Qena lurks on the edge of things. This southern Egyptian city stands close enough to the tourist hotels of Luxor – 60-odd kilometres – so that nobody stays, but far enough away that nobody visits either.
Tour buses sweeping in from the Red Sea coast head straight for King Tut’s tomb, bypassing Qena. Itineraries to the temple of the love goddess Hathoor, at Dendera nearby, include direct transport from Luxor by bus or boat – but these days there’s little demand. What’s so awful about Qena that passers-by always detour around it? I walked on neat, shaded streets, causing cheerful pavement jams chatting to doorway loafers.
The ex-Governor Adel Labib is credited with giving Qena some spit and polish after the devastating Islamist insurgency of the 1990s, building civic participation in schemes from fixing rubbish collections to launching a women’s football team.
Labib was rewarded by the former President Hosni Mubarak with a transfer to Alexandria. He was Governor there in 2010 when the activist Khaled Said was beaten to death by police – one of the sparks for the Egyptian revolution. Days after Mubarak resigned the presidency in February 2011, Labib resigned.
Still, Qena’s big families keep the streets calm. On a warm night in the main square, a group of teenagers around a booming sound system is drawing a crowd with backflips and 1980s-style bodypopping.
Insulated against tourist no-shows and ruled by familiar faces, it’s like the revolution never happened.