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Egypt's Challenge - Far From Cairo

22/05/2013 17:01 BST | Updated 22/07/2013 10:12 BST

Upper Egypt has always been this far away land to me, this place where not much happens and when something does it usually isn't very pleasant. A world away from the big cities of Cairo and Alexandria.

So I was naturally nervous when I decided to travel 600 km south by train from Cairo to the town of Nagaa Hammadi by the banks of the river Nile. I wanted to see if Egypt's revolution of 2011 had changed life for people far away from the capital. My guide for the journey was a young student activist from Cairo who had grown up there.

My impressions of Upper Egypt have been formed mainly by three things:

My mother's anecdotes about her childhood there and how much my sister and I were missing out by not visiting the land of her ancestors.

My brief encounters with my cousins from there who paid us rare visits in Alexandria. I remember thinking how serious and conservative they were.

And then of course my views had been shaped by many Egyptian films and TV series where the narrative of the country dweller meeting the sophisticated city dweller was a favourite storyline.

And another characteristic that was often depicted in those films and in news footage was the violence of Upper Egypt; specifically the ruthless vendettas between powerful families and tribes.

So amid the smells and shabby décor of my train carriage we set off on the journey south settling in for what I knew was going to be a long an uncomfortable night.

As the evening closed in the grey dusty buildings gave way to wide open vistas, green fields and clear skies which, after the stress of the city and our departure from Cairo's busy rail station, were a welcome sight.

"Violence is normal"

The town of Nagaa Hammadi was quiet and still for our early morning arrival but one of the first things I notice is the difference in air quality. It's so much fresher than Cairo.

Islam, my guide, directs us to a small café for breakfast. Everyone seems to know everyone - and he clearly enjoys the sense of familiarity.

A man on a motorcycle with a Kalashnikov strapped to his back flashes past us. I look in horror at Islam who reassures me that it's all ok and nothing out of the ordinary.

"Violence is normal here", Moataz one of Islam's friends tells me.

"Violence happens easily, for the smallest of reasons and quite quickly." He adds.

"People used to buy weapons and hide them for an emergency and now the emergency has come."

And that emergency is the deteriorating security situation in the region since the revolution.

"What about the police then? Where are the authorities?" I ask.

Both Islam and Moataz smile.

They tell me the police often depend on powerful members of the community and family elders to help them protect the town.

That's how things are done in the south.

And it doesn't seem that the revolution has done much to change that.

"Traditions govern us"

You don't see many women on the streets in Nagaa Hammadi, certainly not like you do in Cairo or in my hometown Alexandria. Naturally I'm curious to know what life is like for them in this traditionally conservative part of Egypt. It takes quite some arrangement for me to meet with any but Islam and Moataz arrange for me to talk to a small group by the banks of the river.

"As young women it's very difficult for us to come and go as we please, because of the customs and traditions that exist here in the south. Going out often is a big challenge for us." Marwa, a 24 year old who works in community development, tells me.

Kholoud, a 19 year student, says it's very difficult for women to be involved in politics in this part of Egypt.

"Political activism in Upper Egypt in general, not just Nagaa Hammadi, isn't like in Cairo or the other cities in the north. Even young men find it difficult to be politically active here. So imagine what it's like for us women!"

Interestingly though Kholoud tells me that there's been some change, albeit small.

"Now not everything is a "no" to us. We are starting to get into discussions. There's more of a "maybe".

We negotiate with our families to go out, for example. There's more freedom for young people now. Now our families are a bit more accepting of us going out, even if they don't like it."

"Marginalised but aware"

The mayor of a nearby village invites us to visit his land.

We walk along a narrow dirt road, with green fields on one side and small brick houses on the other. I stop to take a picture of a lone buffalo in one of the fields and a woman steps out of her house all smiles and says, "Yalla get closer to her - she doesn't bite!"

We are greeted by family elders and tribal leaders who are sitting opposite each other on wooden benches dressed in their traditional Galabiyas - Kaftans -- and keffiyeh, their turban like head dresses. They're drinking mint tea and smoking shisha pipes - the scene is a world away from Cairo and its revolution.

"No! We follow events" Karam Hussein a farmer in the group tells me when I remark on it.

"Just because we are marginalised doesn't mean we are ignorant. Of course farmers are aware of politics and they follow it." He says.

Karam tells me that despite being a supporter of President Mohamed Morsi, he feels very frustrated at the lack of development in Upper Egypt.

The sense of abandonment by those in power hasn't changed since the revolution he says .

"For things to happen here we have to do them ourselves, we pay for it all. What are the development projects they have for us? Nothing!"

Before we leave the village, we're invited by some of the elders to talk and share tea with them.

Soon my guide Islam gets into a heated debate with the men over the right to demonstrate and I realise what a rare sight it is: young and old talking politics and discussing the revolution.

"We weren't able to do that before...This is part of the change" Islam tells me grinning.

Small beginnings then of change far away from Cairo.

The final episode of Shaimaa Khalil's six-part series Egypt's Challenge broadcasts on Tuesday 28 May at 8pm BST on BBC World Service.

Listen to the series online or download the podcast