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An ‘immortal’ river: What the Nile says about Egypt

The stretch of the Nile that flows more than 900 miles through Egypt is rich in history and symbolism. But for photographer Laura El-Tantawy, the great river is rich in memory.

“It’s seen the history of that entire continent, which in many ways has been a troubled continent throughout history. It’s seen beauty and life, but it’s also seen some really sad parts of history,” said El-Tantawy, an Egyptian born in Britain.

El-Tantawy says the river also bears witness to the changing faces and facade of Egypt’s Nile Delta. It is the central character of “An Immortal River,” a chapter in her ongoing photography project that explores the changing relationship between farmers and fields through a collection of portraits, abstracts and landscapes.

Early in her career, El-Tantawy worked as a newspaper photographer, and it was her journalistic roots that prompted her interest in agricultural lifestyles. She was deeply moved by an article on the prevalence of suicide among Indian farmers, and she traveled to the country to document it.

In India, she interviewed the widows of farmers and walked the fields they once tended. Listening to story after story, she discovered a common theme: an undeniable connection between the farmers and their land.

It inspired her to do a collection of photographs, but she wouldn’t stop there.

“Egypt was like, for me, no question. I had to go to the village of my grandfather and photograph,” she said.

El-Tantawy’s grandfather was a farmer in a small village near Mansoura, along Egypt’s Nile Delta. Although she never met him, he is still alive in her memory through the stories of her father.

Over the years, much of the land her grandfather farmed has been divided and sold or passed on to children who choose not to follow in his agricultural footsteps.

“It was very emotional, and it was very strange … to look at my grandfather’s land and see that now there’s not really much left of it,” El-Tantawy remembered.

“I realized that the idea of farming is not something that people want to dedicate much time to because it’s a lot of hard labor.”

The idea of change and transition loomed heavily over El-Tantawy after her visit, but it was a chance moment in Cairo that allowed her to capture the images that best reflected her experience outside Mansoura.

She was aboard a felucca, a traditional Egyptian sailboat, when she started snapping images of the Nile River’s surface.

“You look at the water and the little gentle rips — they change,” she said. “And as they change and as the light changes and as the speed of the boat changes, the picture changes.

“With the details of the river Nile, it tells something about transition, the water flow and how we are changing.”

El-Tantawy says capturing the river — the lifeblood of Egyptian farming — in abstract detail speaks to something much deeper than the aesthetic qualities of its surface.

“It ties into the water movement and how things evolve and the transition with farming and with also, the larger picture, the transition of us — as Egyptians, as generations, as people, as Africans.”

El-Tantawy is now working on the next chapter in Ireland and plans to continue exploring the connection between farmers and the land at other locations around the world.

“Our connection between city life and farming life is really not there,” she said. “You sit and eat a salad and you’re not really thinking about the people who spent their entire year making that salad from beginning to end.

“I think it’s important to appreciate that. It’s a labor of love.”

- Julie Knaga, CNN