Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1163, (5 - 11 September 2013)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1163, (5 - 11 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

A traditional society

Much of the world of the ancient Egyptians is still reflected in the lives of people today, writes Samia Abdennour

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Egyptians are conservative by nature, and they are often keen to preserve old customs. A look at the monuments and engravings of the ancient Egyptians shows how much of the world of the Pharaohs is still reflected in the present-day lives of many Egyptians, with many contemporary customs being the preservation of those of the ancient Egyptians. These observances give Egyptians a sense of stability, and for a nation that prides itself on a recorded history of 7,000 years such traditions certainly perpetuate a sense of serenity and security.
For many Egyptians, life is a daily quest for basic needs, made tolerable because they are comforted by an extended family, consoled by religion and kept smiling by an irrepressible sense of humour. Egyptians are normally a happy, cheerful people, turning various moments of their lives into song, whether of love, joy, suffering or desire. For many Egyptians, unsolved problems are usually taken care of calmly without any fuss through the use of the expression khalliha ala Allah (leave it to God). Another “shock absorber” is maalesh (it’s alright, or don’t worry). These expressions are essential to everyone’s vocabulary.
Family ties are also very strong in Egypt. Unmarried children live with their parents irrespective of age. Not only is this cradle-to-grave bond inescapable, it would also be inconceivable for Egyptians to live otherwise.
Although the drift into the cities and population growth have somewhat altered the sense of community, Egyptians remain extremely family-oriented. Society bestows great reverence on its elders, to whom respect and love are due. Respect for elders takes many forms, especially when it comes to body language. An adult will not sit cross-legged or smoke in front of his or her elders, as both these habits are considered disrespectful. Raising the voice or contradicting an elder are also among the taboos of Egyptian etiquette. Caring for elderly parents falls on the eldest son and his family. It is uncommon for children to admit their aged parents, however disabled or needing round-the-clock care they may be, to nursing homes, as this is considered unworthy and dishonourable.
Egyptian society is patriarchal. Fathers hold a position of status and esteem, and they are the central figures of authority, the source of the family’s reputation and the basis of its identity. They are the ones who make the decisions on vital issues, such as the children’s education, their careers, marriages, choice of residence and so on. Women, on the other hand, both manage the household and participate in the labour force. But their work outside the home has little effect on the division of labour within the household: it is still the women’s role to cook, clean and raise the children, along with their work outside the home.
Though such traditions are esteemed by the older generation as an expression of their identity, some members of the younger generation today, especially those educated in foreign schools, can be flippant about the old traditions, being anxious to do away with them and embrace Western habits of life.

CHILDBIRTH IN EGYPT: the Al-Subu (seventh day) ceremony is one of the most popular childbirth traditions in Egypt. Its origin dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who, because of the high incidence of death in newborn babies, only celebrated the infant’s arrival a week after the birth when it was clear that the baby would live.
Such rituals are nowhere more clearly depicted than at the Temple of Hatshepsut on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor. Modern Egyptians also celebrate the arrival of the baby on the afternoon of the seventh day. This gives the mother a chance to rest after delivery, so that she can share in and enjoy the celebrations. This is also the time when the baby is given its name, if this has not been previously decided.
Choosing a name for the baby, if it is not to have that of its grandparent, occasionally causes controversy, and this is resolved by the “candle tradition”. In this custom, the parents agree on three different names and write each on three equally sized candles. The candles are placed on a large tray in a conspicuous place away from any drafts. The tray is filled with nuts and beans, sprinkled with rosewater, and, if the infant is a girl, an ulla (earthenware jar) adorned with as many old trinkets as the family owns is placed in the tray. If the infant is a boy, a pitcher decorated with natural or artificial flowers complements the tray.
The contents of the tray — nuts, beans, rosewater, gold and flowers — symbolise the parents’ wishes that the infant be endowed with abundance, sweetness of life, prosperity and happiness. The three candles are lit at the same time, and the child is given the name of the last candle to burn out.
Most Egyptians, whether Muslim of Christian, or rich or poor, follow more or less the same pattern during the Al-Subu ceremony. The idea of this tradition is to dispel evil spirits and please the angels of the house, who will in turn look after the infant and grant it a happy and successful life.
On the eve of Al-Subu, friends and neighbours join members of the family in the preparations. Like the ancient Egyptians, who offered seven beads of porphyry to the goddess Isis on the occasion, today’s Egyptians mix salt with seven different seeds — wheat, oats, brad beans, rice, corn, barley and fenugreek — the salt warding off the evil eye and the seeds warding off hunger. These items are then put to one side. Coins, sweets, nuts and dried dates are also mixed together and kept separately, these being tossed into the air at the end of the forthcoming party.
Small bags or paper cornets bearing the baby’s name and date of birth are filled with dried dates, candy, nuts and a small candle to be given to guests as a souvenir when they leave. A highly calorific drink called mughat (made of fenugreek, ghee and crushed nuts) is offered to guests along with cakes and savouries. Nursing mothers are urged to drink this concoction daily, as it is believed to enrich their milk.
On the appointed day, the parents invite family, neighbours and friends, especially those with young children, to share in their celebration, and, whether invited or not, it is open house for all those who wish to visit and participate in the ceremony. The party begins at sunset with salt being sprinkled around the house to ward off the evil eye. The mother, carrying the baby in her arms, then leads a procession of children holding small lighted candles and singing a partly nonsense rhyme that begins hala’atak, bergalatak, hala’a dahab fi widnatak (with a gold ring in your ear). The procession goes into every room in the house, throwing handfuls of pulses to feed the evil spirits lurking in the corners and dispel them.
The baby is then placed in a large ghurbal (wooden sieve) on the floor, often decorated with flowers to symbolise domesticity and the purification that is associated with the sifting of flour. The mother is made to step over this seven times, symbolising her authority over the infant. This is followed by the gentle rocking of the ghurbal from side to side, while a member of the family pounds a hoan (brass mortar) near its head. Both the rocking and the pounding are thought to help immunise the child against the hustle and bustle of life and to instil in it valour and courage against hardship.
After impressing the infant with these formidable qualities, it is now time to introduce it to the humorous side of life. The baby is lifted from the sieve and the grandmothers and older female members of the family enter into a verbal sparring match, advising the baby with instructions such as “obey your mother, not your father” or “smile at your paternal grandmother and frown when you see your maternal grandmother.”
The party ends with the children singing ya Rabb, ya Rabbena, tikbar we tibaa addina (Lord, our Lord, may you grow up to be as old as we are), whereupon the ghurbal is filled with the mixture of dried date, nuts, coins and candy made up on the previous evening and the contents are tossed into the air over the children’s heads. These then scamper about on their hands and knees, picking up and filling their pockets with the loot.

EGYPTIAN NAMES: In all official documents, Egyptians are known by three names; the name of the person, the name of his or her father, and the name of his or her grandfather. Thus, a name like Souhail Samir Sadek, denotes the name given to the person, in this case Souhail, his father’s name of Samir, and his grandfather’s name of Sadek.
A few Egyptian families also boast of surnames, the origin of this custom going back to the 19th century, when Mohamed Ali, the then viceroy of Egypt (1811-49), appropriated the land of the country and became its sole owner. As a reward for various services rendered, he bestowed endowments on some of his subjects in the form of land. These individuals then became feudal landlords, and upon their deaths, their offspring naturally inherited the land.
In order to emphasise their claim of ownership, the heirs retained the name of the original recipient and thus became known as families such as the Badrawi, Doss, and so on, while the rest of the population was still content to use the names of their father and grandfather. Even today, the idea of acquiring land through inheritance, as opposed to purchasing it, is stamped with the hallmark of prestige, prosperity and a good background.
Most Arabic names have a meaning. They may be epithets like Samer (the entertainer), or Salma (peaceful), or they may be indications of the individual’s humble relationship to God, such as Abdel-Montasser (slave of the Victorious), Abdel-Rahim (slave of the Merciful), and so on. As a result of travels and conquest, foreign names, mainly Turkish, Persian and British, have also infiltrated into Egyptian naming, and some of these have become popular. Esmat and Mervat are originally Turkish names, Safinaz and Nermin are Persian, while William and Victoria are definitely British.
Names sometimes also bear a religious identity. There are typical Muslim names like Ragab, Ramadan and Shaaban (the names of Muslim months), Mohamed, Hassan and Zeinab (the latter being the names of members of the Prophet Mohamed’s family), and there are Coptic names like Boctor, Kirollos and Dimyana (the names of Coptic holy persons). It is also common in Muslim families to register two names on a son’s birth certificate, starting with the Prophet’s name, such as Mohamed Adel, or Mohamed Fuad, even though the boy himself will simply be known as Adel or Fuad. Meanwhile some Coptic families will choose as a name the first one they come across when opening the Bible at random. For this reason, names like Esther, Israel and Rachel are not uncommon among Copts.
Officially names are always written out in full (the three names), and initials are not used in Arabic. Although a person officially has three names, he or she will usually be known by only two. For the second name, some people will prefer to use their grandfather’s name over their father’s and will attach this to their names, omitting the father’s name. This can cause some confusion, especially for Westerners, as siblings will then have different second names, and outsiders may be at a loss to understand the family link between them.
The Egyptian flautist Ines Abdel-Dayem is the sister of the soprano Iman Mustafa, for example, the writer Morsi Saadeddin was the brother of composer Baligh Hamdi, and the musician Morsi Gamil is the brother of singer Fayda Kamel. To overcome this ambiguous situation, some families — mainly from the middle and upper middle classes — have recently started adopting the grandfather’s name as a family surname, thus allowing cousins to have a similar surname.
Under all circumstances women officially retain their maiden names after marriage and do not automatically assume their husband’s name. This is a Muslim doctrine applicable to all women of both faiths, and it is related to the ownership of property and the protection of women’s rights. However, on the social level and as an exception to the rule, the ex-presidents’ wives Jihan and Suzanne were known as Jehan Al-Sadat and Suzanne Mubarak, respectively.
Among the popular classes, some women prefer to conceal their names from strangers, and are thus called “Umm X” (the mother of X), X being the name of their first born son. These women do not view this custom as being a negation of their identity, but on the contrary they are proud of this appellation and feel that it ennobles them.
In the immediate aftermath of the July 1952 Revolution — the heyday of secular pan-Arab nationalism — Egyptians tended to shun names that were too closely identified with religion, opting instead for names like Soha (the name of a star) that had no obviously religious connotations. Today, however, the tide has turned. A name like Islam, used for a boy, was never heard of in the early 1950s, yet now it is not uncommon among Muslims, whereas Fadi (saviour) is now in vogue among Copts.
Addressing people by their first names is less common in Egypt than it is in the West. A title, not necessarily merited, frequently precedes the first name, such as sayed (lord), ustaz (Mr or professor), hag or hagga (literally a person who has been on pilgrimage), anissa (miss), abla (elder sister), and so on. Children will automatically call their parents’ friends tante (aunt) or ammo (uncle) and never Mr or Mrs. These titles show respect and at the same time friendship.

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