EL HUJAYRAT, Egypt — The sheik walked through his courtyard to a room where sins are purged.
When a man picks up a gun and fires it, Sheik Mohamed Abul Ismail is summoned to dispense justice, often before the grave is dug. Suspicious, with a temper as unpredictable as a water bug, he is a keeper of peace in a land prone to vendettas and a farming village accustomed to funeral processions trundling through the dust along wheat fields.
He greeted an outsider the other day; men at the barbershop next door popped their heads out when they heard the word “journalist,” a profession the sheik likens to droughts and crop-eating insects. There was, however, the matter of village hospitality.
“You want tea?”
A boy appeared with a tray, spoons and sugar.
Ismail’s father, grandfather and ancestors have been mediating tribal conflicts for generations. The task has been inherited by him and his brother, Ahmed, the unofficial mayor. There are no elections here; a scion of the Ismail family has always been mayor. The brothers know the whims of the clans and when to call the Bedouin soothsayer who waves a hot dagger over a suspect’s tongue to determine guilt or innocence.
Tribal justice rules deserts and southern villages along the Nile where men with guns from Libya and Sudan stalk roadsides, loading rounds and waiting for night. The police, especially since last year’s revolution, are scarce, letting tribal elders and mystics mete out blood money and other intricacies that can buy back a man’s life or doom his family to fresh mourning.
“Police chiefs here don’t interfere, and their laws and regulations don’t mean anything when settling a dispute and they know this,” Ismail said. “If one of the two conflicting families has killed one or two more than the other family, then we resort to something called ‘the fine.’”
The fine, blood money, has yet to be set in a deadly feud between two clans, the Galals and the Rashaydas. It is a complicated case, but the deaths of five Rashayda men left no mystery: Saied Galal and a band of well-armed relatives shot the five after Galal accused them of killing his son.
The Galals may owe a fortune in blood money; one life can be settled for $15,000 to $17,000. Saied Galal has turned himself in. The other assassins are in hiding. Doubt about the perpetrators was cast aside when the son’s funeral cortege stopped in front of the Rashayda home, a sign, according to local superstition, that the dead man was identifying those who put him in his grave.
“Of course, I don’t believe that,” said Awadallah Mahdy, a threadbare patriarch in a white turban who over the years has watched violence permeate this village as prosperity trickled away. “That’s just what a powerful family claimed to justify its revenge on a weaker one.”
He settled into the afternoon shade. “It doesn’t take much to kill a man anymore.”
Egypt is a land of beguiling rhythms, many defiantly beating far from Cairo, the capital, where a new government is emerging. The struggle for political power is a distant, almost meaningless, sideshow for lives in provinces marked by poverty and illiteracy and imprinted with centuries-old traditions of honor that have shaped a parallel system of law and order.
A man can kill a man here for accidentally planting a tree on a neighbor’s property or arguing over irrigation channels. Families don’t have much and pride is often a man’s only currency when his wife, mother and sisters chide him into plotting revenge for injustices against the family. It’s been this way for generations, but the meanness has sharpened as the land, farmed since the days of the pharaohs, fails to provide more than what inflation strips away.
The Cairo Center for Criminal and Social Studies reported 15,000 vendetta killings in Egypt from 2000 to 2009. El Hujayrat and its surrounding smaller villages, with a population of about 10,000, had 200 homicides or attempted homicides in 2009, according to authorities. Some families, including the Galals, who lost another son in an honor killing years earlier, have walked behind too many coffins.
“We call what’s happening here ‘the sleep,’” Mahdy said. “Nothing’s moving forward, no one can find a job. Families have had enough. People are happy sometimes when someone gets murdered. They say, ‘At least he’s done suffering.’”
Mahdy looked left, then right. He had no particular place to go. The sugar cane harvest rolled past and the wheat rippled like a green sea in the wind. The fields were bigger when he was a boy. Families grew over the years and acres were divided and divided again, and now many farm only a scratch of earth in a strange mosaic that stretches past mud-brick homes.
Some villagers have left to become teachers and lawyers, but most young men who search for jobs in Alexandria and Cairo eventually return.
“No one has ever left and come back rich,” said Mahdy, calculating the odds of such consistent failure. “I raised six sons, five are educated. I saved for their schooling so they could go on to better lives. I paid for their marriages. They went into the army, but now they’re all back here with nothing. It gets very easy for things to ignite, for a man to pick up a gun.”
The village was expectant, as if waiting for a stranger. Tasks and chores were tended. Egrets trailed a tractor through the pale smoke of a field replenished by fire, long blades sliced through sugar cane, boys tossed stones into a cart, women fetched water and gathered dishes. Unease scraped the air like a bur reed.
The Galal and Rashayda families weren’t talking; their men hunkered beyond the crops and behind shutters. A man repaired shoes with a hammer and a needle and thread near the village’s lone school, which holds classes only two hours a day. Other men joined Mahdy, offering blessings and cigarettes. None of them knew or cared about Egypt’s revolution. Things in Cairo never had much sway here. The men worried what this village might look like when their grandsons are their age.
“There’re too many of us and there’s no room on the land anymore,” one man said. “We need to move people on the other side of that mountain.”
The men nodded. Girls hurried past with washing.
“You know,” said another, “we still don’t know why that first Galal boy was killed. What was the reason?”
A long silence.
They moved on to other curiosities. The thoroughfare away from the village stretched flat toward the relics and hieroglyphics in the Valley of the Kings. Men with guns, shining black in the sun, stood not far from a poster of a policeman killed by bandits.
A man turned and said, “You don’t want to be on this road when darkness comes.”
Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo bureau contributed to this report.