Magazine article New Internationalist

Making Room

Magazine article New Internationalist

Making Room

Article excerpt

My upstairs neighbour, the former building guardian's wife, is named Rabaa or 'Fourth' - in other words, the fourth girl born to a big poor family whose prospects were too dim to excite the name-choosing impulse in her parents. She's a beautiful woman, but at 48 looks much older. Her uterus fell out at 28 having brought ten children into the world, six of whom survived. Especially since her husband's death, nothing worries her more than seeing to it that her own four daughters get married. Not the fact that her family lives in a couple of storage rooms on the roof, that her health is failing, or that only one of her children has managed to finish high school.

Of the four girls, one is married and two engaged. But just because a couple is engaged doesn't mean they'll get married. In Egypt, engagement is a consolation prize for accept- ing traditions that demand celibacy until marriage, and economics that prevent marriage until many years of hard work add up to the required savings for a new house- hold. Being engaged means you can do things like kiss, and secretly more, but the most important thing it means is having a partner in a project called 'the future', circumscribed to say the least, but full of youth's blind promise. Being engaged is a test, a benevolent set-up. It doesn't always go the distance, but in the meantime it lends life drama and hope, while protecting the girl's honour should she and her fiancé err and go too far.

Around 10 years ago, Rabaa bundled her girls cheerfully off to their Upper Egyptian hometown, for a combination family reunion and mass circumcision.

'Why put them through it?' I queried. 'You know it can be dangerous, and it hurts.'

'You're telling me,' she said.

'So why?'

'Because we all do it, it's not a big deal. And besides if you don't, your thing can get as big as a man's,' she said, furtively eyeing the crotch of my jeans.

I didn't dissuade her further - we didn't know each other well then - but even now, I doubt I'd try too hard. Singlehandedly, on virtually nothing, she's raised six kids to be giving, honest individuals. No-one takes drugs or drinks. They all have jobs and contribute to the family kitty, even the married ones. …

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