The Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970.
The Aswan High Dam, completed in 1970.
Alexandra Garcia -
Correction to This Article
A photograph of the Aswan High Dam that appeared with a Nov. 3 article about Egypt was incorrectly credited. It was taken by Alexandra Garcia of

The Children of the High Dam

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 3, 2006

ASWAN, Egypt -- Ilham Shary had a sense of awe as he stood atop a towering memorial overlooking the Aswan High Dam. Before him meandered the Nile, the world's longest river, harnessed into a canal. Behind was Lake Nasser, the largest man-made reservoir. And as he gazed at the dam under a searing sun, he wistfully recalled watching as many as 30,000 workers toil 11 years building what the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser promised would modernize a nation living in the shadow of its past.

"We are the children of the High Dam," said Shary, a longtime employee of the dam.

For a certain generation, the dam, completed in 1970 and packing 17 times as much sand and stone as the greatest pyramid at Giza, was more than a colossal tool to electrify the countryside, provide water to reclaim hundreds of thousands of acres of desert and power nascent industry along the Nile Valley. Time and again, Nasser made it the symbol of his revolution, the very contract with his people: With the dam, the new government would bring dignity to peasants, development to cities and freedom and independence to a country emerging from 70 years of British tutelage.

Fifty years after Nasser proclaimed his vision, the dam marks another testament of sorts: a faded memorial to Nasser, his successors and their era, a time of dramatic ambitions and even more spectacular failures. Nasser bequeathed power to Anwar Sadat, Sadat to Hosni Mubarak, whose 25-year reign is, even by the admission of its own officials, in its twilight, having realized few of those promises made to a country that embraced a secular nationalism but witnessed a withering bureaucratic authoritarianism. The dam today represents the three leaders' bitter legacy: Their governments corralled the Nile, but as the Nile slowed, so did Egypt, the currents of its society stagnating.

The dam is a starting point for a 690-mile journey along the river, through the Arab world's most populous country and its most gifted, charting a future far different from the one envisioned by Shary, the High Dam employee. The journey is a portrait of 21st-century Egypt as the nation closes one era, unsure about the next.

The Nile winds like a ribbon through the south, where the peasants Nasser promised to liberate still live in squalor. Along the way is the oasis-like terrain where the government, through a fearsome crackdown, defeated militants bent on forging an Islamic state. In the capital, the government has squelched a budding campaign for political change, relying on a sprawling police apparatus that, while lacking the brutality of other Arab governments, still readily beats those who dissent. Farther down the river, as its branches water the lush Nile Delta before emptying into the Mediterranean, is evidence that another Islamic current, eschewing guns for grass-roots work, will help decide what comes next.

And its beginning, the High Dam?

"To our generation, it was a symbol of dignity," said Fahmi Howeidi, a prominent writer.

"Now it's become a tourist stop," he said.

'A Country of Beggars'

A little before midnight, Train No. 86 shook, then heaved out of the Aswan station, built in a neo-pharaonic design of squat columns, imposing facade and precise angles, then as now a symbol of regal power. At each overnight stop along the river, more third-class passengers boarded, mostly young, unemployed men. They hoisted their belongings into the overhead racks: plastic sacks, gym bags and cardboard boxes tied with shoestring. Then they jockeyed for the dwindling space -- on the dusty floor, near a decrepit restroom, atop the racks themselves or occasionally a seat.

After dawn, the train took on its biggest contingent, teenage boys from Sohag, the grandchildren of the High Dam.

"The country is like a staircase," said one, 17-year-old Abdo Mohammed. "There are those at the top and those below."

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