New Internationalist

Making room

April 2009

Even when the odds are stacked against them, Maria Golia observes her neighbour’s family taking life as it comes.

My upstairs neighbour, the former building guardian’s wife, is named Rabaa or ‘Fourth’ – in other words, the fourth girl born to a big poor family whose prospects were too dim to excite the name-choosing impulse in her parents. She’s a beautiful woman, but at 48 looks much older. Her uterus fell out at 28 having brought ten children into the world, six of whom survived. Especially since her husband’s death, nothing worries her more than seeing to it that her own four daughters get married. Not the fact that her family lives in a couple of storage rooms on the roof, that her health is failing, or that only one of her children has managed to finish high school.

Of the four girls, one is married and two engaged. But just because a couple is engaged doesn’t mean they’ll get married. In Egypt, engagement is a consolation prize for  accepting traditions that demand celibacy until marriage, and economics that prevent marriage until many years of hard work add up to the required savings for a new household. Being engaged means you can do things like kiss, and secretly more, but the most important thing it means is having a partner in a project called ‘the future’, circumscribed to say the least, but full of youth’s blind promise. Being engaged is a test, a benevolent set-up. It doesn’t always go the distance, but in the meantime it lends life drama and hope, while protecting the girl’s honour should she and her fiancé err and go too far.

Around 10 years ago, Rabaa bundled her girls cheerfully off to their Upper Egyptian hometown, for a combination family reunion and mass circumcision.

‘Why put them through it?’ I queried. ‘You know it can be dangerous, and it hurts.’

‘You’re telling me,’ she said.

‘So why?’

‘Because we all do it, it’s not a big deal. And besides if you don’t, your thing can get as big as a man’s,’ she said, furtively eyeing the crotch of my jeans.

I didn’t dissuade her further – we didn’t know each other well then – but even now, I doubt I’d try too hard. Singlehandedly, on virtually nothing, she’s raised six kids to be giving, honest individuals. No-one takes drugs or drinks. They all have jobs and contribute to the family kitty, even the married ones. They celebrate their birthdays, and as they’re many, they throw at least one big party a month, the same loud music and laughter, the dancing, ululating, fancy outfits and homemade cakes. When a child is born everyone looks after it. When someone is sick or dies, everyone is there. Sometimes it seems to me as if they’re all living a single life. How can I judge these people, when they have so graciously avoided judging me?

I remember coming home close to dawn one night, having lost my keys at a party, and ringing Rabaa’s doorbell repeatedly until one of the girls came down. Sleepily, she looked at me – dressed in a skimpy black evening gown and weaving ever so slightly – sighed, and turned to climb the stairs to the roof. I had no choice but to follow, having tried unsuccessfully to open my own flat door by force of will, an effort that reduced me to hiccoughs. The sisters were asleep on the couches, the brothers were away, Rabaa was sitting up on the only bed. I told her what happened and she smiled a groggy malesh (never mind) and said, ‘Make yourself comfortable.’  I took off my earrings, laid down beside her and slept the sleep of the dead. I could have decided to stay there, woken up the next morning, had tea with the girls and started doing the dishes; they never would have questioned it – or my condition, or, for that matter, my way of life as they perceive it –  just done as Rabaa had in the middle of the night, moved over and made a little room. 

It’s not my kind of life, ‘liberated’ single woman that I am. I wish the girls had a better education, that they’d travel, see the world, marry ‘up’. That isn’t necessarily what they wish for themselves, yet their wishes – for a home, health and love – are no less adventurous. In fact, as time passes I find my own wishes changing, and foremost amongst them is the wish to understand from what depths my neighbours’ equanimity springs.

Maria Golia also writes for The Middle East, reviews for the Times Literary Supplement and is the author of  the non-fiction Cairo, City of Sand (Reaktion Books, 2004).

This column was published in the April 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 421

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