Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1140, 21 - 27 March 2013
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1140, 21 - 27 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Taking an eye off the children

From the moment she gave birth an Egyptian mother was engaged in a battle against any harm that might befall her baby, whether the threat came from sickness, evil spirits or a jealous neighbour casting the evil eye. Jenny Jobbins looks at the causes for her fear and superstition

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Several years ago a young mother in a village near Luxor presented me with one of her most precious possessions. It was a tiny bag sewn off in cotton, smelling of dried herbs and containing a coin, some grains of grass, wheat and herbs — and the foreskin belonging to her new baby boy. She asked me to keep it in a safe place. Her friends, she said, had hidden similar pouches in a bank or some other place where the prosperity around it would ensure prosperity for the child — one even hid hers in McDonald’s. My village friend thought my house would be as good a place as any. I still have the pouch and it is still safe in my house (although I imagine she thought I was richer than I really was).

In The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, Winifred Blackman wrote an informative and entertaining account of the years she spent as a medical doctor in rural communities in the 1930s, when of necessity most people resorted to traditional remedies. By the 1970s and 80s, Egyptian villagers were making the most of the services available by consulting practitioners from both the formal and informal health sectors. Modern and traditional systems complemented rather than excluded each other, and to some extent were well integrated.

When I started talking to women in the 1970s, pregnant women all over Egypt had access to health clinics. In rural areas, however, most called in the services of a daya (midwife), whose traditional role demanded a range of tasks and obligations. Most dayas acquired their knowledge through the hereditary nature of their role, learning their skills from their mothers, grandmothers and aunts — who may themselves have given birth at the age of 12. I was told then that about a quarter of dayas had attended midwifery school, and only a few were passing their skills on to their daughters. A good midwife, dayas themselves told me, needed “good health, good vision and intelligence” as well as emotional stability and a sense of responsibility. “The eyes of a good daya are ‘eineha maliana’ [sated],” one daya said. She meant that she must willingly accept whatever payment was offered, being aware that she would give more than she received.

The daya employed various techniques to offset complications, but she would call in “one of those with a briefcase” when necessary, or she might ask a family member to call an ambulance. It was common for women to give birth in a sitting position — birthing chairs were in use from pharaonic to recent times — but others preferred to lie down. Black coral worry beads might be laid on her head to relieve her labour pains.

The new baby was usually left unbathed for a week for fear it might catch cold; the daya simply wiped its mouth, dressed it and laced it in a large wooden sieve beside the mother. On the third day after the birth the daya visited again, and on this visit she “beautified” the baby’s eyes with kohl, which was believed to promote good vision. On this visit she was paid for the delivery, but the main reason for the visit was to find out whether the family planned to hold a sobou (“seventh day” celebration). Almost every birth in Egypt is followed after a week by a sobou, the opportunity for members of the extended family to visit the new baby. Traditionally the sobou was held on the seventh day after the birth, but the day might be changed to leave time to procure enough provisions or accommodate the attendance of a family member. That the date was flexible, and that the ceremony night be dispensed with altogether, indicated that social and economic considerations outweighed any religious significance.

It was at the sobou that the daya came into her own, and if a family could afford an elaborate ritual she would be handsomely recompensed for her services which included performing rituals to protect the mother and baby from evil spirits and the evil eye. She also helped prepare and cook the food and sweets to be served to guests; bathed and dressed the baby; made charms for him or her to wear; fumigated the house with incense; chanted protective verses and welcomed guests, each of which presented the baby with a noqta (a small sum of money).

The water in which the baby was bathed was drawn the day before and left to stand overnight in a clay jug — with a little spout, in the case of a boy; a girl had a jar without a spout. A pair of these jugs used to take pride of place on a shelf in my office. Seven dried fuul beans knotted on a short length of linen thread were hung round the neck of the jar, recalling the “seven beads of porphyry” offered, with a prayer, by a new mother to the protective goddess Isis from time immemorial. After its bath the baby was placed back in the sieve, which the daya hit with a pestle. As she hit the sieve she would instruct the child to obey the parents and elders while the guests (probably inuring the baby to noise for life) beat mortars and pestles, saucepans, dustbin lids and anything else that made a racket to drive away evil spirits. Then the mother stepped seven times over the sieve, and the daya removed the baby and rolled the sieve across the floor. The further it rolled, the longer the baby would live. One has only to visit the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut at Deir Al-Bahari on Luxor’s West Bank to see these events immortalised for all time. On the temple wall Anubis rolls the baby Hatshepsut’s sieve, and his participation is significant since Anubis was god of the Underworld and only he could predetermine the length of her life.

Guests were served a special hot beverage, moghat. Made from a powdered herbal fibre, it is very thick and sugary, heavy with ghee and sesame — a traditional brew that could also date from the distant past. When the ceremony was over the daya was paid her fee, and as a rule she played no further role in the care of mother or baby.

From ancient times children wore protective amulets. At one time these were cylindrical cases containing small rolls of papyrus inscribed with magical texts; more recently the charms were written on paper and sewn into a leather pouch pinned to the baby’s clothes. It didn’t do, however, to cast a casual eye on the charm or even the pouch — many times I investigated a promising string only to find the other end tied to a plastic dummy, and at first I thought they weren’t often worn; later I realised they were more common than I thought, but were well hidden. By the 1980s more and more of the young people from poorer homes were graduates and were doing without these things, but they still lived at home with their parents in a mind-brick house with earthen floors, and even if they had abandoned some of the old superstitions their neighbours still followed them.

For the first 40 days the baby stayed in one room with the mother, and any family member had to show him or herself before entering. To ensure that the mother saw any visitors before they could clap eyes on her — perhaps bringing in misfortune from the outside — the visitor had to enter the room backwards. This rule applied to anyone who left the house and returned, even household members.

Danger might lurk inside, too, even within the mother herself. The ancient Egyptian mother, like all her countrymen and women, had a split personality that made the life of the woman in The Three Faces Of Eve look like a walk in the park. As well as the physical entity she called “me” she had a ka (double, or life force), ba (soul), ib (heart), ren (name) and sheut (shadow), in addition to the akh (spirituality) and maat keru (pure heart) that she hoped would be awarded after death. The multiple personality concept apparently survived into modern times, at least until I was asking about it. Women had a part of themselves they called a qarinah (which Blackman called an ukht, or sister). The qarinah was a dark side of herself, and she was jealous, jealous enough to harm the baby — rather like the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty. In Upper Egypt, a new mother hid a knife under her pillow in case her qarinah attempted to harm her baby.

Once I visited a young family in their comfortably furnished, two-room home near Luxor to pay my respects to their new baby. As a female friend I was invited into the inner room, which was at once kitchen, living room and bedroom. Half the space was taken up by the marital bed — a solid affair presented by the bride’s family on her marriage and intended to last a lifetime — and much of the rest by a huge wardrobe and a cupboard on which a TV set broadcast a sermon. Supper simmered on a hot plate on the floor, while the proud parents invited me to sit with them and their two little girls on the available carpet space. We chatted for a while about this and that, and I took photographs of the new baby, a bonny little boy who wore around his neck a hegab, a written charm, in a little leather purse suspended on a string. The mother had obtained the hegab from a magician, in this case the local sheikh, and she had asked for it because her first born, also a son, had died — taken, she told me, by her qarinah.

The qarinah might also put a spell on the mother’s milk. If her milk failed she might arrange to go to the cemetery on the outskirts of the village. If she lived near an ancient burial ground she would ask the guard to open a tomb. In either case, she was looking for a fright to shock her milk into returning. Mothers of twins gave the babies camel’s milk; this was to ensure that their souls did not leave one of the babies while it slept and enter the body of a cat. A family told me that one of their twins had been in a coma for three days at the same time that the family cat disappeared, but when the cat was found locked in a cupboard the child recovered. (This was given as a reason why Egyptians like to take care of cats; they might be harbouring the spirit of a twin.)

As a rule, breastfeeding continued for two years. To wean the baby women used the old Shakespearean remedy of wormwood. However, if a baby was weaned and then returned to the breast it would be cursed by the evil eye. The new mother, whether or not she believed in the supernatural or even followed to the letter the advice of her sheikh, daya or wise woman, would take every precaution to protect her child from the eye and other demons. Even today you might see an elderly man with the vestiges of a pierced ear; if you ask how he acquired the hole he will tell you that when he was an infant his mother pierced his ears and dressed him as a girl to steer demons, as well as the evil eye cast by jealous neighbours, away from her precious baby boy. A name found in ancient Egypt was “Senbi”, meaning “healthy one”, which may have been used as a form of sympathetic magic.

One would do an enormous disfavour to a new mother to tell her she had a pretty baby: it would be as good as a death sentence. If her child did fall sick she would, if she could, visit a health centre, but she probably would not discount the influence of the evil eye. An acquaintance of mine took her pretty baby of about eight months to a wedding in Edfu. After a day or two the baby fell ill, and an old woman at the gathering, not wishing to offend any of the guests, suggested that each of the women present remove two of her hairs. The hairs were burnt; the child recovered; no one knew who had cast the spell and everyone’s feelings were spared.

Some of these superstitions were more prevalent in the Canal Zone and the Delta than among the deeply religious people of Upper Egypt. In Suez mothers of a sick child would cut out a paper doll and prick it with pins, saying, “This is in the eye of...,” running through the names of people she perceived as possible enemies. The Bedouin were considerably more superstitious than the Nile fellahin (peasant farmers).

One of a boy’s final stages of infancy was marked when he received his first haircut around his first birthday. This growth of hair, a sheikh told me, was sacred because it grew in the womb. The hair was cut except for the one lock; the mother wrapped the shorn locks into a clay ball which she gave to a Muslim cleric or Coptic priest or buried somewhere safe and sacred, often under the threshold of her house. When I showed some photographs of similar clay balls to people in Luxor and asked what they were, the exclaimed: “Ya salaam, that’s what a mother does when her son has his first haircut!” They were astounded when I told them the photos came from a New Kingdom dig and were buried 3,000 years earlier. As one elderly man put it to me, “They were so clever in those days, they knew everything we know!”

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