Elite Treatment of Honour Crimes
in Modern Egypt
The Arab elite has often condemned or even more generally ignored folk literature. Even leading modernists like Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (1889–1973) looked upon colloquial forms of Arabic as debased.1 This in itself made the compositions of the common people unworthy of a serious man’s attention except as entertainment. Furthermore, most Arab writers of the twentieth century saw themselves not only as artists but also as agents of cultural and social reform, and shied away from themes that struck them as trivial or reactionary.2
The resulting gap is indeed wide between the perceptions of the educated, especially those who have received a Western type of education and have adopted a Western type of dress–the efendis– and the gallabiyya wearers, who form the great majority of the population in the countryside and the poorer quarters of the cities. And nowhere is the gap wider than on the theme of honour crimes.
These account for most of the violence that occurs in an otherwise peaceable society, for its inherited ethos calls out for blood in two situations that brook no compromise. The first is the ṯa>r,3 which requires a murder to be avenged by a male member of the victim’s family. The second demands that a woman who has departed from the strictest standards of chastity to be slaughtered by a near male relative, usually her father or her brother.
The notion that a murdered man’s spirit will not rest until he is avenged is common to many cultures, including that of pre-Islamic Arabia. In present-day Egyptian rural society, it is not necessarily the murderer who has to be killed–any male member of his family will do–nor is it a requirement that the new victim be killed in a fair fight. As his death must in turn be avenged, vendettas involving entire villages can stretch over generations. Islam provides for the payment of blood-wite to break the vicious spiral, but even this is not wholeheartedly accepted. In a ballad that tells of a feud between Muslims and Christians in the village of Bardanōha in 1943, the daughter of a man killed while raiding an opponent’s granary is offered substantial compensation, but she proudly refuses to ‘sell her father in order to eat bread’, and taunts her menfolk with being women for even entertaining such a deal.4
At the folk level, still celebrated in song is l-Adham iš-Šarqāwī,5 a notorious brigand who was hunted down by the police and shot dead in 1921. The folk artists make of him a hero launched on his violent career by the need to avenge the death of his uncle. That the murderer has been imprisoned is no satisfaction to him, for it places his quarry out of his reach for a while. He starts by slaking his thirst for