Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (553)
Aisha Abdel-Rahman, better known as Bint Al-Shati', might have become famous for her fiction and poetry but it was her stories on rural Egypt which launched her writing career in Al-Ahram. The "Daughter of the Shore", writes Professor Yunan Labib Rizk, had a weak spot for the countryside and its people
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From the outset of her career, Aisha Abdel-Rahman, a prominent scholar and writer, preferred to go by the name Bint Al-Shati' (Daughter of the Shore). She adopted this pen-name, which alludes to her birthplace in Damietta, out of respect for her family's customs -- her father was a scholar in a religious institute in that northern Egyptian coastal city -- and because it was also a custom of that age for women writers to conceal their true identities.
Bint Al-Shati' first made her mark in Al-Ahram in the summer of 1935 when the newspaper allocated considerable front-page space to the problems of rural Egypt. She was only 23 at the time (she was born in 1913), which is not so odd in itself -- it was Al-Ahram 's policy to give a chance to young and talented aspiring writers, of whom some later became its prominent featured writers and literary and intellectual celebrities. What was odd, given her conservative family background, was the level of education she attained. Her father, an Azharite, would not allow her "modern schooling" so he educated her himself, and so solid was his instruction that she came out first among all the female students who sat for the competency certificate for teachers "from their homes" in 1929. Thus encouraged, she received her secondary school baccalaureate in 1934. This was the only certificate she was armed with when she began writing for Al-Ahram the following year. But then whoever said that degrees make a writer?
The first articles of Bint Al-Shati' to Al-Ahram in 1934 inaugurated a long relationship with this newspaper that lasted more than 60 years, until just before her death in 1998. In the final years of this relationship, she had an office on the sixth floor of the Ahram building, right next to the offices of the "Chronicle", it so happens. I thus had the good fortune to get to know her as a friend and colleague, all the more so as I had graduated from the same faculty in Ain Shams University in which she had a long and illustrious career as a professor of Arabic literature and director of its Women's College (not the College of Humanities, as most of her biographers have mistakenly written).
It is not known whether Aisha Abdel-Rahman had submitted her articles on rural Egypt at her own initiative or whether they had been brought to the attention of Al-Ahram management by a third party. Regardless, management clearly felt that these articles merited publication -- and on the front page no less. It is nevertheless curious that she first made her mark on issues of a sociological nature, given her later repute primarily as a writer of fiction and poetry. Perhaps this shift in intellectual focus was determined by her studies in the Arabic Department in Cairo University's Faculty of Literature from which she graduated in 1939. Whatever the case, it was around this time that the field of Arabic literature gained a formidable talent that had once been lost to sociology.
Nevertheless, her contributions to Al-Ahram in the summer of 1935 drew considerable attention. Not only did they stir widespread responses from Al-Ahram readers but her series of articles appeared in book form the following year while she was a first-year student in Cairo University. Moreover, the publishers appeared to have held out high hopes for the sale of the book, having prominently displayed "First edition: 1936" on the cover beneath the title. To our knowledge, no subsequent editions have been issued, though by then the young scholar was already absorbed in her new academic concentration. In all events, the book won her the Egyptian state award for sociological studies.
Abdel-Rahman's 250-page Rural Egypt was not merely a compilation of her articles as they appeared in Al-Ahram. Rather, she had completely reorganised her subject matter, categorising it under five sections: "The hardship of the fellah", "When will we awake", "Village reform", "On the fringes of the countryside", and, finally, "Comments". Apparently, she also felt it necessary to tone down some of the more sensationalist headings to her Al-Ahram series. "When will we awake" took the place of "A danger we are toying with and that is toying with us", and instead of "Me, Mussolini and Their Excellencies the Ministers" she opted for "Mussolini the Fellah", and "Will Egyptians Listen?" instead of "Will Officials Listen?" More significantly, the fourth section was entirely new, never having appeared in the newspaper. That it contained a collection of stories and anecdotes from rural Egypt was, perhaps, an early sign of a move by Bint Al-Shati' to the world of literature.
We turn now to her work on the Egyptian countryside, as it appeared in Al-Ahram, along with the reaction of her readers.
In her introductory article Bint Al-Shati' explains that she had taken up residence in an Egyptian village upon the advice of her doctor "to calm my fevered nerves and rest my weary and troubled mind". Whether or not this was the case, one suspects she found this introduction a convenient way to lend a personal eye-witness touch to her account. Certainly this would lend greater credence to such exclamations of commiseration with the lot of the Egyptian peasant as the following:
"Oh merciful God! Think of how much food has the Egyptian peasant cultivated since life first budded in the Nile Valley! How much he has toiled on the earth. But how much has he reaped for himself? His yields have been bountiful but for all others; not for himself and his children. He is forever preparing the meals for our voracious bellies but not for his own deprived and underfed stomach... [By virtue of his efforts] the earth brings forth the most delicious fruits and the most nourishing foods. These he has his sons help him gather, not to bring home, but to take to the market, while the poor man feigns not to notice their awed and eager stares at the fruits of their labour."
Bint Al-Shati' laid the fault for the fellah 's wretched condition at the doorstep of the government which had "no care but to exhaust him through various taxes". Then, even after having paid all these taxes, she asks, "has their water been purified, their illnesses treated, their homes repaired or their children educated?"
Harsh circumstances in the countryside were driving hundreds of villagers to migrate to the cities in order to find any type of menial employment. This is the subject of Abdel- Rahman's second instalment, in which she relates the story of three recent migrants: "They came to Cairo two months ago and found work at a baker's. Their job is to collect the kneaded dough from people's houses and bring it back to them later in the day as baked bread, for which work they are content with three piastres each and five delicious loaves of bread." She also spoke of four others she claimed to know personally: "They have formed a curious team of cucumber vendors. While pushing their produce through the streets, one shouts, 'Fresh cucumbers!' Then the three cry out in a ringing, if mournful, refrain, 'Ten piastres!'" She also recounts that one day she heard a naphthalene vendor, who sold bags of this substance from the tramway stairs, bemoan his ill fortune. "Nobody wants to buy naphthalene these days! Are we and our children supposed to eat naphthalene?"
Abdel-Rahman's poignant depiction of the wretched circumstances of the fellahin moved some of her readers to write to Al-Ahram. One of these was Abdel-Khaleq Sayed Abu Rabya who relayed the grievances of an elderly man he spoke with during a recent visit to the countryside. Rural life, the old man said, was "abject poverty, just getting by and whatever food's available. Work is a constant struggle against nature, at times against the wind and at others against the soil... We villagers get up before daybreak, we grab our hoes with the first cock's crow and we drag them home with us only when the sun is about to set... Our days here are all alike, Sir. They pass in same bitter routine."
Encouraged by the responses she received, Bint Al-Shati' proceeded to her third instalment which appeared in Al- Ahram of 12 July 1935 under the headline, "A drink of water". She relates that one day she was a guest in the home of a village family. It was a hot day and when she arrived, her hosts offered her a cup of water to quench her thirst. "As soon as I looked into the cup my courage evaporated. I almost asked them whether they were certain that was water. It certainly did not have that enticing transparency of the liquid that douses flames. As I looked at the reddish brown fluid I could not help but recall the lesson I had as a child on the properties of water -- 'a clear liquid without colour or smell'. I asked them where they got the water from. 'The irrigation canal', they said."
Bint Al-Shati' could not restrain a biting jab at the more comfortably off. "When we are moved to compassion and pity for the fellahin, we offer them health advice. Then we can breathe a sigh of relief and revert to our silence after having done our duty. But what is this advice? 'Always clean your children's eyes with water!' What water?"
Taking up the theme of the complacency of the Egyptian well-to-do, Eissa Mitwalli, who later gained the reputation as the most avid newspaper reader in Egypt, urged urban dwellers to spend some time in the countryside. There they would experience first hand "how we play and frolic while the fellahin toil and groan". He continues, "We in the cities enjoy a life of comfort and pleasure but we do so at the expense of the peasant who finds nothing to stop his yawning hunger."
"The mournful marred beauty" was the title Bint Al- Shati' chose for her fourth instalment which appeared on 21 July. The lyricism and depth in her portrait of the rural environment reveal a philosophical outlook well beyond her 23 years. "Those fields that pulse with power, vitality and youth," she writes, "are situated adjacent to a dark and stagnant pool in which lurk the elements that threaten the demise of our wretched peasant. Those birds that rejoice at the coming of the harvest season, having sensed the onset of spring -- the earth's adolescence -- fill the air with their tender trilling. But they do not drown out those legions of mosquitoes and flies that buzz so insistently in one's ears. As for that calm and gentle murmuring water, it is tainted by its load of animal corpses and refuse."
In her fifth instalment, Bint Al-Shati' moves from description to blame which she attributes largely to government negligence. Under the headline, "Are officials listening?" appearing on 28 July, she trains her sights on the Ministry of Health in particular. While the ministry industriously constructs more hospitals in the cities, which already have a surfeit of such centres, it exerts barely a thousandth of such effort in the countryside. As a result, villagers are left prey to rampant illnesses and diseases such as conjunctivitis, pellagra, anaemia, bilharzia, ancylostomiasis and malaria, and "instead of pediatric clinics and maternity wards they have the venerable village barber and ignorant midwives".
The same ministry was also guilty of another form of incompetence. "Although it produces illustrated health pamphlets, the Ministry of Health appears to have overlooked the fact that rural inhabitants are illiterate. Even the explanatory pictures and diagrams require a certain level of education to understand them. In addition, in its determination to disseminate health guidance over the radio, the ministry also appears to have forgotten that to villagers, that apparatus is a luxury with which the most they are familiar is its awe-inspiring name."
Under the headline, "Me, Mussolini and Their Excellencies the Ministers", Bint El-Shati' relates that in one of his visits to the Italian countryside, Mussolini had "boldly and courageously stripped off his heavy insignia and medal laden outer garments and took up the scythe". Meanwhile, unsuspecting officials and spectators were looking anxiously about for their leader. "Suddenly they spotted him. He was in the middle of the fields, harvesting wheat beneath the scorching sun in the middle of a group of peasants."
How starkly this contrasted with the visits of Egyptian officials to the countryside, "amidst the fanfare of music and applause". How, she asks, could an official possibly get a sense of the suffering of the fellahin when the most he sees is flashing images of them through the window of his car? "How can he find inspiration while dining at the sumptuous table of the village mayor? How can he locate the source of the ailment while speeding through villages and hamlets in a luxury car, surrounded by officials and staff whose comforts come at the expense of the downtrodden peasant?"
Aisha Abdel-Rahman was bolder yet in her criticism when, in her seventh instalment, she moved beyond officials to attack the entire system of land ownership. She commences by reminding readers that of Egypt's one million square kilometres, only 32,000 of this area was suitable for agriculture and that this cultivable land had to meet the immediate needs of 99 per cent of the population. On land distribution specifically, she writes: "Owners of 20 to 100 feddans are rare while the numbers of large landowners who own from 200 to thousands of feddans apiece have swelled to at least the equivalent of those small, nearly destitute farmers who own less than five feddans. I imagine that our inflated numbers of large landowners give some the impression that we are a wealthy people. Unfortunately, the truth is otherwise. These ratios are indicative of a gross imbalance in the distribution of agrarian land ownership. They also tell us that the enormous number of those who have so much money that they do not know how to spend it is equivalent to the number of those who can barely find a crust of bread."
Perhaps Bint Al-Shati' had felt she had gone a bit too far in her criticism and diagnosis, for in her eighth instalment she begins to propose possible solutions. Her first remedy was to reform government at the local village level. Most village mayors were in collusion with "gangs of thieves" bent on plundering the fellahin and extracting the last piastre from their pockets. "Those who pay the wages of village sentries are the poor peasants. The men who pick cotton worms in the fields of the mayors and rural notables are poor peasants. When you see a kerosene lamp hanging outside a house, you know that that is the home of a fellah, because the fellahin cannot afford electric lighting... Tickets for social fetes and celebrations 'donated' by mayors and notables are ultimately paid for from the pockets of needy peasants. The workers who dredge the irrigation canals for the big landowners, who pave the roads for their cars, who build their houses, who work their fields and who serve in their homes are the miserable peasants, who if they groan are insulted and if they have the audacity to protest are beaten."
The author appealed for direct government supervision over the villages. In her opinion the government had the available staff. In the provincial departments and municipalities there were thousands of employees whose titles and salaries were far grander than the actual work they did. "Now it is time for these officials to learn that the meaning of their jobs is not comfortable chairs behind vast desks but work and responsibility."
Some mayors spoke out in their own defence. One of them was Mahmoud Ali Ezzat, the mayor of Al- Maqatifiyya in Giza. Most village mayors, he wrote in his reply to Bint Al-Shati', "dedicate their lives to the welfare of their village. They are constantly striving to improve the livelihood of their people and they share their people's joys and sorrows. They help the poor, show compassion to the ill-fated and treat their citizens as a kind and generous father would his sons. They build schools at their own expense and they fund other such works as acts of piety towards God and of duty towards their nation." So excessive was this mayor in his praise for Egyptian village mayors that one wonders how solidly his feet were planted on the ground.
Abdel-Rahman's second recommendation addressed the population explosion. After citing a number statistics, she estimated that currently each feddan of agrarian land had to sustain 14 families and that this number was rapidly rising. She discarded "family planning" as a solution because of its intrinsic connection with religious beliefs. In order to augment its sources of income, therefore, the government should explore other directions. One of these was to better exploit Egypt's abundant mineral resources. In particular, the rising prices of gold at the time presented an opportunity not to be passed up. "Our goldmines in the Eastern Desert have been neglected, and the costs for exploration should no longer be considered an obstacle given the rising prices." But there were available mineral resources to consider as well. Recent studies, she wrote, had confirmed the existence of large quantities of zinc and lead near Al- Qoseir. There were large deposits of chrysolite in the Red Sea, and of emeralds to the south of Al-Qoseir, "not to mention the abundance of petroleum wealth we have in Egypt". Apparently, Bint Al-Shati' believed she had found the entrance to Ali Baba's cave and that she only needed to say, "Open sesame!"
In addition, Egypt should concentrate more on its animal wealth. It was an outrage that the country should export 11,000 sheep and 2,400 tonnes of cheese per year when the livestock Egypt already possessed was sufficient to supply these quantities. After citing several statistics on the numbers of bulls, cows, water buffaloes, sheep and goats in the country, she suggested channelling this wealth to the development of the dairy industry, the profitability of which she claimed was "guaranteed".
At the same time, however, efforts should be made to reclaim what she estimated were some one million feddans of fallow land in the northern Delta. One of the prime resources Egypt could draw on towards this end were the hundreds of graduates from the various schools of agriculture whose "minds are brimming with the latest scientific theories and who are impatient for the opportunity to apply these practically". She added that the Royal Agricultural Society had applied to the government for access to 40,000 feddans on which to put its land reclamation techniques into effect and that graduates of the schools of agriculture had submitted a similar application. "If the three bodies -- government, agricultural society and graduates -- combine their efforts towards the reclamation of all that currently unused land, we would soon have more farmers paying taxes to the government and also producing more cotton, that golden elixir of life for the national treasury."
As though to offer her readers concrete proof of the feasibility of such a project, Bint Al-Shati' visited Bahtim, a model agricultural village founded by the Royal Agricultural Society. She proceeded at great length to describe this "paradise of rural Egypt", with its modern laboratories, its well-organised and hygienically kept animal pens and stables, the latter of which contained "the largest and finest collection of authentic Arabian horses". She concluded her otherwise dismal and highly critical assessment of the conditions of the Egyptian countryside on an upbeat note, expressing her belief in the possibility that all Egyptian villages could become model villages like Bahtim. Undoubtedly her readers in those more optimistic days shared her aspiration.