Peter and I have been planning to write a book about the village of Garagos for about 6 months. Garagos is a village 25 kilometres north of Luxor in Upper Egypt and the place where Peter's family have lived for generations.
Our most recent visit in particular has thrown up some very interesting stories about the village and has inspired us even more to put pen to paper (words to computer). However, the main problem lays with anecdotal evidence is that there is a lot of conflicting information especially as there is very little information documented.
During our visit in March we explored rafts of photographs which did shed a little light on the situation, however, we have known for some time that the source of this more 'valid' information lies in Cairo with the Jesuits priests - more than likely at Le College de Saint Famille in Fagalla, Cairo. Peter's father did tell us that there was a Dutch Jesuit priest called Father Khalil who had recently visited Garagos and was also writing a book about the village but he couldn't give us more information that this.
The lives of most villagers - most certainly the Christians in Garagos have been shaped in one form or another through the interventions of the Jesuits who came to live in Garagos. From the establishment of a dispensary, schools and also a the pottery that Garagos has become known for, the Jesuits have changed the circumstance of many people.
I have tried contacting a number of organisations that I thought may be able to help ascertain information around the names and dates of service for the Jesuits that came to Garagos. Extensive internet research has led us in various directions but we now know that a lot of the information that has been published in English, Arabic and French is in fact incorrect.
It feels like we've spent months hammering away at the internet - trying numerous spellings of Garagos such as Geragos, Garagus, Garagosse, Jarajos - me in English and then Peter in Arabic. Emailing any contact that we thought might be able to help us. We took this information with us to Garagos to either confirm or deny, the information we had found. I think we came back really none the wiser regarding dates of service for the priests.
Once back home and again enthused with the stories we had been told I tried a few leads we had been given and also a few more searches through Google. I thought I needed to spread the net a bit wider than Egypt and searched for other Jesuit organisations in Europe.
I came across the website for an organisation called Jesuitica in Belgium. I outlined the nature of my enquiry in an email, attaching a photograph that was taken in the home of Peters family. The photograph featured Father de Montgolfier, a Jesuit that served in Garagos in 1947, Peter's mother and father and grandmother and other family members. In the photograph is also a baby of about 6 months of age – the baby being Peter.
Almost immediately I received a response from Father Rob Faesen. Father Faesen told me that information relating to the Jesuits in Egypt could be found in the archives of the Jesuit Province of the Near East. He told me that the archivist a Father Charles Libois was in 2006 residing in St Josephs University in Beirut but this information may be out of date. He gave me the email addresses for the Assistant to the European Provincial Superior and also to the webmaster of the website for the European Provinces. He said that if I didn't get any joy from these sources to come back to him and he would investigate further contacts.
I forwarded my enquiry again to the email addresses provided and almost immediately I received a response from the Assistant to the EP, Father Dermot O'Connor. Father O'Connor confirmed that the Jesuits in the Near East were administered in the one province in Beirut. He gave me the email address for the Assistant to the Provincial – a Father Bassili. He also gave me the email address for Father Charles Libois who was now residing in Le College de Saint Famille in Cairo, also with a note that Father Libois was now around 84 years of age.
I emailed my enquiry once again, attaching the same photograph taken with Peter's family and Father de Montgolfier. I again received a very quick response – firstly from Father Bassili who asks me if I can understand French. Although he can write in English, he is far more fluent in French and will be able to describe the information in more detail using this language. He also tells me that he showed the photograph to a fellow priest living in the same community in Beirut. He tells me that he is 31 years of age and comes from Garagos. He showed him the photograph and he immediately recognised the people in it. He finishes his letter saying that if he is able to write to me in French he will write to me about Garagos “more and more”.
I showed Peter this email. He tells me that he is sure that the Jesuit Priest Father Basilli mentions is Father Mario - a member of his extended family.
Within hours of receiving this email I also received one from Father Charles Libois. Addressed to Madame Stephanie, Father Libois asks me a series of questions – as with Father Basilli, whether I can read French as most of what is written about Garagos is in French. He also points out that St Verena was not in fact born in Garagos but near by in Thebes (modern day Luxor). I felt rather frustrated that such a magnificent claim such as Garagos being the birth place of St Verena can be wrong – but I guess that's the nature of the internet! Father Libois asks me what is Peter's full name i.e. Peter followed by the name of his father, grandfather, great grandfather. Also whether Peter is from the Orthodox Church or Catholic Church in Garagos. He also asks whether he recognises Zaki Muhareb and Labib the tailor in the photograph – or is it Naguib his brother?
My heart jumped like you can't imagine. Father Libois knows the family members so it is likely that he knows Garagos itself and has maybe even spent time here! Any deflation I felt after finding out about St Verena is more than made up for now. I wondered if he knew Abouna Khalil, the priest that had visited just one month ago and seems to have some connection to the village and Peter's family.
I excitedly put together a response, replying to each of Father Libois's questions in order. I also attach further photographs of the visit that Father de Montgolfier made in 1979 and send the email off into the ether immediately.
When I arrived home from work the following day, another email from Father Libois was waiting for me in my inbox.
He says that he just has one question for now. He asks if Peter's father is the brother of Mathilde, the wife of Labib the tailor, finishing by telling me that he visited them about one month ago. Again this information excites me. This does begin to confirm that Father Libois knows the family quite well.
I reply immediately to Father Libois confirming that yes, Peter's father is the brother of Mathilde and brother in law of Mr Labib the tailor. I also mention to him that we were also in Garagos – exactly one month ago.
Yesterday was Good Friday. Waiting in my inbox was another email from Father Libois. In it he provides me with some very interesting information about Father de Montgolfier and Father Henry Habib Ayrout – or rather corrects some information I had about the two priests. He explains that Father de Montgolfier was a foreigner and “insisted on social amelioration” whereas Father Ayrout was Egyptian, a man of the country and swore by the development of schools. He tells me that much separated the two men who could both be very stubborn and at times their visions clashed.
Father Libois ends his email by telling me that he served in Garagos for three years between 1964 and 1967. He says that although his name is French, he is fact Dutch, and that the villagers of Garagos will know him as Abouna Khalil!
As fate would have it, and as Peter's father had told us, Abouna Khalil AKA Father Charles Libois had been in the village one month ago but had left days before we arrived.
Since then, very interesting email discussions with Abouna Khalil and we hope one day to meet with him on one of his return visits to Garagos or in Cairo.