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Special Feature

The Three Decisions of Umm Bîjû: Walking in Suez and Seeing the Ghosts of 1967 War

Les trois décisions d’Umm Bîjû : marcher dans la ville de Suez et y rencontrer les fantômes de la guerre de 1967
القرارات الثلاث لام بيجو: رؤية اشباح حرب يونيو ١٩٦٧ اثناء التجول في السويس
Nayera Abdelrahman Soliman
p. 81-103

Résumés

Umm Bîjû faisait partie des très rares personnes qui avaient décidé de ne pas quitter la ville de Suez après la guerre de 1967, alors que près de 70 % de sa population fut obligée de la quitter à cause de la guerre. Durant mon terrain de recherche en novembre 2018, elle a décidé de me faire visiter son quartier d’al-Kassâra à Suez. Cet article retrace trois décisions d’Umm Bîjû. D’abord, la décision de m’accompagner faire un tour provient de son intérêt pour la conservation d’archives personnelles de la période de la guerre et de l’exode de Suez, et montre la centralité des lieux dans le processus du souvenir. La deuxième décision décrit comment et pourquoi elle a choisi les rues dans lesquelles nous avons déambulé. Le tour révèle une histoire intime d’al-Kassâra, entrelacée avec sa propre histoire personnelle, mais aussi ses interactions actuelles avec le quartier et ses habitants. Suez a rouvert ses portes à la fin des 101 jours de siège en février 1974, et un bon nombre de ses habitants ont pu y retourner. Cependant, Suez n’a jamais retrouvé son état d’avant la guerre. A la lumière du récit d’Umm Bîjû durant ce parcours dans le quartier – sa troisième décision – cet article affirme que les années de guerre représentent un fantôme qui continue de hanter la géographie, les mémoires et le vécu quotidien des habitants de Suez.

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Introduction

  • 1 This article is dedicated to the memory of Umm Bîjû, who left our world in November 2020. Umm Bîjû (...)
  • 2 I met Umm Bîjû once in March 2018, then three times in November 2018. The first three times were a (...)
  • 3 My interviews with Umm Bîjû were part of my two fieldwork trips, one in 2017 and another in 2018, (...)

1The first time I met Umm Bîjû1 was in March 20182 at her home near al-Gharîb Mosque in Suez. I introduced myself and my research interest in the forced migration following the 1967 war3. Umm Bîjû was among the few people who decided not to leave Suez. These are the first words I recorded when I met her:

  • 4 Village in the Egyptian Nile Delta’s rural Sharqiya governorate, one of the most populous governor (...)
  • 5 Interview with Umm Bîjû. Suez, March 5, 2018.

“I was married but still young in ’67 [she was born in Suez in 1944, so she was 23 years old back then]. I didn’t accept leaving [Suez]. My husband, may he rest in peace, was working in a store. He told me we should go. But where? So I told him, then we’ll stay. I volunteered in civil defense and he took an assignment to keep working in Suez to feed people who stayed: those who worked in companies, those in civil defense, the security troops. We stayed then, me as a volunteer. I used to go to the hospital to work as a nurse. There weren’t any assistants to my husband, so I worked with him. They told us if we stay, my children should not. So I took them to my mom. She had migrated to Minya al-Amah4. I took them there. Each month, I used to go for four days, then come back, then [my husband] would go see his children.”5

  • 6 There were several attacks of Israeli army on Suez, especially in the last days of October 1967. R (...)

2In 1967, Egypt faced a military defeat that the inhabitants of Suez Canal cities, including Suez, Ismailia, and Port Said, witnessed. The citizens of these cities saw the Egyptian soldiers returning, devastated, from Sinai. The Israeli army had managed to reach the east side of the Canal, which transformed into a border between the Egyptian army on the west side and the Israeli army on the east side. The cities and their citizens were on the frontlines. On September 5, 1967, the three governors of Suez, Ismailia, and Port Said decided that the cities must be evacuated of inhabitants and that a minimal number of employees in governmental institutions and the private sector should stay (Ḥasab 2001, 32-33). Around 750 thousand people from the three Suez Canal cities had to leave their homes and go to other cities in Egypt (Shakur, Mehanna, and Hopkins 2005). Amid intense Israeli attacks on Suez during September and October 19676, Suezis gradually evacuated to other places in Egypt by their own means or with help from Socialist Union committees. Between 1967 and 1974, the city was not occupied but was under attack from the Israeli army that was on the other side of the Canal.

  • 7 They went to Minya Al-Amah because her father, who used to have a moving cart selling desserts, ha (...)
  • 8 Her husband used to work in a restaurant before the war but the owner had to shut down and leave t (...)
  • 9 The battle happened around al-Arba‘în police station. Members of the popular resistance sieged the (...)

3Umm Bîjû first went with her father, mother, husband and two children to the village of Minya al-Amah in Sharqiya governorate7, but she did not stay long as she decided to return to Suez with her husband. They acquired a permit to open a restaurant serving those who had to remain8. Between 1967 and 1974, Umm Bîjû lived mostly in Suez and went to see her children every two weeks. She was in Suez when a second war started again on October 6, 1973. More importantly, she lived the 101-day siege of Suez. The Egyptian army had managed to cross to the east side and gain some territory in Sinai, but after almost ten days, the Israelis crossed to the west side of the Canal and tried to occupy Suez, and after a battle with the popular resistance in Suez and a few soldiers of the Egyptian army on October 24, 1973, they failed to occupy the city and instead sieged it for 101 days9. Suez was liberated from the Israeli siege in February 1974 as a result of the January 18, 1974 disengagement agreement signed by the two sides. But during the siege, those who stayed in Suez faced food and water scarcity. They could not exit and enter Suez or even contact their relatives outside of Suez.

Figure 1. Al-Kassâra Square (landmark n. 6 in map).

Figure 1. Al-Kassâra Square (landmark n. 6 in map).

Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 21, 2018

  • 10 There are varying stories about the origin of this name. The most famous one is that al-Gharîb was (...)
  • 11 For more information about al-Gharîb neighborhood and al-Gharîb legacy, see (El Khachab 2010) and (...)

4When Umm Bîjû opened the door of her house on November 19, 2018, she said, “if you had come a bit earlier, I would have taken you to show you the stuff.” This is what we did the following (and the last) time we met, on the morning of November 21, 2018. We met at her house as usual. She was ready to go out, wearing a long black dress and a hijab. She took her small purse, shut the door, and left to take me on an hour-and-a-half tour of “al-Kassâra,” as Umm Bîjû calls her Suez neighborhood; al-Kassâra square, as shown in Figure 1, is near her house. The neighborhood is part of the al-Gharîb neighborhood. Suez is famously known as the city of Al-Gharîb: it means literally “the city of the stranger.”10 Around al-Gharîb mosque is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Suez, which dates back to the old city, Tal al-Qulzum. My interlocutors consider this neighborhood to be the origin of Suez11. This is where Umm Bîjû took me on a tour.

5Umm Bîjû decided to walk me around the neighborhood, designed the itinerary, and chose the landmarks to visit. This article follows these three decisions of Umm Bîjû. First, the decision of taking me on a tour to show me her neighborhood comes as part of her interest in maintaining a personal archive of the period of the war and displacement in Suez and points to the centrality of space in the process of remembering. The second decision concerns how and why she chose the streets we walked and the comments she made while walking. The tour reveals an intimate history of al-Kassâra interlaced with her personal life history and her present interaction with the neighborhood and its inhabitants. The cities opened after the 1973 war, and many of the original inhabitants managed to return. However, according to my interlocutors, Suez never returned to how it was before the war. In light of the narrative of Umm Bîjû during this tour, her third decision, I argue that the war years represent a ghost that still haunts the geography, memory, and everyday experience of the inhabitants of Suez. I think of the term “ghost” as Navaro-Yashin (2012) describes: not as only “a representation of something or someone that disappeared or died” but rather as “what is retained in material objects and the physical environment in the aftermath of the disappearance of the humans linked or associated with that thing or space” (Navaro-Yashin 2012, 17). This article shows that the violence Suez experienced during the war years, the attacks, and al-tahgîr (the forced displacement) of its inhabitants still haunts the city and the memories of its inhabitants.

Figure 2. Map of al Kassâra showing the route of the tour with Umm Bîjû and its landmarks.

Figure 2. Map of al Kassâra showing the route of the tour with Umm Bîjû and its landmarks.
  • 12 The map is drawn based on the pictures I took during the walk with Umm Bîjû. I used the feature in (...)

Map drawn by Omnia Khalil and legend by Tarek Bder and the author12

Decision One – the Tour: Creating a personal archive of the war in Suez

“Come, let me show you another place where I witnessed al-gholb kolo (all the misery). But I swear they were good days.” (Umm Bîjû, during the walking tour, November 21, 2018)

  • 13 Al-Wa‘î (Conscience) is a Suezi local newspaper started in 1965 by editor-in-chief Hussein al-‘Ash (...)

6In March 2018, I went to Suez to conduct a pre-fieldwork trip to become more familiar with the city and meet more interlocutors. I had limited contacts and was struggling to meet women, so I had a Suezi friend ask for possible contacts via Facebook and thus found Umm Bîjû, the grandmother of a friend of a friend. I got lost on the way to her house, that was just one street of a big mosque, al-Khidr. But I was not yet familiar with the geography of Suez, she guided me via phone to her apartment. We sat on the sofa to the left of the door, this is where we talked for hours every time I went to her afterwards. She had a captivating character and animated tone when narrating. After around twenty minutes of recording, she began telling me about the difficulties of living in Suez during the 101-day siege. She mentioned that she had made curtains out of an Israeli parachute and asked me if I wanted to see. I agreed. She brought the curtain (Figure 4). Then, she retrieved from the balcony a box with a small projectile from an Israeli tank (Figure 5) and another box containing many photos, old newspapers, documents from this period, and certificates she had received. She started to explain each document and photo: the persons, the event, and where it happened. This is where first I saw an issue of the local newspaper, al-Wa‘î13. I had struggled to access its archives at that point in my fieldwork. She had preserved two issues that she appeared in. In Figure 3, in the November 15, 1970 issue, she appears in a photo standing and making kunâfa on one of Suez’s streets during Ramadan. In 1970, Suez was still considered a war zone where civilians – except those with permits – were barred from entering or living. As she had already mentioned, she was helping her husband in the restaurant during that period. During Ramadan, they used to prepare the famous desserts kunâfa and qatâyif, even in the midst of war.

Figure 3. Photos of an issue of Al-Wa‘î from November 15, 1970, titled “Ramadan in Suez”, where Umm Bîjû appears making kunâfa during Ramadan. Photos taken at Umm Bîjû’s house.

Figure 3. Photos of an issue of Al-Wa‘î from November 15, 1970, titled “Ramadan in Suez”, where Umm Bîjû appears making kunâfa during Ramadan. Photos taken at Umm Bîjû’s house.

Photo taken by the author, Suez, March 5, 2018

Figure 4. Umm Bîjû’s curtain made from an Israeli Parachute. Umm Bîjû’s house.

Figure 4. Umm Bîjû’s curtain made from an Israeli Parachute. Umm Bîjû’s house.

Photo taken by the author, Suez, March 5, 2018

Figure 5. Projectile from an Israeli tank. Umm Bîjû’s house.

Figure 5. Projectile from an Israeli tank. Umm Bîjû’s house.

Photo taken by the author, Suez, March 5, 2018

7The rest of this first interview continued on the topic of her photos and documents. When we talked about the return migration to the city after the 1973 war, she took me out to the balcony to show me the buildings that remained from the war and those built afterward.

  • 14 Umm Bîjû is one of the few Suezi women, if not the only one, who has appeared in medias to discuss (...)
  • 15 Watch the episode here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eMzf3kiZAA.
  • 16 This was the first time the curtain of Umm Bîjû is featured publicly.
  • 17 Umm Bîjû mentioned that she had to let go of her curtains when she moved out of her old house and (...)

8In 2016, Umm Bîjû14 and her curtain appeared in an episode of the program Qosr al-Kalâm (Summary of Words) produced by the channel al-Nahâr titled “Stories of Popular Resistance in City of al-Gharîb”15. The anchor hosted Umm Bîjû at her house and delivered a long introduction, especially on the curtain: “This is the most expensive curtain in Egypt […] This is what remained of the occupying Israeli army. This is the proof that Egyptian women made curtains out of an Israeli army.”16 Umm Bîjû, in our four meetings, never dealt with the curtain in this nationalistic tone. She said that a man came from Sinai and gave it to her as a gift in return to a favor he asked her. She spent days working on dismantling the parachute to create small curtains for her kitchen window in her old apartment. She did not see it as a victory over the Israelis as the anchor mentioned. She talked about it as a sign of pride: she created a useful thing out of a military parachute and the amount of time and effort she spent to dismantle it. The curtain is originally an artifact of the war but transformed to be an everyday item at Umm Bîjû’s house17. It represents how the war – a violent extraordinary event that disrupts the lives of people, causes destruction and death – could be present in such a mundane and ordinary way in the everyday life of people who witnessed it.

9On our third meeting in November 2018, I asked her why she preserves these items. She said casually “I love keeping things.” While explaining the concept of les lieux de mémoire (sites of memory) and the difference between memory and history, Pierre Nora states that “Modern memory is, above all, archival. It relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image” (Nora 1989, 13). From the first time we met, Umm Bîjû wanted to show me tangible objects to illustrate her memories, ending with the tour. Her experiences of the war and displacement left traces such as photos, documents, and equipment and tools of war. These experiences also happened in specific places and thus had tangible presence in her neighborhood. She thereby created her own personal, material, tangible archive of the war and the displacement. Although she says that she simply “loves keeping things”, this is a practice shared by other people in Suez and elsewhere.

  • 18 Ihkî yâ Târîkh (Speak, History) was a series of history workshops organized by the historian Alia (...)

10If the curtain transformed an item of war into an ordinary object, Umm Bîjû’s tour did the opposite. With her words and memories, Umm Bîjû added an invisible layer carrying the story of the years of war to al-Kassâra, where there are not distinct, conspicuous traces of the war and the violence. Therefore, I consider the tour to be an extension of the personal war archive that she keeps at her home. The tendency to link memories of war and displacement with spaces is not unique to Umm Bîjû. Almost all my interlocutors in Suez make spatial references. They link their stories with specific locations and tell me what remains and what has changed after the war. The same process of narration was demonstrated during a history workshop18 organized in Port Said in 2016 as depicted by Mossallam and El Sherif in their article on the counter-mapping exercise undertaken during the workshop: “Whether it is the story of a historical event or a family memory, the city as a backdrop is always communicated, plotted into your imagination” (Mossallam and El Sherif 2017). In each workshop of the four that took place between 2015 and 2016, Mossallam considered understanding the dynamics of space and researching that space’s geography as one source for understanding the history of a space or the period one is interested in. In Remembering: A Phenomenological Study, Edward Casey argues that humans tend to localize memories. He asks a simple but interesting question: “how often do we remember ourselves as having been at a given date?” (Casey 2000, 214) Most of my interlocutors link their memories to specific places rather than dates or even periods of time. The question of when the memory takes place is not the important element here but rather how my interlocutors felt at the time of the event or how they remember them. The place, as Casey (2000) argues, is a container of memories. Places help one remember more precisely because they are linked to specific emotions and senses: joy, sounds, intimacy, smells, pain. Umm Bîjû’s decision to take me on a neighborhood tour, in addition to expanding her personal archive of the war, affirmed the centrality of space to the process of remembering. This crystallized as I walked with her; the route she took helped me better understand her biography, her relationship with her neighborhood, and the more intimate stories of the war and displacement years.

Decision Two—the Route: An intimate historical tour in al-Kassâra

“So all that is my district/locality (Dî ba’â-l-manti’a bitâ‘ti kollahâ) (Umm Bîjû, during the walking tour, November 21, 2018)

11The above are the last words she told me at the end of the tour, right before asking me if I need anything and saying goodbye. For an hour and a half, she showed me her “area.” The tour with Umm Bîjû resembles what High (2011) refers to as memoryscapes or audio tours: urban tours based on oral history interviews with interlocutors who share memories about the spaces. The information Umm Bîjû shared with me during this tour was based on her personal life history and what she had witnessed over the years in the neighborhood. Building on Casey (2000), the geographer Jon Anderson suggests “talking whilst walking” as a qualitative methodology where the place and the interaction of the interlocutor with it allow a more balanced and collaborative form of knowledge production (Anderson 2004, 260). He proposes to give space in research not only for what the interlocutors share in a sitting interview or a participant observation method but also for narration of how the landscape influences them. Umm Bîjû’s decision to take me on this tour demonstrates her emotional connection to the place (High 2011, 564). Walking with her in al-Kassâra revealed layers of her biography and interaction with the neighborhood that would not have been revealed in a sit-down oral history interview.

12When we started the tour, we were supposed to head to the main street where al-Khidr mosque is located, but she said, “come this way, we don’t want to pass by this street.” She did not want to meet a specific person who might be in a store on the corner. So she took a detour through a smaller street, creating the itinerary we followed in the tour, out of memories as well as of daily concerns. She immediately started pointing to buildings while she walked, informing me of whether they were built before or after the war. When we reached a street on the corner in front of Al Khidr Mosque (Figure 6, landmark n. 2 in map), she said: “All this is from after the war. Except for the building on the corner – the one beside the kiosk of fruits. That one is from before the war.”

Figure 6. Buildings from the Tour and Al Khidr Mosque.

Figure 6. Buildings from the Tour and Al Khidr Mosque.

Photo taken by the author, 21 November 2018

Figure 7. Buildings from the Tour.

Figure 7. Buildings from the Tour.

Photo taken by the author, Suez, 21 November 2018

13Then she continued: “Look! This house was built after the war. And the rest? That small one in between was built before the war. The rest after”(landmark n. 1 in map).

14We walked for almost an hour and a half, from street to street and alley to alley, and she never ceased noting which buildings were from before and which from after the war. She knew almost every building in her area. The daughter of a halâwanî (street vendor selling desserts), from a modest middle class family, Umm Bîjû had lived in the area since her birth there, and she was keen to show me the building where she lived during her childhood.

  • 19 The building doesn’t exist, it was torn down. Umm Bîjû didn’t give any information about why, how (...)

15I did not ask her to do so, but she guided me until we reached the void19 in Figure 8 (landmark n. 7 in map), and said, “This is the home where I was born. When we were attacked in the street during Ramadan, I took my kunâfa tools and came here. This home was huge, though. This house [beside it] is owned by a Sa‘idî, [an Egyptian originally from Upper Egypt], may he rest in peace. This is our home though, this is where we came to life. From here I was married and everything.”

Figure 8. Void where the first house of Umm Bîjû was located.

Figure 8. Void where the first house of Umm Bîjû was located.

Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 21, 2018

16Accompanying Umm Bîjû around her neighborhood corresponds perfectly to the go-along method presented by sociologist Margarethe Kusenbach. She suggests this method as an ethnographic tool for understanding “how individuals comprehend and engage their physical and social environments in everyday life” (Kusenbach 2003, 456). Umm Bîjû shared her perceptions, emotions, and interactions with the people and the streets of the neighborhood and parts of her personal biography (Ibid., 466). Kusenbach likens this practice to “going through the pages of a personal photo album” (Ibid., 472). Each stop we made, especially the one in front of the void of her first home, was one “page” of the personal photo album of Umm Bîjû. “Look what was happening while we were walking, ‘Umm Bîjû, Umm Bîjû.’ We didn’t pass by a street without everyone there knowing me.” Her interaction with our surroundings while walking showed the belonging and ownership she feels toward her neighborhood. This goes back to the war years when Suez homes were abandoned by their inhabitants and there were seemingly random attacks. Those who stayed in Suez would open vacant homes for shelter. During the tour still, she said: “When an apartment like this was attacked, I used to go to another. The most important thing was that the home be ground floor and near the trench I used to hide in. I used to run to go to the trench. I used to run, not walk slowly. I used to run. Oh my God. These streets I used to run very fast.”

17The past I learned of during this tour was a performed past as defined by Pepper Glass: “It is intimate and personal, filled with everyday events, close contacts, and small moments that are fleeting and even recreated” (Glass 2016, 97). During this tour, an invisible layer was added to the existing, visible geography: for instance, I imagined Umm Bîjû’s first home instead of the void she showed me in the middle of the tour. My imagination removed the buildings she mentioned were built after the war and replaced them with small buildings like those she told me were from before the war. Throughout the tour, the years of the war appear as a ghost haunting Suez manifesting in both the absence and presence of traces of the war in al-Kassâra. This was the third decision of Umm Bîjû: the stops she decided to highlight and explicate.

Decision Three—the Narrative: 1967 haunting Suez

“This house is from before the war; there are even still traces of bullets. Here’s where we used to work. This is al-Kassâra. We used to cook inside; it was large. We used to bake. Look, this house still has bullets. We used to work, and the soldiers came and sat on the ground here and ate.” (Umm Bîjû, during the walking tour, November 21, 2018)

  • 20 Walking tour with Umm Bîjû. Suez, November 21, 2018.

18She was referring here to the small house featured in Figure 9 (landmark n. 4 in map). Then she looked at the building appearing on the corner of Figure 10 (landmark n. 5 in map) and said, “Look, we used to run and hide in this hotel. This was a hotel with a metal door —the one with Carrier banner? —yes! We used to run to reach it and hide inside it. Come now so I can show you al-Sheikh Farag [a small mosque].”20 Umm Bîjû showed me where she used to work during the war years, and she was also keen to show me where they used to hide during attacks. The hotel where she used to hide is no longer standing. No traces remain, except in her memory. The narratives of Umm Bîjû opened up space for absences and imagination. For instance, the trench where Umm Bîjû used to hide, along with many other trenches, do not exist now in reality – only via her words and those of other interlocutors.

Figure 9. Building with bullets left from the war where Umm Bîjû used to work with her husband during the war.

Figure 9. Building with bullets left from the war where Umm Bîjû used to work with her husband during the war.

Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 21, 2018

Figure 10. Building on the corner that was a hotel where Umm Bîjû used to hide.

Figure 10. Building on the corner that was a hotel where Umm Bîjû used to hide.

Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 21, 2018

Figure 11. Court of al-Gharîb Mosque that used to be the entrance to a trench.

Figure 11. Court of al-Gharîb Mosque that used to be the entrance to a trench.

Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 21, 2018

  • 21 Captain Mûhammad Ghazâlî (1929-2017) was born in Upper Egypt’s Qena governorate and raised in Suez (...)
  • 22 This is one of the most well-known poems written by al-Captain (1967). It has been sung by many Eg (...)

19Umm Bîjû stopped by the court of al-Gharîb Mosque (shown in Figure 11, landmark n. 3 in map): “They closed this part. This was a trench. What? Instead of these plants, there was a trench. We used to run here. This was not here, nor was that. We used to run and hide here.” As I listened to her, the visible plants in the courtyard of al-Gharîb Mosque gave way, in my mind, to a trench that used to exist in the ground underneath the plants – a trench where people would hide from the war. This was where people experienced intense emotions, were hurt, and maybe even lost their lives. There is no signifier of this story except Umm Bîjû’s words to me. In his piece “Walking in the City” from The Practice of Everyday Life, De Certeau writes about the idea of seeing the invisible while walking in the city: “It is striking here that the places people live in are like the presences of diverse absences” (De Certeau 2013, 108). This absence linked to the memory of war and displacement in the city was also notable when Ahmed, the son of the well-known Suezi poet Captain Ghazâlî21, showed me khanda’ wilâd al-ard (The Trench of the Sons of Land). We were talking about the return migration to Suez after 1974 in his father’s tiny office in the middle of a Suez neighborhood, also called Suez. Ahmed guided me to a street by taking a right turn, then a left, then I saw the sign shown in Figure 12: khanda’ wilâd al-ard. Figure 13 shows a verse from the 1967 poem Fât al-Kitîr22 (Much Time Has Passed), one of the most famous poems written by al-Captain:

  • 23 Translation of the verses is copied from (Mossallam 2012, 245).

And the bones of our brothers we will gather وعضم اخواتنا نلمه نلمه
And the bones of our brothers we will grind نسنه نسنه
And of them we will build our cannons ونعمل منه مدافع
And with them, our country defend وندافع
Until a victory in their names we will garner23 ونجيب النصر هدية لمصر

Figure 12. To the Trench of Wilâd al-Ard sign.

Figure 12. To the Trench of Wilâd al-Ard sign.

Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 11, 2018

Figure 13. Trench of Wilâd al-Ard with verses of Captain Ghazâlî poem.

Figure 13. Trench of Wilâd al-Ard with verses of Captain Ghazâlî poem.

Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 11, 2018

  • 24 Trench is the literal translation of the word khanda’ used by my interlocutors. However how they a (...)

20The small metal door under the verses in Figure 13 supposedly leads to where the trench24 in which al-Captain and his companions would stay during the war years used to be. I heard stories about this trench from my interlocutors, who say they used to sing there, invite public figures there to raise awareness about the status of Suez, and spend entire days inside during attacks. Hasab, the governor of Suez during this period, mentions in his book that there were movie screenings in this trench during the war years (Hasab 2001). Ahmed, like Umm Bîjû, wanted to show me a tangible trace of the stories he told. The traces of the war years are not just imagined; a trench is preserved and marked by some of the people who spent time there. This marking took the form of a popularly made landmark of Suez: a handwritten sign and handwritten verse from one of the poems of al-Captain. The trench of Captain Ghazâlî shows that the ghost of 1967 is not just a metaphor. It exists materially in the city but is only made known and visible through the guidance of Suez inhabitants.

21During the 101-day seize on Suez, the civilians who remained struggled to obtain clean water, and there was shortage of food. As Umm Bîjû remembered,

  • 25 One of the main neighborhoods of Suez, which was in that time a new neighborhood on the periphery (...)

“They said the food is allowed through the [Red] Cross. The cars used to stop by Al Mothalath25, and the people who stayed came to get the things out of the [Israeli’s] cars in front of them to make sure they are not armed. They used to give each person one piece of bread, a piece of cheese, and one egg with a card. We used to take the items with a card and sign it. […] My husband, may he rest in peace, myself, my father, and a young man who used to work with us, we were all besieged here. I used to cook one big piece of meat for all of us. Each one would take one gallabiyah for the cold. And each one a small blanket. We stayed like this for three months: no water, not even cigarettes. People used to share one cigarette as if smoking a joint. We used to laugh at them. Even the soldiers couldn’t find much to eat. We stayed like this for three months and ten days. I used to have long hair. When the road was opened and I traveled [to see my children and mother], I looked like a man. My hair got completely ruined without water.” (Interview with Umm Bîjû. Suez, March 5, 2018)

  • 26 Walking tour with Umm Bîjû. Suez, November 21, 2018.

22Almost all the interlocutors I met in Suez told me something about a well that the people discovered during the siege and that helped them access water. Some of my interlocutors were skeptical that this well existed but still mentioned it. Umm Bîjû told me about it from the first interview. Throughout our meetings, I learned that, during the siege, someone said that there is a well at the Christian shoemaker’s shop and that they used to stand in a queue to drink there, and that they even discovered another one but that its water was not drinkable. Therefore, one of the main and longer stops of the tour was at the shoemaker’s shop, where Umm Bîjû wanted to show me the “famous” well (Figure 14): “the well from where we all used to drink during the siege.”26 It was located in a very small alley of the neighborhood (landmark n. 8 in map), another popular-made landmark. Once more, the war years do not just symbolically haunt the city and the memories of my interlocutors; they have tangible traces in the city, maintained by its inhabitants.

  • 27 Interview with Umm Bîjû. Suez, November 19, 2018.
  • 28 Conversation with the son of a shoemaker. Walking tour with Umm Bîjû, Suez, November 21, 2018.

23Umm Bîjû told me that during the war years, there were rumors that ghosts lived in the city because it was empty, and because many people had died there. During our stop at the shoemaker’s shop, Umm Bîjû told the shoemaker’s son a story that she had told me in the previous interview: one night during the war years when the city was almost vacant, she was traveling to see her children and she felt the presence of a “ghost,” who pulled her dress.27 The shoemaker did not believe her and said that she might have been hallucinating because the city was empty. He said, “The city was completely empty; everyone migrated. When you entered it, you felt like you were entering a cemetery.”28 In the context of war, the ghost is not just a metaphor; people believe in its physical presence. This is what the anthropologist Heonik Kwon investigates in his book Ghosts of War in Vietnam (Kwon 2008).

Figure 14. Well at shoemaker shop.

Figure 14. Well at shoemaker shop.

Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 21, 2018

  • 29 Near Third Army Base. Suez on March 24, 1976.
  • 30 Furthermore, the leaders of Gulf countries provided aid for the reconstruction that resulted in bu (...)

24In one of his speeches to the members of the Third Army, delivered near Suez in 1976, President Anwar Sadat described Suez during the war years as the “city of ghosts, until the return of life with the battle of ‘73.”29 He mentioned as well that almost 80% of the buildings of Suez were destroyed during the war. He expressed his happiness about the achievements the city had seen since 1974 and about the return of life to the city with reconstruction (ta‘amir) and the inauguration of new neighborhoods30. The city was not only transformed by the war but also by the reconstruction policies after the return of those who had left. Suez was liberated from Israeli siege in February 1974 as a result of the January 18, 1974 disengagement agreement signed by the two sides (al Shazly 2011, 457). Ta‘amir began immediately. It actually started even during the siege when Sadat assigned ‘Uthmân Ahmed ‘Uthmân as minister of ta‘amir on October 28, 1973, four days after the battle of October 24 in Suez (ʻUthman 1981, 456). Sadat created a ministry of reconstruction while almost 45 thousand soldiers of the Egyptian army and the city of Suez were under siege (al Shazly 2011, 457). This demonstrated clear political will to open the Suez Canal cities to civilians and get them functioning normally again as soon as possible. Sadat visited the Canal cities repeatedly starting in 1974 and declared on several occasions that the migrants were safe to return. He also stated that the three cities were considered part of the Egyptian authority and that any Israeli attack on them would be considered a declaration of war (Al Tawiala 1974). With the policy of quick reconstruction and the quick opening of the city, the pre-1967 geography of Suez drastically changed. Most of Suez’s buildings were damaged, so many of them had to be demolished rather than renovated and the city was extended. It was no longer a “city of ghosts” in terms of Sadat but the ghosts of 1967 defeat, war and displacement remain haunting the city. Walking with Umm Bîjû made them visible, in the material sense, for me in the geography of the city. It showed the absence of the visible traces left of the war and the sacrifices of Suez inhabitants during these years after the reconstruction but also the tangible presence of their memories.

Concluding notes on the walk

25All homes have scars, as Captain Ghazâlî said:

  • 31 These verses written by al-Captain Ghazâlî were read to me by his son while discussing the return (...)

“Sing for each alley in which the war left
A wound or a sign
And the signs of victory are coming.”31

  • 32 In addition to the episode “Stories of Popular Resistance in City of al-Gharîb” mentioned above, s (...)
  • 33 The above-mentioned Al Jazeera documentary titled “Suez: The Forgotten Memory” is one of the most (...)

26Throughout the tour, many people stopped us to salute Umm Bîjû. At our last stop on the tour, an owner of a restaurant insisted that we sit with him for a bit. His father had also not left Suez. He said: “[Umm Bîjû] is the origin of Suez: one woman worth a hundred men. For example, you are a girl. Amid twenty men, you would be afraid. They used to be afraid of her. She could curse any curse a man would say. That’s what my father told me about her.” Umm Bîjû is the only woman from the fourteen I met in Suez who appeared along with the male heroes of the resistance in documentaries32 about Suez33. The narrative of Umm Bîjû occupies an intermediate position between on one side those who have access – a limited access in the case of Suez though – to produce and reproduce the collective memory of the war years by appearing in the few documentaries on Suez or writing books sold and known almost only in Suez. On the other side, the vast majority of inhabitants, especially women, who keep the memory of these years to themselves and/or their closed circles.

27This article follows the decisions of Umm Bîjû on how she remembers and narrates her war years to argue for a centrality of space in the process of remembering and the omnipresence of the memory of the war and violence in Suez even by and through the absence of visible recognizable traces in the city. The three decisions of Umm Bîjû during the walk center space in memory research as witness, trace, and archive in a context where commemoration of past sacrifices is absent. They also advocate for a more collaborative knowledge-production process. Walking with Umm Bîjû transformed the streets of al-Kassâra for me, the researcher coming from Cairo. The tour and how Umm Bîjû designed it added an additional narrative to the many existing narratives of Suez: A narrative of haunting, showing that the war years and pre-1967 Suez still exist in tangible objects and in voids but only when accompanied by the words and memories of people who witnessed them. They are in every alley, as Captain Ghazâlî wrote. Navarro-Yashin (2012) shows that in places where violent events have occurred, the violence continues to exist as a ghost, in the metaphorical and physical sense. Suez is no exception. The war years in Suez exists in the signs by the Wilâd al-Ard trench and the well and in the buildings that witnessed the war. They are present in the memories of the people who witnessed these events and preserved their memories, in material and non-material forms, to tell another story of the city. It is only by narrating the memories that the ghosts appear, comes from haunting to living memories.

28The absence is challenged by remembering.

Acknowledgements
This article would have never been written without the decision of Umm Bîjû to take me in a tour in Al Kassara. First and foremost, this article is dedicated to her soul and to her grand-daughter Nada Mohamed, and to my dearest Suezis friends Zeinab and Fatma Salah for being the reason to meet her. I am genuinely grateful to the long and generous conversations with Alaa Attia and Iskander Abdalla to develop the ideas of this article, to the comments of Samuli Schielke, and to the Cambridge writing group, especially Hana Sleiman, that created the routine to work on this article. I would like to thank Omnia Khalil for generously and quickly producing the map of Suez and to Tarek Bder for helping in annotating it. My acknowledgements extend to Anwar Fath Al Bab and Ahmed Ghazali in Suez for always responding quickly and passionately to my online follow-up questions.

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Notes

1 This article is dedicated to the memory of Umm Bîjû, who left our world in November 2020. Umm Bîjû (Mother of Bîjû), is the nickname by which she was known and by which she used to call herself. Umm Bîjû was born in Suez in 1944. She got married before 1967 and became a widow in 1995. When I met her, she was living alone, receiving a small pension from the government. Her two children were married and moved out. Her husband used to work in a restaurant before the war. After the war, the couple decided to close the restaurant they rented during the war years. He went to work on cargo ships and used to travel. She chose to stay at home. Umm Bîjû died in November 2020 in Suez.

2 I met Umm Bîjû once in March 2018, then three times in November 2018. The first three times were at her home conducted as oral history interviews. What matters in oral history interviewing is how the interlocutor narrates the story, from which point she starts, and how the memory is reconstructed. I used to give her the space to narrate her memories about the period in the order she chose and ask her follow-up questions. Each interview was at least one hour and half. The last meeting was the walking tour.

3 My interviews with Umm Bîjû were part of my two fieldwork trips, one in 2017 and another in 2018, for my Ph.D. research on the memory of forced migration in Suez following the 1967 Six-Day War. During these trips, I conducted oral history interviews with thirty-seven interlocutors (fourteen women and twenty-three men). Most of them were former or current governmental employees, though a few were business owners. A small number of the women were housewives whose husbands were farmers or did not have fixed jobs.

4 Village in the Egyptian Nile Delta’s rural Sharqiya governorate, one of the most populous governorates of Egypt. Its capital is Zagazig.

5 Interview with Umm Bîjû. Suez, March 5, 2018.

6 There were several attacks of Israeli army on Suez, especially in the last days of October 1967. Reacting to the Egyptian army’s attack on Eilat harbor, the Israeli army attacked the petroleum factory in Suez. My interlocutors of varying ages remember this attack and the resulting fire that blazed for days. This attack pushed many Suezis who were hesitant to leave the city to do so.

7 They went to Minya Al-Amah because her father, who used to have a moving cart selling desserts, had a friend who helped him find an accommodation there. It wasn’t their choice or because they have relatives there but this was the available refuge at this moment of danger and attacks over the city.

8 Her husband used to work in a restaurant before the war but the owner had to shut down and leave the city. Her father was also a dessert maker so she had experience from assisting him.

9 The battle happened around al-Arba‘în police station. Members of the popular resistance sieged the Israeli soldiers inside the police station and attacked Israeli tanks trying to enter the city. For more information, watch Al Jazeera documentary titled “Suez: The Forgotten Memory” aired in 2005, https://bit.ly/3rIFdCG. October 24 is the yearly national Suez Victory Day holiday because of this battle.

10 There are varying stories about the origin of this name. The most famous one is that al-Gharîb was the military commander Abu Yûsif Ya‘qûb who defended Tal al-Qulzum (the former name of Suez) against the attacks of Qarmatian armies during the Fatimid era and that he died during battle and his body was lost. Inhabitants of Tal al-Qulzum back then had called him Abdallah al-Gharîb and built a tomb for him. Khedive Abbas, who ruled Egypt from 1892 to 1914, ordered the building of a mosque by his shrine, which was renovated under Nasser then after the 1973 war.

11 For more information about al-Gharîb neighborhood and al-Gharîb legacy, see (El Khachab 2010) and (Ahmed 2009)

12 The map is drawn based on the pictures I took during the walk with Umm Bîjû. I used the feature in Google Photos to locate the photos on the map and linked the dots manually to re-create the itinerary. The map is a visual representation of the itinerary Umm Bîjû created during the tour. I did not have the chance to show Umm Bîjû the map because we did not meet since this walk and she died in November 2020. Both Omnia Khalil and Tarek Bder helped me technically to produce the map for publishing.

13 Al-Wa‘î (Conscience) is a Suezi local newspaper started in 1965 by editor-in-chief Hussein al-‘Ashî. It was at first focused on sports. With the 1967 war, it gained support from the Socialist Union and became a larger newspaper with many sections on politics, societal issues, sports, etc. During the displacement years, it was distributed in the places where Suezis migrated. I could not find any issues in the Egyptian National Library and Archives. I contacted the family of al-‘Ashî to access his personal archives and managed to do so in August 2020.

14 Umm Bîjû is one of the few Suezi women, if not the only one, who has appeared in medias to discuss the war years and the resistance.

15 Watch the episode here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eMzf3kiZAA.

16 This was the first time the curtain of Umm Bîjû is featured publicly.

17 Umm Bîjû mentioned that she had to let go of her curtains when she moved out of her old house and she left just the one she showed me and the anchor as a souvenir. As I mentioned before, I didn’t know anything about the curtain before I met her. The curtain was one material evidence/souvenir she kept for herself from the period she knew I am interested in and she chose to show it to me as the rest of her personal archival collection of the period.

18 Ihkî yâ Târîkh (Speak, History) was a series of history workshops organized by the historian Alia Mossallam. It took place in Aswan in 2015, Port Said in 2016, and Alexandria in 2016. It aimed to “explore the popular politics of communities largely marginalized in the writing of Egyptian histories” (Mossallam 2017) For more information about these workshops, check (Mossallam 2017), (Mossallam and El Sherif 2017), and (Abdelrahman Soliman and Yehia 2018).

19 The building doesn’t exist, it was torn down. Umm Bîjû didn’t give any information about why, how and when this happened.

20 Walking tour with Umm Bîjû. Suez, November 21, 2018.

21 Captain Mûhammad Ghazâlî (1929-2017) was born in Upper Egypt’s Qena governorate and raised in Suez. His father worked as a carpenter in the Suez Canal Company, and he as a sports instructor. He participated in the resistance in Palestine in the 1948 war and in Suez in 1956. He was one of the leaders of the popular resistance in Suez after the 1967 defeat (al-Naksa). After al-Naksa, he became interested in songs, founding the band of simsimiya, al-Bataniya (The Blanket) that joined forces with the band AlNidâl (The Struggle) to form Wilâd al-Ard (Children of the Land). They used to go to camps, cities, and villages where the Suez Canal migrants went. One of the band’s aims was spreading awareness about what had happened and was happening in these cities during the war years. He has a long political life history including participation in the local Suez assembly after the 1973 war. He spent his last days in a tiny shop (called his office) surrounded by his books in the middle of Suez. This is where I met his son so he could show me Ghazâlî’s books, hand-written poems, and notes from the war years. See (Mossallam 2012) and (Fath al-Bab 2017).

22 This is one of the most well-known poems written by al-Captain (1967). It has been sung by many Egyptian singers, including Fâdiya Kâmil, and to varying tunes. It was also sung by the famous Egyptian Nubian singer Mohamed Mounir in 2015, produced by the Moral Affairs Department of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Watch the episode titled “Stories of Popular Resistance in City of Al Gharîb”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eMzf3kiZAA.

23 Translation of the verses is copied from (Mossallam 2012, 245).

24 Trench is the literal translation of the word khanda’ used by my interlocutors. However how they are describing it, it seems more as a shelter (malga’) than a trench. I preferred to use the literal translation to keep the same word they used.

25 One of the main neighborhoods of Suez, which was in that time a new neighborhood on the periphery of the city.

26 Walking tour with Umm Bîjû. Suez, November 21, 2018.

27 Interview with Umm Bîjû. Suez, November 19, 2018.

28 Conversation with the son of a shoemaker. Walking tour with Umm Bîjû, Suez, November 21, 2018.

29 Near Third Army Base. Suez on March 24, 1976.

30 Furthermore, the leaders of Gulf countries provided aid for the reconstruction that resulted in building new neighborhoods on the periphery of the old Suez, al-Sabâh, and Faisal.

31 These verses written by al-Captain Ghazâlî were read to me by his son while discussing the return migration to the city after the forced migration. Suez, November 12, 2018.

32 In addition to the episode “Stories of Popular Resistance in City of al-Gharîb” mentioned above, she also spoke about the resistance in Suez on a radio program on NogoumFM in March 2020. Listen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfOj3zT4WF0.

33 The above-mentioned Al Jazeera documentary titled “Suez: The Forgotten Memory” is one of the most popular documentaries about Suez. It is about the Suezi popular resistance, especially during the 101-day siege that began October 24, 1973. All participants are men from the Arab Sinai Organization. Please check: https://bit.ly/3rIFdCG.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Al-Kassâra Square (landmark n. 6 in map).
Crédits Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 21, 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-1.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 458k
Titre Figure 2. Map of al Kassâra showing the route of the tour with Umm Bîjû and its landmarks.
Crédits Map drawn by Omnia Khalil and legend by Tarek Bder and the author12
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 916k
Titre Figure 3. Photos of an issue of Al-Wa‘î from November 15, 1970, titled “Ramadan in Suez”, where Umm Bîjû appears making kunâfa during Ramadan. Photos taken at Umm Bîjû’s house.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, Suez, March 5, 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,6M
Titre Figure 4. Umm Bîjû’s curtain made from an Israeli Parachute. Umm Bîjû’s house.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, Suez, March 5, 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-4.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 428k
Titre Figure 5. Projectile from an Israeli tank. Umm Bîjû’s house.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, Suez, March 5, 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-5.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 447k
Titre Figure 6. Buildings from the Tour and Al Khidr Mosque.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, 21 November 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-6.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 433k
Titre Figure 7. Buildings from the Tour.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, Suez, 21 November 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-7.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 532k
Titre Figure 8. Void where the first house of Umm Bîjû was located.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 21, 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-8.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 571k
Titre Figure 9. Building with bullets left from the war where Umm Bîjû used to work with her husband during the war.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 21, 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-9.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 567k
Titre Figure 10. Building on the corner that was a hotel where Umm Bîjû used to hide.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 21, 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-10.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 526k
Titre Figure 11. Court of al-Gharîb Mosque that used to be the entrance to a trench.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 21, 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-11.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 605k
Titre Figure 12. To the Trench of Wilâd al-Ard sign.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 11, 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-12.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 635k
Titre Figure 13. Trench of Wilâd al-Ard with verses of Captain Ghazâlî poem.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 11, 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-13.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 633k
Titre Figure 14. Well at shoemaker shop.
Crédits Photo taken by the author, Suez, November 21, 2018
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ema/docannexe/image/14754/img-14.JPG
Fichier image/jpeg, 556k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Nayera Abdelrahman Soliman, « The Three Decisions of Umm Bîjû: Walking in Suez and Seeing the Ghosts of 1967 War »Égypte/Monde arabe, 23 | 2021, 81-103.

Référence électronique

Nayera Abdelrahman Soliman, « The Three Decisions of Umm Bîjû: Walking in Suez and Seeing the Ghosts of 1967 War »Égypte/Monde arabe [En ligne], 23 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 17 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ema/14754 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/ema.14754

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Auteur

Nayera Abdelrahman Soliman

Nayera is currently a PhD fellow at Freie Universität Berlin and Berlin Graduate School for Muslim Cultures and Societies. Her research project is questioning the concept of home through studying the 1967 forced migration from the city of Suez in Egypt. Graduated from the Political Science Department, Cairo University in 2012, she had her Master’s degree in Political Sociology from Sorbonne University in 2013.

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