Brotherhood now voice their disappointment at its performance in power. Some say the Brotherhood used religion to get elected, but have not fulfilled their campaign promises.
“The new government has failed. We voted for our brothers, but it’s hopeless. Look at the water we are using to wash our clothes,” said a local elderly man, pointing to a stream that looked more like black mud.
“As religious people,” one frail elderly lady shouted, “we voted for the Brotherhood and the Nour Party and we thought things would finally get better with an Islamist government, but nothing has changed!”
Conversely, other secularly inclined islanders also shared their discontent “Although I am Muslim, I don’t support the Brotherhood. Egypt needs someone with a strong economic background like Ahmed Shafiq,” insisted farmer Hag Bakry Arafa.
A local middle-aged women known as Um Kalthoum said, “I don’t want an Islamic government. We Egyptians are moderate people. The Brotherhood and the Nour Party are going to limit our freedom further like the army did. During the Presidential elections, I supported secular candidates only”.
Throughout the tour, Rafat was eager to highlight the inadequate social services available on the island. The sole hospital on the island reflected the severity of the situation, where Dr Hassan, the chief doctor, appealed for funding and medical supplies which he said were in short supply.
The educational facilities are also very poor given limited qualified teachers and text books as well as complaints from local children of physical abuse by teachers. Hence, most children to attend schools in Shubra El-Kheima on the mainland, said local teacher Sabah Eman.
“Teachers beat and swear at us; I don’t want to go to school,” protested 10-year-old Mohamed Yehya and a group of children who attend a local school on the island.
The children’s decrepit appearance was particularly disturbing as they looked old beyond their years, with deep black circles underneath their eyes, wearing melancholy expressions. Many played in the mountainous piles of sewage, whilst their mothers sorted through the garbage.
“Bread is now 50 piasters! We can’t afford to feed our children,” said a group of woman who suddenly emerged holding pieces of baladi bread.
On an island where living conditions are pitiful, it was not uncommon to hear harrowing declarations.
“I want to die; I pray every day to be taken away from this living hell,” proclaimed middle-aged Sayed Kamal.
“We are ashamed to say we are from Gezirit Al-Waraq,” one resident told me, “so we usually say we are from Shubra, Giza or anywhere but Waraq.”
Political activist and editor Sara Abu-Bakr (who recently made a documentary about Waraq in partnership with the author called ‘The Forgotten Island’) reinforced the gravity of the situation after her recent visit to the island: “Throughout my humanitarian career, I have visited many slums in Egypt yet nothing was as horrific as what I saw on Gezirit Al-Waraq – it’s a living hell.” This view has been reinforced by numerous governmental officials and begs the question, why do educated individuals like Rafat and his brother choose to stay?
“We islanders are like fish out of water,” Rafat said. “If you take us away from the island, we will die.”
Sarah El-Rashidi graduated from Cambridge University with a Masters in International Relations, which encompassed a thesis focused on the Muslim Brotherhood’s pursuit of legitimacy under Mubarak. El-Rashidi is a human rights activist and founder of an NGO. Her first professional post was at the UN’s World Health Organization in Cairo within the Community Based Initiatives unit. She began her journalistic career this year, directing and producing her first documentary and publishing a portfolio of articles for Al Ahram Online. El-Rashidi is also pursuing a social entrepreneurial venture endorsing e-learning; a virtual school teaching Arabic online.