Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
11 - 17 May 2000
Issue No. 481
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

A genius for hobnobbing

The Fellahin of Upper Egypt
The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, Winifred S Blackman, Cairo: AUC Press, 2000. pp325

The AUC Press has published in their Classic Reissues series a facsimile version of this pioneering 1927 volume in the field of social anthropology, which has become a collector's item. The book was reprinted only once -- in 1964 -- and has long been out of print. Its author, Winifred S Blackman, as pointed out by Egyptologist Salima Ikram in her new introduction to the work, was as unusual a woman of her period as her study then was in focusing on the socio-economic, cultural and religious life of the Upper Egyptian fellahin. Born in 1872, Blackman was a vicar's daughter and the eldest of five children. Her pedagogic voice on topics such as hygiene in the home and female training and education occasionally cut across her more customary scientific approach and we are reminded that, although patently unorthodox, she was also a "product of her environment." She was over 30 when her family settled in Oxford, where she chose to enter the overwhelmingly masculine world of academia and read anthropology, an unconventional choice for a woman. She subsequently worked in Oxford in the fields of ethnography and social anthropology, but it was not until 1920, at the age of 48 that she was appointed a research student, enabling her to go to Egypt for the first time and fulfil her aspiration of studying the habits, beliefs and customs of rural Egyptians.

Further appointments followed, and she spent a large part of the 1920s and 1930s living and working in Egypt until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Her brother, Aylward Manley Blackman, who had also studied at Oxford, was a noted Egyptologist interested in both archaeology and anthropology. Sister and brother sometimes collaborated and frequently influenced each other. In writing of modern Egyptian "light-heartedness" (dam khafif), she cites her brother, who had claimed that this was "an outstanding trait in the character of the ancient Egyptians," exemplified in their literature, painting and sculpture.

The Fellahin of Upper Egypt was the only book published by W S Blackman and, according to the invaluable bibliography provided by Ikram of her papers and articles, her last work to be published was in 1935, 15 years before her death. She had collected a mass of material for several further books, which she started but did not complete, notably on moulids, and popular beliefs and practices.

In her own preface to The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, Blackman had emphasised that its contents "form but a tithe of the information I have collected, yet even so I am only at the beginning of my work." Her meticulous records and fragmentary manuscripts are archived, together with 4,000 photographs, in the Department of Archaeology, University of Liverpool, England (where her brother was appointed a professor in the 1930s). Some of these are now being prepared for publication, writes Salima Ikram, who notes that, although Winifred Blackman's work was well received in the 1920s and 1930s, when she was most active, much of it was later disregarded.

Ikram makes a strong case for its importance; the only study by an anthropologist of Egyptian rural life in the early 20th century, which, in any case, has always been, and remains, much less well documented than was urban or Bedouin life. Of particular value now is her use of modern analogies to explain ancient Egyptian material culture. And, by extension, thanks to her book -- enhanced by 186 illustrations, most of which are the author's own photographs -- we can compare the Upper Egypt of the 1920s with that of the present in its changes and constants.

Blackman Blackman attending to the eyes of one of her patients
It is extremely rare now to find an Upper Egyptian village without a profusion of TV aerials sprouting from its roofs, although relatively little may have altered at street level. Agricultural machines and vehicles have joined the field animals, but Pharaonic implements such as the simple ancient plough and shadouf (water-hoist for irrigation), both of which were recorded by W S Blackman in the 1920s, have survived until now.

It is difficult to distinguish between a modern and ancient woven basket without reading the item's caption, a puzzle that is compounded by adding that just such a basket can be bought today in a village market. Because of its economic importance and long tradition, pottery-making was comprehensively researched and documented by W S Blackman in several localities, including the Qena area, renowned until now for the quality and quantity of its clay pots and the large amphora-like water jars that are placed on the wayside to provide water for any thirsty passer-by.

It was on the road to Qena from Luxor that I witnessed a memorable funeral scene seven years ago. The local bus suddenly slowed down and then carefully edged past a large group of women at the side of the road. They were entirely clad in black, led by several women pacing up and down the procession of mourners, shrieking and wringing their hands. In the section dealing with death in her final "Ancient Egyptian Analogies" chapter, Blackman reproduces the famous "wailing women" painting in the tomb of the noble Ramoses, commenting that the modern and ancient Egyptian peasant women "display their grief before and at a funeral by exactly the same gestures and conduct...dishevelling the hair, tearing the clothes, gathering up mud."

In an earlier chapter, she had detailed all aspects of contemporary death and funerary ritual, remarking that the "women's wailing and general uproar" (depicted in several of her photographs) could be viewed as being contrary to Islam and many male villagers had expressed their disapproval. On one occasion they asked her "if such things were done in Oxford when there was a death. I said 'No' and explained that at such times there was always perfect quiet in a well-conducted household. 'Ahsan, ahsan khalis (Better, much better),' they replied."

In the field she gave her opinion only when it was asked for, as instanced here, her intermittent moral strictures being addressed to the reader. Both health and hygiene advice and simple medicines were dispensed to those women who had sought treatment from her, while she was concerned with acquiring folk remedies from them. Blackman refers to intimate customs such as facial depilation and briefly to circumcising boys, but there is not even an oblique mention of female circumcision, despite her detailed accounts. It seems unlikely that she did not know about the practice, as she lived among the fellahin for six months of six consecutive years in the 1920s. One can only surmise at the causes for its omission. Possibly the vicar's daughter prevailed over the scientist, or she was excluded from observing the actual operation. Despite being integrated into village life and her mature age, her unmarried status precluded the women from taking her into their confidence on private matters: "such conversation rarely takes place in my presence."

In his pragmatic but engaging foreword, her former Oxford tutor R R Marett advocated that "the ideal collector of folklore must have a genius for hobnobbing," which quality his student evidently possessed, but should also have the ability "to observe, unobserved" or, if noticeable, be in a character consonant with the surroundings. "Thus Miss Blackman might possibly have preferred to dispense altogether with her widespread reputation for healing power. Yet to go about trailing clouds of contagious virtue was at all events more in keeping with prevailing notions of normal behaviour than if they had happened, say, to be clouds of exotic scent."

Some of Blackman's subjects are esoteric, such as belief in magic, the evil eye and evil spirits (afarit ), while others -- agriculture, industry and everyday village life -- are more mundane, interweaved with topics as diverse as personal adornment and "the law of revenge."

But the anthropologist was also a literary alchemist, transforming each chapter into a multi-faceted gem. Such is the abundance of detailed description, the vivid imagery, the apposite quotations or songs, the relevant anecdotes, the historical context and the fluid narration, that we are drawn into, and fascinated by, each successive chapter to the extent that we feel that we were there with her.

Reviewed by Caryll Faraldi

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