Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Grime of existence

From the fertile mud to which Egyptian civilisation owed its life to the various uses of mud in the country’s villages, Sherif Sonbol sifts through what mud has meant to the Egyptians and how intricately it has been linked to their culture and heritage

Grime of existence
Grime of existence
Al-Ahram Weekly

In our modern Egyptian language, we sometimes use the word “mud” either as a form of insult to one another or to describe a horrible day. So when we want to wish someone a terrible day, we will say: “naharak mettayen,” or in other words, “Your day is muddy.”

This has not always been the case. Mud has also traditionally been a sign of goodness, connotating the best fertilisers for the land (when it was arriving with the Nile water). My friend, Alaa Karim, a late movie director, agreed and added: “This is why farmers’ women wear black cloth in Upper Egypt.”

In her book Mistress of the Temple, telling the mysterious romantic real story of Umm Setty, Yvonne Harlech quotes her main character, who lived 4,000 years ago, as saying: “There is no shame to live in a mud hut.”Bentreshy protested when the temple girls mocked her humble origins. “Khnum fashioned the world out of mud and shaped our ancestors on his potter’s wheel — and the blue lotus burst from the mire and gave birth to the sun god himself.”

I remembered all of this as I was watching Umm Shaaban, a woman in her 50s, playing with mud in Al-Orabah Al-Madfounah village in Baliana, Sohag. The word mud here is a blessing when we talk about that noble element of land and a curse when we talk about some of the dark manners and habits that still control the world.

The view needs a Shakespeare to describe; she was sitting on top of the ruins of a house that had collapsed in the 1980s. In the foreground were scattered broken bricks and in the distant background was the yard of the great Abydos temple. A dark figure worked silently and did not jump to my throat as I pointed my digital camera with its long zoom lens. She continued to patiently shape the mud as I installed my tripod, clicked pictures and tried unsuccessfully to include the temple itself in the frame. She kept stealing discreet glances as she worked, and never said a word. Soon, it got dark and I watched cautiously. Women in this far end of Upper Egypt, what is known as saeed gowany, are known of being extremely conservative. She finished work as the light went away and moved to her reception area at the entrance of the narrow alley next to the workshop, where she sat down on the floor with a younger (but bigger) woman.

I went to one of the village cafés on the main street where I met friends. We had two soft drinks, six cups of tea and two Turkish coffees, and the total bill came to LE15. Any of our modern cafés in Cairo is likely to sell a single cup of tea for double that sum.

Walking back home, I was talking with Shehtah, my local friend, and we passed by Umm Shaaban, who was sitting silently with the other woman. She looked quite noble and commanding, even though she did not have a chair to sit on.

Shehtah told me that she was the woman making the ovens for the village, as well as the little pigeon shelters called kennah and other kinds of furniture, and he mentioned that she was currently repairing an old and very special bed made of mud in his father-in-law’s house.

In the morning, I was waiting in the house when she arrived and smiled as she saw me. She introduced herself as the general contractor of the village. Houses like this are usually designed to have a large reception area with no ceiling and rooms on all sides. Many people were moving around and the younger women never sat down. I stood up as an old woman of probably around 80 years of age came in. I remained standing waiting for her to sit, but she did not. Finally I invited her to sit. She mentioned that she never sits unless she gets permission from a man first. I told her that in certain areas of Cairo, if a man sits while a woman is standing, it would be a major blunder. She laughed together with all the standing women. I asked her which situation would she prefer? She immediately answered: “Ours of course. This is one of the things I call a muddy curse, when it comes to such manners.”

As I continued my conversation with Umm Shaaban, she confirmed that all the “houses” were hers, byoutaty. We laughed and she said that she did not build the houses, but was responsible for the interiors. She builds all the village ovens, the butagaz and mekabat, the covers for milk pans, the bread carriers, pigeon shelters among numerous other things. She recounted that she had experienced plenty of misfortune in her life, in her Arabic words, yama dakit ala el ras toboul, literally, so many drums had been beaten over her head. The conversation then suddenly shifted to her personal life. I asked her:

“Which of these drums was the worst?”

“My mud career.”

“Really? But is this not your career, your specialty?”

“Yes. I know it better than anyone. It is really tough. Once the cold attacks you in winter, due to the continuous immersion of your hands in the wet mud, it steals all that you have. It is funny how work comes only in winter. I sit all summer waiting for work, but it doesn’t arrive till winter.”

“Maybe you can produce things in summer and sell them in winter?”

She leaned over to say something quietly to a lady nearby, “We can take him to the Abu Hussein house, where I am building an oven, so he can see.”

“ Yes, of course,” the lady answered. “But we will need to clear the house. Abu Hussein will never allow him to enter while his wife is in the house.”

“Oh no, no problem. He is a very safe person.”

“But he might take a picture?”

“No, no, we trust him completely.”

Looking back at me, she said, “We will take you to see an oven.”

“And do you know how to bake shamsi bread?” I asked her.

(Feels insulted) “Me? If I do not know how to bake, then no one can. I taught all these women everything. You see that young lady? I taught her everything she knows about cooking. I taught them all everything when I came to this town. I am not from here. I come from Al-Ghabat, the neighbouring village. I got married here.”

She added, “I can’t see clearly anymore. I have foggy cloud over my eyes. I need an operation.”

“Would you have liked to do it in Cairo?”

“I can’t. My daughter is divorced and she and her boy live with me. She is the other woman who was sitting with me in the reception area after darkness. I earn money for them.”

“And why don’t you teach her?”

“She can’t. She is divorced.”

I realised later that she wanted to tell me that a divorced woman can’t go and come as she pleases because rumours will be chasing her if she does.

“But why not teach her?”

“Do you think anyone taught me? I took their father a blind man.”

“And why did you choose him?”

“A woman brought me to him. He was sitting on the dekkah, (special bench), and I took him (married him). His clothes were very dirty, so I told him, I will take you on one condition: That I am allowed to wash my father’s clothes and bake for him as well. He said: first you wash your father’s clothes and then mine. He also said that whatever we eat, the father shares with them as well. So, I took him. My father did not want food, as his relatives were supporting him, but he needed someone to cook for him. So, it went like this. And finally before his death, my husband asked me not to take money for his coffin from my father, but from the mud income.”

“And how did you learn?”

“After marriage, I went to the mud maker of the village, and asked her to build me an oven. She agreed and asked for a lot of money. I told her that she knows my man is not working and that I can’t afford this kind of money, but she insisted. I had no choice, so I started to build my own oven. Many people gave me advice about the contents of the material. It is always mud from the land plus homrah (powder of red bricks made of mud as well), hay and different kinds of animal waste. Each kind for a different job.”

I used to think waste from donkeys, cows and pigeons were are all the same, but Umm Shaaban explained how different each kind is.

This way of life encapsulates farmers’ economic philosophy, men daknoh we iftilloh, which simply means that the farmer does not buy anything. He dresses from his own products, builds his house from his land and animals, eats from his land’s produce, etc. An economic theory to be respected, to say the least.

Umm Shaaban explained that she was now working in the famous nawamah, which is a medium-height cupboard built from mud used to store items in its lower part, while children sleep on top. A very practical wardrobe indeed. She worked for three days to fix it in Shehtah’s father-in-law’s house. Many people in the village did not know what we were talking about when we mentioned it. Nawamah is a heritage that has disappeared.

Finally, I took the plunge and asked Umm Shaaban her name.

Women in Upper Egypt do not tell their names to anyone — people address them as the mother of someone; the mother of Shaaban in our case. I remembered some time ago that the guard at our building in Cairo had held an envelope addressed to a lady in the building from the bank carrying her name on it, and that he had told me in the elevator with a big smile on his face: “I have found out her name.”

“I am known as Umm Shaaban, and people call me Bassimah, but my real name isNisf Al-Dunia (half the world).”

What beautiful wisdom. She really did have half the world between her hands.

Then she added: “A Mr George from the United States took mud and homrah with him to make mud there but it did not work. It needs an expert. What is your name?”

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