I was born on the first of November, 1975, on the West Bank of the River Nile. My home was, and is, in the village of Qurna, in the City of Luxor. We are geographically part of Luxor, but we do not see ourselves as part of that bustling, dusty city. We are separate. Our customs, our beliefs, our ways of living are different. We live as our people have always lived. For thousands of years, we have worked the fields, grown crops, tended animals and fished. Luxor, across the river, is a different world to ours.
As children, we knew the city’s name, but it meant nothing. Our lives were here, in Qurna, where we were surrounded by fields, deserts, mountains and Palm trees. Even our history was unknown to us. It was something vague, existing on the outskirts of our daily lives. Our only connection to that history was the ancient artefacts we found, centimetres below the surface of the dirt we played football on. We sold them for 5LE because we knew that there were people who wanted them, but we could not understand why. It was just old stuff, old rubbish. It was of no value to us.
Our home was a small house made of mud-bricks. There I lived with my mother and father and seven siblings. It was a single story house of three rooms, with a small garden in front, and a larger space behind for our animals. The entire property was surrounded by a tall protective wall, with the only entrance being the large Acacia wood door set into it. My father put a strong metal bolt on the inside of the door, to stop the neighbour’s bull from coming into the garden and killing the children. He also made a strong floor for the house, with limestone from the quarry. He brought home cartloads after he had finished his work as a quarryman. He tipped it all over the floor of each room, added water to it and stamped it down. By the time he was finished our floor looked like ceramic and my mother was very pleased with it.
The house comprised one large reception room, which was the first room you entered from the garden. This was where we received visitors and where my father slept at night on the palm-wood couch. From the reception room, you could enter two other rooms. The first room was where we all slept with my mother. My eldest sister Nagat, who looked after me most of my childhood, made some beds for us out of bricks and palm wood. It made it much safer than sleeping on the floor where the scorpions and snakes could bite us while we slept.
My mother made us pillows stuffed with palm fibre, the same fibre we used as a scrubber for our skin when we bathed. We slept on sheep skins and our blankets were made of woven wool from our own sheep. When the warmer weather came, around April-time, my father put Hasira, a mat made of woven river reeds, on the ground in the front garden for us to sleep. It was too hot to sleep indoors.
The room behind our bedroom was where my mother made the cheese and butter and where she stored the dried Molokhia and beans. Because her dairy products were so good, workmates of my father would come home with him after a day cutting stone in the quarry, just to eat dishes full of heavy cream. Every day another of his workmates would come. It was a blessing that we had so much to share, as wages were not good for stonecutters. Having land made the difference between poverty and survival. We never had a lot of money but we nearly always had food. My parents worked hard to ensure that we had enough.
We had a camel too, which helped us with the sugarcane harvests, a donkey, and Muscovy ducks that swam in a pond my mother built. We had many turkeys and pigeons, a couple of buffalo and cows, sheep and many rabbits. My father grew huge cucumbers in our front garden, which grew like giant beanstalks all over the house.
My mother made money selling butter, cheese, rabbits, pigeons and turkeys. At one point, everywhere you looked all you could see were rabbits. It seemed like there were hundreds of them. She sold twenty rabbits every week to a woman who came to pick them up from her. She was paid fifty piasters[i] for twenty rabbits. Rabbits were a staple food for Egyptians and were often eaten in a Molokohia[ii] soup. After a few years of selling to this woman, she found out that the woman had been cheating her all along. Because my mother never went to the souk (market) herself she did not know how much rabbits actually cost. When she found out that she had been robbed for years she stopped selling the rabbits. The woman who had robbed her was so embarrassed that she never came back again.
Palm trees grew all around us and often I was able to climb up on the roof to pick the ripe dates. Our house was the tallest house in the area and from our rooftop, I could see everything. Behind us lay the Nile, and in between the river and our house lay sugarcane fields and the large canal. There were only three or four houses scattered around us when my father built our home, but now, it is like a rabbit warren, with tall concrete and brick apartment buildings surrounding us on every side.
I was the sixth child of seven children, four boys and three girls, and the second to be born in this house. My older brothers and sisters were all born in my father’s family home beside the Nile, where my parents had lived since their marriage. If all of the children my mother had carried had survived I might have been the twelfth child to be born to my parents. She had miscarried a few times, one or two of those being quite late into her pregnancy. Others had died while still very young. My eldest sister, Fatma, named after my mother, drowned when she was just three years old. At that time, the family had an expensive English-bought water pump in a pump-house, which irrigated all the fields around them.
In those days, children wandered around by themselves; no-one really took much notice because they were busy doing chores or cooking. Little Fatma wandered off to the pump-house and, feeling thirsty, she decided to try to get some water to drink. She climbed up onto the concrete wall of the channel, which fed all the fields with water from the pump-house, but then lost her footing and fell into the deep water and drowned. My mother still cries when she tells us this story, even though it was nearly fifty years ago.
My mother’s life has not been easy. She was thirteen years old when she first married my father, and my father was in his early twenties. Her first child, Fatma, was born a year later. A year after little Fatma had drowned so tragically, another child was born. She was named Hanem. After Hanem came another girl, Nagat. In our culture, it is desirable to have boys, as boys carry the family name, so when my mother did not produce the desired boy, my father, to his eternal shame, angrily called her “You mother of girls.” This was a painful insult to give to any woman at that time, especially as she had lost her first child. Her next child was a boy, Mohammed, (named after the Prophet), but she never forgave her husband for the insult, an insult she still does not forgive, even though my father is now gone from our lives.
I remember, when I was a young boy, watching my mother give birth to another sibling who died soon afterwards. I was spying when I should have been outside, but I wanted to see this mystery for myself. I peered through a crack in the wooden door. She was squatting on two bricks, her black dress pulled up above her belly, a foot on each brick. The local midwife was squatting in front of her, helping the baby to be born, and another woman was supporting my mother by standing behind her and holding her under her arms so that she could push. The baby was born on the packed limestone and mud floor of the room we lived in, and the placenta buried in a hole dug from the ground in the room, right where it had fallen.
Every floor in every mud-brick house on the West Bank has buried in it, the placenta of each child born there. The children, and their parents, if they too were born there, are rooted in their homes, nourished by their family. Born on the soil of the earth, grounded and connected.
My mother always knew when a baby was was going to arrive, so she fed all of the animals and cleaned the house in preparation. Then, when she was in labour she called the midwife, Sahalula, and a local neighbour. Once the baby was born, she rested for a few hours, and then she was up doing light chores. The midwife came to look in on her and help her for a few hours every day, just to make sure that the new mother was doing alright.
In those days, neighbours were neighbours. We did not have that many, but the ones we did have always helped us when we needed it. And when they needed us we were there too. We shared what we had and so did they. When my mother made Bettaw, sourdough-cornbread, she would share it with all of the neighbours because she knew that they only ate barley bread. Only people who had land could eat wheat or corn. Barley flour was for the poor. As one old man said bitterly, “We fed barley to our animals, so are we less than the animals?”
In the present time we are surrounded by people and buildings and even though we still act like good neighbours, our neighbours do not. But they still treat us like the neighbours we used to be, coming regularly to ask for things they can easily provide for themselves but choose not to. We still live in the past, and we still share, but now people take more than they give. It is a sad thing.
After my oldest brother Mohammed was born another boy came, but he died before he reached his first birthday. It was not uncommon for children to die at this time. We did not have doctors like we do today and it only took a fever to take a child’s life. One day the child would be fine and the next day he would get a fever and die. It was a sad reality, and even now, when children get fevers, we still race them to the hospital to get an injection, terrified that they will die. The fear of sudden death has left its scars and those scars take many years to heal.
My brother Taher was the last child to be born on the farm. Amer followed him two years later, born in the new mud-brick house and then I arrived, a couple of years later. Each of us was born at two-yearly intervals. My mother breastfed each of us, which probably acted as a natural contraceptive so that we were all born pretty regularly.
When my mother was in labour with me the midwife was called as usual and everything seemed alright. The labour was short and uneventful so when I finally emerged Sahalula , after cutting the cord and clearing my airways, wrapped me in a cloth to present me to my tired mother. But then she stopped and said, “I am sorry but the baby is already dead.”
She laid my tiny body on the wooden couch. I was not moving and not breathing and had no colour in my body, but my hair was white. My mother collapsed with grief. Another dead baby! But my teenage sister Hanem had been present during the birth and something made her check me. Perhaps she needed to be sure that I was really gone, or maybe the shock made her want to see the dead baby for herself. Whatever it was, her doing this saved my life. When she looked at me, she stroked my face and suddenly she shouted.
“He’s alive, My brother is not dead. He’s alive. Look, he is breathing” She was nearly hysterical. The midwife checked and yes, I was still alive. I was not to be thrown away after all, to join the other babies in their graves.
Even though I had survived the birth, I remained weak and unwell. My parents did not know if I would survive. They were too afraid to register my birth, just in case I died, so they waited a year. They decided to take me to the local healer, who was known as Sheikha Dai. She was a channel for a child in spirit, a young boy, who gave medical advice to sick people. She gave her advice freely, never charging a piastre for it. When the boy spoke through her it was with the voice of a male child.
This young spirit told my mother that I would survive if they followed his instructions. He told my father to take me down to the canal, and to bring a new white galabeya[iii] with him. This task was to be carried out early in the morning before people were out of their beds.
“When you see the sun coming up you have to cut the old galabeya from the baby’s body, then throw it in the river. Next, you have to dunk the baby in the water three times, making sure that he is completely submerged. The djinn in his body will leave and go into the water. When you have done this you must put a new white galabeya on him, then pass him up under your galabeya and take him out at your neck opening. When you take him home make an oil of Olive and black cumin and every sunrise and sunset, for seven days, you must massage the oil into his body. If you do all of this, then the baby will survive!
The following morning, before anyone was awake, my mother and father took me outside. The canal was only one hundred meters behind our home, so it was easy for my father to carry me across the misty, cold sugarcane field, cross the dirt road, then walk down the steep incline to the water. The water levels were low, as it was winter [iv], so he had to get into the water himself.
The water of the canal was dark in the early morning and the burrows of Nile Moniter Lizards showed up as dark pits in the side of the river bank. Acacia and mango trees hung over the water, and cream foam, from the polluted waters clung to the edge of the muddy banks.
Into this dirty water, filled with the larvae of Bilharzia, my father submerged me. The water was freezing and I struggled for air. He pulled me out and dunked me again. I gasped in cold and panic and then was submerged one more. I was rigid with fear, my little arms and legs extended nakedly, and I could not make a sound. My father carried my shaking, terrified body out of the canal.
The water had been so cold that they were afraid that it might kill me, so they quickly put on the new Galabeya and then thrust me haphazardly under my father’s wet galabeya. He maneuvered me up under his clothes with my mother helping him to bring me out through the neckline.
The sun had now risen and the warmth quickly spread across the landscape, dissipating the mists. They climbed up the steep bank and carried me back to the house as quickly as they could, my father using his own body heat to keep me warm.
When they were back in the house everyone was waking up and my eldest sisters, Hanem and Najat, went about organising breakfast for the younger children. While they made the sweet tea for everyone, my mother massaged the black cumin olive oil onto my body, just as the young spirit boy had recommended.
It was like a baptism and rebirth and the spirit boy was right. I did survive, although my mother admitted that she had not actually carried out the entire instructions, for she only put the oil on me for five days, sunrise and sunset. The black cumin and the Olive oil was very expensive and they knew now that I would survive. But as a result, her fear of my potential death never left her.
Once it became clear that the healing had worked and I would be alright, they registered my birth: the 1st of November, 1975, an entire year after I was born, and probably not even the right date! It was, and still is, quite common to choose the date of birth to register on the child’s birth Certificate. I do not know the exact date of birth of either of my parents, as they did not register birthdates when they were born. Back in the time of English rule in Egypt, people were born, and then they died. That was that. There was no record of anything back then. No-one really cared about the lives of local people, and to a large extent, that is still the truth.
As a result of my early experiences in the canal, to this day, I cannot swim, and have been terrified of deep water., until recently. Even too much water on my face when I showered left me breathless and panicky. But I am sure that my ‘baptism’, in water that was riddled with disease and bacteria, gave me very good immunity and, therefore, I rarely become ill now. But as a child, I remained small and sickly for many years and would cause my parents and older sisters much anguish, when they had to rush me many times, to the two-roomed hospital, the only hospital in our growing town.
I have often thought about this story and wondered why I had not wanted to be born into this life and why, when I did come, that I had to be reborn. My mother gave birth to me first, but then I was reborn of my father. Maybe there is a spiritual significance to that event which has yet to be played out and perhaps that is why I have loved my father so much in this life and will always love him, even though he is no longer with us in this physical world of ours.
Recently I did venture into the waters of the Nile, while it had covered the land during its annual rising, my fear not so strong now. When I got home and showed my mother she panicked. She believed that if I swam in the water of the Nile again that the djinn I had released when I was a baby would come back into me again and I would sicken and die.
Such is the power of these old beliefs, beliefs which have lasted for thousands of years…but what she didn’t know, because I didn’t tell her, was that the water only came up to my chest. I wasn’t really swimming at all!
(i) Piastre is the Egyptian unit of currency. There are 100piastres in 1 Egyptian pound or LE.
(ii) Molokhia is a green leafy plant related to the Mallow plant and is eaten as a staple food. Soup is made from both the fresh green leaves or the dried leaves and it was traditionally eaten with either fish or rabbit. Many houses grew their own Molokhia if they had a garden.
(iii) A Galabeya is the traditional Egyptian clothing for men and for women.
(iv) During winter the Nile waters are low and in summer, during what would have originally been the yearly inundation, the water levels rise.