In order to understand the present, we need to go back to the past. How I live now is the result of how my ancestors lived, and I was lucky enough to be born into a family of landowners and successful farmers, who have lived and worked this land for centuries. The land was, and still is, very important to my people and people’s fortunes were made, or broken by how they managed that land and its produce.
The most famous, recent ancestor, from my father’s side of the family, was a woman called Salmana. Her real name was Saida Hussein el Batlan and she had grown up on the side of the hills in Qurna, above ancient tombs and burials. Her family, Batlaniin, was one of the larger tribal families in the area and was one of the settled Bedouin families who had inhabited the local tombs at Tarif¹ in the previous century.
Salmana was my great grandmother and she was born in the latter half of the 1800s. She grew up on the hill, spending her life with her family, learning how to be a good wife, as all women were trained. From the moment she was born, her life was focussed on getting married and having a man’s children, preferably boys. She was taught to cook and clean and to be subservient to men and older women. But somewhere along the line, she also learned how to be strong and independent, or maybe it was her inherited bedouin strength which showed itself in her personality.
She was light-skinned but with ruddy-cheeks. She was short in stature and a little plump. In later years, people remarked on her light skin and often suggested that she was Turkish. The Turks had ruled Egypt for many years and many families still carry the Turkish genes. However, it is possible that her skin colouring was the result of her Bedouin heritage. The Berbers were yellow-skinned, in comparison to Egyptians and their noses are flatter, which is one of our family traits. They were also agriculturists and Salmana inherited a great skill in this arena too.
She was married in her teens, to a farmer called Omar Amer. He was in his twenties. when they married. He was a member of the Horubat family of Qurna. She went to live in his family home, beside the Nile. As was traditional in Egyptian society, girls went to live in their husband’s home and men brought wives into the family home. Omar’s home was a small farm on a site which was higher than the flood plain, so their farm was not damaged by the annual rising of the waters. His family had little over a feddan² to work.
Omar was a small man who wore a goatee. He was quiet in comparison to Salmana and he respected his wife enough to let her take control of the farm. He recognised that her abilities were greater than his so, he was happy for her to exercise them. Over time, she worked hard to accrue enough money to buy land of her own, and by the time her sons were born she had added twenty-five feddan of land to their farm, but she retained control of it. She was a formidable businesswoman and she created even more wealth from the produce that she grew.
She bore Omar three sons, Amer, Said and Monsour. She raised them to work on the farm but did not pay them. Instead she allowed them to take a percentage of the produce and sell it for themselves. She put each son in control of an aspect of the farm.
Saiid was the caretaker of the farm, making sure that everything, and everyone did their job, but he was a dishonest man, and often took far more than his share to sell. He oversaw the growing of the crops and made sure that everything was harvested correctly and packed away ready for market.
Amer was given the gun license. It was his job to guard the pumphouse, which irrigated all of the fields around them. Neighbouring farmers paid him for their ration of water to irrigate their own fields, still a tradition today. All monies went to his mother. One night two men came to the pumphouse to try to steal the pump, but Amer was there with his gun. He shot one man and chased the other through the field until he caught up with him and shot him too. He threw their bodies into the dark waters of the Nile.
Even though, in modern terms, this might seem quite brutal, in those days Amer would have been ashamed if he had not shot the two men. Shame on the man who is stolen from. He is not a man. If the men had succeeded in stealing from him then he would have had no other option than to kill himself. Such was the way in those days.
Monsour was the communicator, who spoke on behalf of Salmana. He bought land on her behalf, often from Christian landowners. Every penny she saved went to buy even more land, so that eventually she became a very wealthy woman.
She bought more land beside the cemetery, and built a large house, dividing the house into three parts, one for each son. Even though she did not pay them in cash, she gave them what they needed, although this could be seen as quite controlling. They were completely dependent on her, except for what they might have stolen in ‘the line of duty’. She kept them close to her, as do many Upper Egyptian mothers today. The only difference being the fact that she was a rich woman and could use her money to keep them with her.
Each house-part had three rooms, as was traditional in mud-brick houses in Qurna, and beneath the house lay extensive tombs, some of them going back as far as the Carter house, a couple of hundred metres behind them. She spent time clearing them out so that she could save her seed there.Monsour had to move into his new house as soon as it was built, so that he could be her eyes, always looking for potential land purchasing opportunities.
In those days, as today, the local souk was held in front of her son’s homes, and this was partly the reason why she had purchased that land. It was desert land, but there was a water-well nearby and large palm groves, owned by the Qurna villagers. On souk days, no-one could begin to sell anything until Salmana appeared at 5 am to set the price for all of the produce sold there. In those days, food prices were not regulated by the government, but because Salmana was one of the largest landowners in the area, she set the weekly prices. Everyone respected her judgement because she was fair.
She was also renowned for her charity. The women who worked in her orchards were permitted to take a share of the produce for herself so that she could have her own source of money independent of the menfolk. Salmana believed that all women should have their own money, but she did not tolerate stealing. Even though her sons did take from her, she knew that they were lining their own pockets, but she turned a blind eye, as they worked hard to keep their farm successful. She killed an animal for meat every week and gave it to her sons to eat.
She fed the local Sheikh too until he became rich enough to support himself. She regularly sent her grandaughter over to his house on a donkey, laden with cooked mutton, cheese and butter. His house was some distance away in the desert and she gave this food to him to distribute to the people.
She also killed a bull every year to honour the death of the Local Sheikh who was buried there. The bull was killed and cooked at the Sheikh’s tomb and then distributed in three equal parts: one part to the local poor people, one part to strangers, who had come to the honouring, and one part to all of the neighbours. Even after her death, her sons kept this tradition alive, although by the time I was born it was no longer done. Another dead tradition.
In modern times, a Sheikh’s death anniversary is celebrated by a Fair, usually consisting of money makers selling cheap plastic toys from china and lots of sweets and nuts. Kids can pay to have merry-go-round rides or go on the swing boats. Now the celebration and thanksgiving is all about the taking, not the giving.
Salmana’s husband Omar married another wife. Perhaps he felt inadequate and had had enough of living a life with a domineering woman, and needed to feel like he was in control of something, or perhaps he was like most other men in our culture, wanting a younger version. Whatever his reasons he married a younger woman, and went on to have a daughter. He and Salmana remained great friends and Salmana looked after the second wife’s child as if she were her own. She herself had never had a daughter. Omar respected his first wife and when he was on his deathbed he told the second wife to leave him with Salmana. She was the last one to see him alive.
But in reality, Salmana, as the first wife with all of the money, would have financially supported Omar, his new wife, and his subsequent children. In Egyptian tradition, anything your wife owns belongs to you, but everyone knew that it was hers and that it was her hard work and determination that had made it so successful. Omar seems to have been completely over-shadowed by his wife’s popularity and reputation.
When it came the time for Salmana’s sons to marry she naturally chose the wives! All except for Monsour, who wanted to make his own choice. He chose an ‘outsider’, someone who was not a member of our family, and Salmana was not pleased with his decision, but she accepted it nonetheless. Her name was Farhana Ahmed Monsour. Her other two sons had been given her nieces, Zeinab Ahmed Awad, who was the daughter of her sister, and Hassaniyya, who was also related to her sister. Amer married Zeinab and Saiid married Hassaniya, although he later married a second wife, like his father before him. His second wife’s name was Aisha.
Salmana’s relationship with Monsour’s wife was not a good one. They did not get on together. and Salmana felt that Farhana was too greedy and that she came from a bad family. This certainly seemed to be the case, because Farhana tried to poison Salmana by putting poison in her drinking water. Salmana drank the water but felt that something was wrong. The poison did not kill her but it did make her very sick for two weeks. Farhana was not happy that her attempt to get rid of Salmana had not succeeded.
After this murder attempt, Salmana kicked them out of her house. Soon afterwards Monsour broke his leg and shortly after that Farhana broke her leg too, and although Salmana prayed for them, it did not have a good outcome as Salmana was still harbouring bad feelings over the poisoning episode. We have a belief that if you cheat someone or try to harm someone that that harm will come back to you. So it is best to try and be honest…if you can!
On another occasion, Salmana was visiting another family member, Sheikh Tayeb, father to the present Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed el Tayyib. While they were drinking tea and eating the Sheikh suddenly said to her:
“You must go home Salmana. I can see a woman trying to break into your seeds store. She intends to steal your corn. Go home at once.”
Salmana hurried back to her farm only to find Farhana trying to steal the wheat from her store rooms. The Sheikh had been right and so had her judgment!
¹ Area near the Valley of the Kings.
²A feddan is 1.038 acres.