“Is that one of the Russian guns?” I ask.
“No, it’s a ‘resistance,’ ” one of the graybeards barks back.
His forceful response and his seat, elevated and away from the others and next to the largest gun, marks him as the elder. He is the omda’s father.
The “resistance,” a Soviet Goryunov, is usually smuggled across the Sudanese border and currently sells for about $4,700 in Egypt, the omda later informed me. It was dubbed “resistance” by Port Said locals who took up arms during the 1956 Suez War.
Seated comfortably between a box of ammunition and a bandaged Kalashnikov rifle, I take a deeper drag on my cigarette as the omda tells us about the “security vacuum.” The overthrow of Mubarak and the collapse of the Libyan regime has made it easier to smuggle weapons from Libya on regular roads between the coastal province of Matrouh and Qena, he says. Smugglers even use public buses to cross over from Libya.
But the guns the omda and his family display are mostly relics of Egypt’s Cold War closeness with the Soviets. More museum exhibits than instruments of chaos.
The only weapon we are shown that is not Soviet-manufactured is a Belgian FN FAL rifle that I’m told initially sold for $3,735 when it crossed over from Libya. The story is a little suspect, though, because FN FAL is also tied to the Suez War and the 1967 Six-Day War, when it was the standard Israeli rifle, and could easily date back to then.
But the heavier weapons, the omda’s father tells me, make their way directly to Matrouh, which borders Libya. There they are stored, destined for the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza.
The elder is reluctant to speak in detail about the drugs and weapons that pass in and out of the peninsula. They have little to do with that trade, he insists. Their arsenal is only for protection.
The omda pulls out his iPad, eager to show us a YouTube video of a wedding in Matrouh. The small speakers struggle with the symphony of gunshots. The final movement sees the camera jerk toward a man firing a belt-fed machine gun.
“My wedding will have plenty of guns,” the omda says energetically. “We won’t fire them, of course.”
“Of course,” retorts Bassem.
“Real men,” says the omda, “carry guns but don’t fire them needlessly.”
As we chat, a young boy drives up on a motorbike with a Belgian FN FAL slung round his shoulders.
I take in the sight of the child walking toward me carrying a rifle formerly wielded by Israeli troops. The elder claims the boy had just returned from taking an exam in the local school. Teachers, terrified of the village, rarely turn up, he says.
“I will tell you something honestly,” the elder says, seizing my attention with his guttural Sa’idi accent and his firm, unwavering gaze. “The government doesn’t want to help us. To them, we’re just a bad bunch who jump at the chance to kill each other.”
This is met with nods and approving growls all round. The elder continues: “Even during the ugliest of showdowns, gun battles can carry on for up to 40 days before the government decides to get involved.”
I had noticed, as we entered the village, that the police checkpoint was unmanned. Even in Nagaa Hammadi, the nearby urban center, there was no sign of the police.
“They’re all liars,” the omda’s father remarks, continuing his rant against the security apparatus. “They’re a spineless bunch.”
His voice ratchets up: “I swear these troops are neither able nor qualified to capture a chicken from our village. These policemen you’re talking about help the criminals, you see. For hash and opium.”
His weathered features shift into a grin: “I’ve never seen them arrest a single criminal.”
But who were these criminals? I glance at the cremated remains of a dozen cigarettes and the boxes of ammunition. For all I know, I am sitting with them.
They have put their small arsenal on parade for us visiting journalists and even offered to photograph us (not them) holding their guns. But they speak in the same riddles, the same ambivalent language used by enigmatic government officials and other apparatchiks. The real criminals, the real arms traders, are always in the next town over, it seems.
Before we left, the village elder had told us to set the record straight: “We’re good people. You and your colleague entered our village. You sat with us. Did we attack you? Did we shoot you?”