Dunes, waterfalls and water – Easter Sunday at Wadi El-Rayan, Egypt

This past weekend was Easter weekend. Somewhere between six and 20 percent of Egypt’s population is Christian (estimates seem to vary), but it is not only their presence here that makes this a national holiday and long weekend. The Coptic Christian custom of painting eggs on Easter Monday draws on the traditions of the Sham El Nessim (literally ‘smelling of the breeze’) festival, which dates back to around around 2700 BC during Pharonic times. Egyptians celebrate at this time regardless of their faith, marking the start of spring if not the resurrection of Jesus.

Myself and a couple of photographer friends of mine, Ramy Salem and Hend Ismail, decided that this would be the perfect opportunity for an excursion outside of Cairo. We decided on the protected area of Wadi El-Rayan in Fayoum Governorate for its peace and natural beauty, ideal after weeks in the heart of the largest city in both Africa and the Middle East. Aside from the fact that I’m a lover of all water features, I was especially intrigued to see the biggest waterfalls in Egypt, given that they are only a few metres high.

The images in my photo essay tell the story of our day. As you’ll see, it provided a wonderful opportunity to play with the magnificent North African light. Please click on the image below to go there now.

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan arab man smoking keffiyeh sky Dunes, waterfalls and water   Easter Sunday at Wadi El Rayan, Egypt

Wadi El-Rayan, Egypt

Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El-Rayan

This photo essay documents a short journey taken by three photographers, myself, Ramy Salem and Hend Ismail, to Wadi El-Rayan in the Egyptian governorate of Fayoum. It makes for an easy day trip from Cairo.

 

egypt fayoum desert electricity pylons Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

Much of the roughly 150 km from Cairo to Wadi El-Rayan involved driving along the Cairo-El Fayoum Desert Road. This view was a fairly typical one for most of this, and the wide expanses of open space were very welome after three weeks in sprawling Cairo. The omnipresence of sand reminded me of my sand mining story from India (see my March 2011 journal posts). Such irony.

 

egypt fayoum sky birds seagulls flying lake qarun boat Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

As we bypassed the city of Fayoum, we drove alongside Lake Qarun. Here, we stopped to take a few photos, such as of these seagulls who were trying hard to intercept some fishermen’s catches.

 

egypt sky birds seagulls flying Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

Here’s a close-up of the same birds as they circled round to try again.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan lower lake robin wyatt rowing boat Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

After reaching Wadi El-Rayan and entering the protected area, we headed first to Lower Lake where we found a boatman to take us out on the peaceful waters. Soon, I myself was having a go at the oars! Ramy grabbed my camera to capture the moment.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan lower lake hend ismail rowing boat Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

Then it was Hend’s turn. However, she decided we’d be safer if she took just one of the oars and left the other in the capable hands of our boatman.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan dog desert sand Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

After a relaxing stint on the water, we headed to a tea shop for a refreshing drink, while also taking shade from the hot sun. Soon, our drink turned to lunch as a man guarding his family’s picnic nearby insisted on showing us typical Middle Eastern hospitality and feeding us. Vegetarian? No problem. My plate was piled high with salad items. As we tucked in, this beautiful dog came in hope of getting some scraps. He was not to be disappointed.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan window shutters Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

As many people know, I am a big fan of shutters, especially when they are colourful. So naturally those of the tea shop caught my eye.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan waterfall friends photograph Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

From lunch, we hiked across to the waterfall that carries water from Upper Lake (yes, appropriately named) to (you’ve guessed it) Lower Lake. As it was a national holiday, this was proving a popular spot. Here, a group of friends was taking turns to photograph one another against the backdrop of cascading water.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan woman headscarf cliff Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

This brave young woman was calling out to her friends who were preparing to take a dip in the plunge pool below.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan upturned boats Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

With so many people enjoying themselves at those particular falls, we decided not to set up my tripod just yet. Instead, we headed back to the lake. As we waited for our boatman to spot us and pick us up, we found these upturned boats and spent a short while photographing them. There was ample scope for us to play with the light while the sun was making its descent.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan lower lake upturned boat sunset Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

From another angle, I was also able to capture the reflection of the setting sun, which cast brilliant rays across the water.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan lower lake rowing boats sunset Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

As our boat carried us back to the other side, I caught these two people’s silhouettes on the lakeshore.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan arab man smoking keffiyeh Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

Back on dry land, I saw this man sporting a keffiyeh, the traditional Arab men’s headscarf. I asked him if I could take his photo, and he was thrilled to be my model!

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan arab man smoking keffiyeh sky Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

Here he is again, soaked in the (very glorious) last light of the day.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan arab man smoking keffiyeh lake boats Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

And again, this time with the rowing boats of Lower Lake forming the backdrop.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan lower lake rowing boats Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

Rowing boats, Lower Lake.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan lower lake rowing boats family Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

As a couple approaches with their child, a Lower Lake boatman prepares for his final passage of the day.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan waterfall Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

Finally reaching the other waterfall between the two lakes, we found it free of day trippers. So we set up the tripod and spend some time shooting it at different shutter speeds, capturing a variety of moods. Ramy managed one quite magical shot that I’ll admit to being slightly envious of. (You can follow the link to his blog post above to see it for yourself.)

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan arab man desert sand dune Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

As we were leaving, I spotted this man looking down on the lake, dressed in his modest and comfortable traditional attire.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan sunset trees silhouette Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

As Ramy and Hend headed back to the car, I lingered for a moment to capture this beautiful shot of a small line of trees, silhouetted against a dark yet colourful sky. Then I had to run, as we had just minutes to reach the nearby sand dunes from where we hoped to see the sunset all over again over a different vista.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan desert sand dune ramy salem photography tripod Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

We parked the car on the side of the desert track and dashed across the sand before launching ourselves into an utterly comical scaling of the nearest dune. It felt like the Travelator on Gladiators, as every three paces forwards saw us pushed backwards by two paces as the sand sank and slid beneath our feet. Once on top, the tripod was out again. Here’s Ramy, composed once more and ready for action.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan desert sand dune hend ismail camera 1 Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

As Ramy and I enjoyed the re-run of the sunset, we seemed to be missing someone. Peering over the edge of the dune behind us, we found Hend below, less than convinced that this would be worth all the effort!

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan desert sand dune hend ismail Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

Happily, she summoned up the willpower to heave herself to the top, and was more than glad she did so.

 

egypt fayoum wadi el rayan desert sand dune hend ismail camera 2 Dunes, waterfalls and water – Wadi El Rayan

Here she is again, lit by the last possible light. Within minutes, the sun had given its last to this highly enjoyable day, and it was time for us to head back to Cairo in the dark.

 

Cairo’s graffiti painting revolutionaries

 

If it were not for the combined forces of Egypt’s youth and social media, how far would this country’s revolution have got? Much has been made of the ‘Facebook and Twitter revolution’ (just a quick hashtag search for ‘Tahrir’ will see your Twitter client explode with chatter, even now). Events in Tahrir Square and beyond were regularly populated by thousands of young converts to activism who had known nothing but Hosni Mubarak‘s rule; social media enabled them to communicate and rapidly organise and respond. I remember my own days as a spirited young idealist (not that I’m yet old!), eager for political reform. I can only imagine how the potential of social media to organise the masses would have blown my mind, ten to fifteen years ago. And I was living in a so-called progressive liberal democracy!

Last weekend, I had the privilege of meeting with ten young people from Nasr City in Cairo who are part of an almost 1,000-strong band of youngsters, who have contributed to the revolution through a group organised on Facebook. They are graffiti artists, and call themselves ‘Freedom Painters‘. My idea of graffiti artists from growing up in the UK in the 1980s and ’90s was of rough-cut hooligans, living on the margins of society, who deface public and private property as a means of rebellion or simply as a way of sticking their middle finger up at ‘the system’. Well, I suppose that’s what these young Cairenes have been doing too, in a way… but it’s more productive, and they are certainly not scruffy renegades. They are educated, talented students with a burning desire to see human rights, democracy and progress in the country they love. Like me, they are visual peacemakers.

The following is an audio slideshow from my time spent with them by the roadside in Nasr City, Cairo, where they showed me some of their handiwork and shared insights into their motivation, experiences, hopes and vision for the future.

With sincere thanks to Umar El Hassan, Noha Ahmed, Dina Nagy, Salma Sherif, Noran Morsi, Isra El Ghazali, Ahmed Sherif, Mohamed Atef, Abd El Rahman Ahmed and Riham El Hawary from Freedom Painters, and to Hend Ismail for assisting me with photography and Arabic translation.

Egypt’s ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

Most of the images here and many more are available for sale and to share in the gallery Egypt’s Ongoing Revolution in the Image Archive.

Over two months have passed since the resignation of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak after almost three decades of rule, and the world’s attention has largely shifted to other shores, particularly Libya’s. It wasn’t long before the 24-hour rolling news coverage from Egypt came to a close. On 19th March, while still in the UK, I found it difficult to find news on the country’s referendum that day on reforms to its constitution. It was as if all that mattered was that the tyrant had stepped down. Now, everything would be fine. It is clear, however, that Egypt’s revolution is far from over. It continues to unfold day by day, even hour by hour.

On Friday 8th April, three days after landing in Cairo, I visited the cradle of the Egyptian revolution: Tahrir Square. A ‘Day of Justice and Cleansing’ had been called, and by the time Friday prayers were about to start (shortly after noon), the square was packed to the point of standing room only.

UPDATE: Following changes made to this site in July 2013, the plugin used to embed images in this position could no longer be used. However, you can click here to view the corresponding page on Robin Wyatt Vision’s legacy site.

After Mubarak stepped down, he took up residence at his weekend home in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. Though this was described as ‘house arrest’, Egyptians have grown increasingly frustrated that their new rulers had been allowing him to sit their comfortably. They wanted him, his family and other leading figures in his regime to face trial without further delay. But they also wanted justice in a far wider sense. Over 800 protesters lost their lives and many thousands were injured in a bloody crackdown by the regime against the revolution on 25th January 2011. Scores more were arrested at various times and denied basic human rights. Moreover, in recent weeks it has been alleged that Mubarak and other regime high rankers had routinely embezzled public funds while in office, sickening for the citizens of a country where around a quarter of the workforce are currently unemployed, and many more are earning at less than breadline levels.

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution protesters aerial view day of justice and cleansing Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

An aerial view of thousands of Egyptians in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday 8th April 2011, the ‘Day of Justice and Cleansing’.

Though the Square clearly experienced a carnival atmosphere this day, and everywhere one looked there were Egyptian flags, this was not about celebrating new-found freedoms. The people’s demands were good-natured, but serious. This journal entry serves to document just a few of the banners and placards that people had made. They called for the country’s new leaders to start Mubarak’s trial, or else they said they would go to Sharm el-Sheikh to get him themselves; they demanded the replacement of corrupt governors; they urged a faster pace for reforms; they called for justice for those martyred in the revolution and arbitrarily detained and abused; and they proclaimed solidarity with other Arab world peoples for the struggles they are similarly enduring.

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution youth protest sign amr behairy arrested human rights Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

A passer by pauses to take in the story of arrested activist Amr Behairy.

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution protesters protest sign hurry up Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

“Tata (an Arabic word used while teaching crawlers how to walk) across the threshold. Tata slowly, slowly. Be quick, the Square is quicker!”

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution youth protest sign democracy mubarak Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

A man bends backwards to absorb a placard that reads, “Democracy has tusks, and Mubarak has lovers. If Mubarak is not put on trial, we will go to Sharm el-Sheikh. And fog will not blind us”.

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution man protest sign lost eye Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

1956 Suez War veteran declares, “My eye was taken by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and I am willing to give the second one for you, Egypt. Enough corruption, put them on trial, what are you waiting for?”

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution youth protest sign martyrs old regime trial Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

One family’s demands: “The martyrs’ blood is calling, put those who killed them on trial”; “A very fast public trial for the ex-president”; “Those who corrupted Egypt and killed and stole from Egyptians should have no peace”; “Cleanness is the request of everyone”.

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution youth woman burka protest sign gaza aqsa Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

A burka-clad woman stands by as her daughter holds up a sign reading, “From 25th January Youth to beloved Gaza and Aqsa: we are coming!”

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution youth protest sign mubarak1 Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

Sporting an Egyptian national football team hat in a carnival manner, this man shows a banner that appeals to the ‘Youth of Tahrir’, “Do not let Mubarak get away!”

tahrir square cairo revolution youth protest sign cleaning egypt Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

“Care about cleaning Egypt” implores this little girl, whose cartoon shows the names of Mubarak, his family and other regime men being thrown into a rubbish bin.

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution man protest sign military council civilian rule Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

“Egyptians thank the Military Council for protecting the revolution, and ask for civilian rule”, declares the article that this man is holding aloft.

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution man protest sign mubarak chicken Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

A caricature of Hosni Mubarak likens him to a chicken.

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution youth protest sign mubarak trial Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

“Egyptians want to put the assassin on trial”, reads this woman’s sign.

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution woman protest sign old regime Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

A woman bearing the sign, “All of you, congratulations for the death penalty” peers out from behind it..

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution youth protest sign old regime resign Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

“Who are you?!” asks this man’s placard, incredulously, surrounded by the crossed-out names of Mubarak, his family and other high-ranking regime officials.

tahrir square cairo egypt youth protest sign complete revolution Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

A young man shows his resolve: he and his fellow youth will remain in Tahrir Square until the revolution is complete.

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution youth protest sign governor resign corruption Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

“The governors of the corrupted regime must go”, says this man, singling out Cairo’s governor Abdel Azim Wazir above all others.

tahrir square cairo egypt revolution protesters protest sign martyrs blood mubarak Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

“Diary of a lover of the homeland’s soil”. Above the picture of a dead martyr, the text reads, “those who have blood”, while above the picture of Mubarak it says, “better than those who don’t have any”. The intention is to be metaphorical, showing that the martyrs laid down their lives for others, whereas Mubarak is mean and did nothing for anyone.

The protest continued long after I left Tahrir Square that day, way into the night. Nowadays, a curfew remains in force at night, but only between 2 and 5 am. Emboldened by the high profile decision of a group of army officers to defy orders and join them in their demonstration, many protesters decided that they would stay in place even through these hours. What happened next was captured in this Al-Jazeera report:

Although the numbers of troops outnumbered those of the protesters, they seemed unwilling to go as far as they did during the revolution’s earlier stages. The scenes in the Square once daylight returned spoke of carnage, but the reality was more one of damage to property and only one life was confirmed as lost. Initially, the Square was cordoned off by barbed wire while the authorities tried to work out what to do next, since their attempted forced eviction had failed. Protesters dug their heals in and made themselves small encampments, insisting on their claim to this symbolic territory. In the meantime, life returned somewhat to normal, as street food sellers sold their offerings of sustenance to curious passers by against a new backdrop.

UPDATE: Following changes made to this site in July 2013, the plugin used to embed images in this position could no longer be used. However, you can click here to view the corresponding page on Robin Wyatt Vision’s legacy site.

Ultimately, an apology was issued for the intervention, alongside a promise of an investigation. “What happened is strange, because Tahrir is the place where the people and the army became one”, said Egypt’s new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. In the same speech, he announced that many of the things that protesters had been demanding that Friday would be acted upon. Legal steps would commence to probe the veracity of charges of corruption and excesses by Mubarak and other top officials. Authorities detained Safwat El-Sherif, the former Secretary General of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), and Mubarak himself, along with his sons, were also detained for 15 days. The army additionally announced that a number of governors would be replaced, another of the protesters’ key demands. Then, two days ago (16th April), Egypt’s courts instructed that the NDP should be dissolved.

This past Friday (15th April) was quiet in the Square. And it was not because 1,800 buses had been laid on to go to Sharm el-Sheikh to drag Mr Mubarak to trial, as various tweets on Twitter had been suggesting might happen. This was no longer necessary. What happens in Tahrir Square continues to drive this ongoing revolution. How long it will stay quiet there remains to be seen. There is still a long way to go in the process of democratisation and establishment of civilian rule in Egypt. For now, both the army and young Egyptians have been working on returning Tahrir Square to its former glory. This is a place for which Egyptians now have great affection. As I lie in bed each night, even at 1 am, I can still hear beep-beep-be-be-beep from so many of the cars that pass through the Square in celebration of what happened (and continues to happen) there.

tahrir square cairo egypt grass protesters youth beautification 640x259 Egypts ongoing revolution: images and insights from Tahrir Square

Young Egyptians come together to speedily re-grass and beautify Tahrir Square, after weeks of protests made it resemble a dust bowl.

Sincere thanks to Hend Ismail for the Arabic to English translations in this article.