Postcard from Qena

qenatrumpetThe Independent‘s sister paper, the i, has a daily “Postcard From…” strand. A month ago I wrote a short “Postcard from Qena” (a city in southern Egypt) for them, with a mini-profile of the dynamic but controversial local governor. I heard nothing back – and what with all the, er, changes in Egypt I thought it had just been spiked.

Yesterday one of the foreign editors tweeted me to say they wanted to run the piece. I quickly tweeted some people and made a couple of phone calls, and discovered that not only was the governor no longer in post, his replacement had also just resigned. I rewrote the crucial para and refiled the piece. It ran in today’s paper – but the rewrites pushed up the word-count, which means the subs cut it to fit. Which lines did they cut? The ones referring to the recent changes.

So now it reads somewhat oddly – as if time stopped in 2011 (for some Egyptians that’s almost true, but not quite in the sense the Indy’s subs have left things…).

Click here for the piece as published. And below is my original, for your delectation. All this, for a 30-second read!


Qena lurks on the edge of things. This southern Egyptian city stands close enough to the tourist hotels of Luxor – sixty-odd kilometres – that nobody stays, but far enough away that nobody visits either.

Tour buses sweeping in from the Red Sea coast head straight for King Tut’s tomb, bypassing Qena. Itineraries to the temple of the love-goddess Hathoor, at Dendara nearby, include direct transport from Luxor by bus or boat – though these days there’s precious little demand.

What’s so awful about Qena that passers-by always detour? I walked on neat, shaded streets, causing cheerful pavement jams chatting to doorway loafers.

Ex-governor Adel Labib is credited with giving Qena some spit and polish after the devastating Islamist insurgency of the 1990s, building civic participation in schemes from fixing rubbish collections to launching a women’s football team.

Labib, with a background in state security, was rewarded by former president Hosni Mubarak with a transfer to Alexandria. He was governor there in 2010 when activist Khaled Said was beaten to death by police – one of the sparks for the Egyptian revolution. Days after Mubarak resigned the presidency in February 2011, Labib resigned his governorship.

He wasn’t gone long. Six months later, Egypt’s ruling military council sent him back to Qena – only for him to be kicked out by ex-president Morsi last month, a fortnight before Morsi himself was ejected from office. The new governor, Salah Abdel-Meguid, lasted 22 days; he resigned on Monday morning.

Regardless, Qena’s big families keep the streets calm. On a warm night in the main square, a group of teenagers around a booming sound system is drawing a crowd with backflips and 80-style bodypopping. Tambourines and trumpets fanfaring a street wedding add to the cacophony of car horns.

Insulated against tourist no-shows and ruled by familiar faces, it’s like the revolution never happened.