This is a series of posts I will write about my observations in Egypt regarding birth, life, and death and how they are dealt with.
I have found that when talking of children here most people will use the phrase that “God has blessed [so and so] with a son/daughter/five sons/daughters,” and so on. Children are viewed as a blessing from God which has been given as a gift to the parents to cherish and raise in tenderness and love. It is taught in Islam that when a child is born he brings with him all the sustenance he needs and as such parents should not worry about whether they will or will not be able to provide for him, but sometimes its a hard lesson to swallow when one sees crushing poverty around every corner.
Egyptian parents not only worry about having their own children, but they go on in later life to worry about their children having children. My mother-in-law is suitably obsessed with my husband and I procreating as quickly as possible; the last time I saw her she pinned me down with an inscrutable eye and demanded to know when I would deliver her grandchild to her. My husband being her youngest child she feels that once she sees that he has ensured the passing on of his gene pool she can die in peace having fulfilled her role in this world. And truly Egyptians are raised with the mentality that life is about worshiping God firstly and then working to make enough money to marry and have children coming in a close second. Occasionally even these two are reversed and having children comes in first even before duties to God. Girls are raised with the thought that all that matters is their ability to have children and often times I find that I feel I am watching a race to see who can get to finish line first, with the most babies, and the most money. Whether you consider this worthy of focusing your life on, it is most obvious how treasured children really are.
When I first arrived in Egypt we stayed for a week with my sister-in-law who lives in an impoverished area in Cairo where many of the inhabitants are uneducated and make very little by way of wages and their lives are often month to month or week to week. But a few days into my arrival my husband and I were sitting in a darkened room with the windows open, attempting to wait out the heat of the afternoon when our conversation was cut short by the window rattling thumps of what sounded to be a large sound system sitting right beneath us. It sounded quite literally like the man with the largest boom-box in the world took up residence beneath the balcony and turned the music on high. Unable to continue what we had been talking about, both because of the ear-splitting decibels and because the bass-line literally thumped the breath right out of our lungs, it was too hot for either of us to want to get up to see what the music was about. But some twenty minutes later the music switched from random Enimem/50 Cent/ Madonna songs to down-home Egyptian balady music which was accompanied by a large group of women zagratting. This was too much for me to ignore and when my sister-in-law called me from the balcony I got up and threw on a cover and went outside to watch the hubbub below.In the dusty alley beneath us a group of about thirty people had assembled next to some subwoofers loaded onto the back of a pick-up truck, in the middle of said group was a man carrying a newborn baby. As the Arabic music blasted out he lifted his daughter above his head and began dancing exuberantly shaking his hips and the women around him clapped and zagratted some more. The ecstasy on his face and on the face of the women around him rose up like a smoke and infected all of us who had come to our windows and balconies, as I could see heads hanging out from balconies and windows all the way down the alley, and lodged itself in our hearts bringing smiles and tears to our eyes. This sheer abandonment to the delight and happiness a new life brings is like everything else in Egypt, embraced passionately. The baby was passed around for about five minutes, five minutes I’m sure will take a toll on the poor girl’s hearing in later years, before being brought back inside while the party raged on for another hour of belly-dancing, and what little chatting could be snatched between songs. Those of us who while not officially a part of the party were unofficially embraced by it, could only go about our work silently until the celebration was ended.
I felt honored to have been a part of something so essentially Egyptian, to have witnessed, like the wilderness photographer who catches sight of a rarely seen snow cat playing with its cubs, something I had never seen before. Despite poverty and the instability of the future, life was taken and rejoiced in as it came. Here children are the sun of their parents’ universe and Egyptians, or any Arabs for that matter, will often give up their own identities to become to everyone else in the world ‘the father of Mohamed’ [Abu Mohamed] or ‘the mother of Mohamed’ [Umm Mohamed], giving themselves totally to their offspring. Children are not sent out into the world to make their way, but instead are succored and raised up until they get to an age where they in turn succor and embrace their parents in their old age. It is a cycle of renewal: birth, life, and death, bound by the ties of family and blood.