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Perfect Soldiers: The Hijackers: Who They Were, Why They Did Itby Terry McDermott
A House of Learning
Nearly all of Egypt's 65 million people are squeezed by the great surrounding deserts onto thin ribbons of arable land strung along the length of the Nile River. This savannah, made fertile by the regular flooding of the river, has been populated for tens of thousands of years — far beyond the range of human memory. North of present-day Cairo, the river splits into two main branches — the Rosetta and Damietta — and innumerable smaller ones, a spiderweb of streams crisscrossing between the two larger channels. From there north, 100 miles to the sea, the river feeds a broad, improbably lush delta. These northern reaches of the Nile endowed one of the great civilizations of the earth long before the powerful realms of the western world were even the faintest of far-off dreams, when, as one Islamic scholar put it, "northern Europeans were still sitting in trees." The Delta's abundance has forever remained the source of the enormous wealth and talent Egyptian civilizations have produced. Presidents, poets, and revolutionaries have all been shaped in its villages.
Today, the Delta remains Egypt's breadbasket. Its markets overflow; the roads are jammed with pickup trucks and donkey carts. Tractors are rare — most of the work of the fields is still performed the way it has always been, by hand and hoof. The Delta is thick with people, too. Women wear veils or scarves; many men wear the long cotton tunics called galabiyas, muddied at the hem from hard work on wet ground. The last village is seldom out of sight before the next slides into view. Between towns, the fields, small and irregularly shaped, jigsaw across the tableland. Billboards for the latest Nokia cell phones straddle irrigation ditches teeming with trash. Women bathe and wash dishes along the dirty shores.
Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta was born here in 1968 in the northernmost delta province of Kafr el-Sheik. His father, Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta, came from a tiny hinterland village, and his mother, Bouthayna Mohamed Mustapha Sheraqi, from the outskirts of the provincial capital, also called Kafr el-Sheik. As was, and is still, customary in rural Egypt, the elder Mohamed and Bouthayna met and married by arrangement of their families. At the time of the wedding, Mohamed el-Amir, as he was known, was already an established local lawyer, having taken degrees in both civil and sharia, or Islamic, law. Bouthayna was only 14, but as the daughter of a wealthy farming and trading family, she came from several rungs up the social ladder and was a good catch for the ambitious Mohamed. They soon had two daughters, Azza and Mona, then a son named for the father.
They hadn't many relatives on the father's side and maintained a cool distance from Bouthayna's family. This was according to Amir's wishes, Bouthayna's family said. The father was regarded by his in-laws as an odd man — austere, strict, and private. He was and remains a bluff, forceful fellow who permitted little disagreement.
Village life in the Arab world offers much the same degree of privacy as village life elsewhere, which is to say, very little at all. Egypt's crowded geography further insists that life be communal and shared. People are piled on top of one another. To resist the weight of the centuries in which life has been spent and shaped this way takes real effort. Amir, a stubborn man, was willing to expend it.
"The father is alone. There are no brothers, one sister maybe. We never met her," said Hamida Fateh, Bouthayna's sister. "Here, the families are all very close. But even here, the father was separate."
Fateh's family is prominent in Kafr el-Sheik; they own farmland, an auto-parts store, and a six-story commercial building. The family lives unostentatiously above a cobbled, dusty street in a cramped walk-up with whitewashed walls, plain rugs, overstuffed furniture, a Panasonic boom box, and a 19-inch Toshiba television. It is unair-conditioned and the apartment's balcony doors hang open to let the inevitable afternoon heat escape.
Fateh wears a head scarf, more out of habit than belief, she said; neither her family nor the Amirs were particularly religious. They were part of the secular generation that grew up in Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt, when the country's future did not seem as bound to the past as it does today. They were the generation that would remake Egypt and reclaim its glories. We are educated people, Fateh said, people from the country but not country people. Fateh studied agricultural engineering at university; her husband studied electrical engineering.
The senior Amir was ambitious, too, and exceptionally focused. His law practice thrived in Kafr el-Sheik, but he was not satisfied. "He moved to Cairo," Fateh said. "He wanted to be famous."
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