Redefining Tradition in Upper Egypt

AS I looked out over the Upper Egyptian village of Kom al-Dabba from the roof of my parents-in-law's house, I found it hard to believe I was still in the 20th century.

On the roofs of nearby adobe houses, girls were hanging out washing. A man on a briskly trotting donkey came into sight and disappeared again around the curve of one of the winding alleys. And a little boy was climbing the fig tree that shaded the house and sent its gnarled roots down into the embankment by the canal.

In the distance, I could see the line of palm trees that marked the edge of the Nile. I could, I reflected, have been one of those Victorian lady travelers who had fallen in love with Egypt more than a century ago. And yet I knew that the village was not the same place it had been even 20 years earlier, nor was it as untroubled or as uniform as it appeared now, in the early-morning light.

Thinking back on the past two days, it was hard to connect the village with the images of Islamic radicalism that appeared on the TV screen back in the United States. I had just met my parents-in-law and most of the other relatives for the first time, and yet if they were anything less than delighted to have a non-Muslim foreigner in the family, no one could have guessed.

Before they met me, my husband's father had asked Mamoun if I had become a Muslim. He had told him no and that he didn't think it was right to ask me to change my religion. That was that.

Mamoun's mother, sister, and aunt all ran to hug and kiss me as soon as I walked in the door, and the air filled with zaghroda, the ululating cry that Arab women make at celebrations.

Then all the other neighbors and relatives poured into the house to greet us and continued to stream in throughout our stay: the older women swathed in black with only their faces showing, the younger ones in colorful head scarves, and - if they were very modern - brightly colored dresses instead of the traditional black.

One girl, who was an English student at the university, translated for me. She was among the first generation of village girls to go to college. Ten years earlier, it had been unusual for girls to finish high school.

But after the girl went home, a more mischievous cousin, Hoda, not to be outdone despite the fact that she didn't know any English, pretended to translate as well. In fact, she made eloquent speeches on my behalf for the assembled quests in which she claimed that I had never seen such a lovely village or more delightful people - with a few exceptions. Everyone laughed. They knew Hoda and her jokes.

Later that day, when we went to lunch with Hoda's family, her humor continued. The family seemed poor - the floor was beaten earth, and they had only cold running water - but she maintained that this running water was turning her into an old maid. It used to be that the unmarried girls would go to the Nile to fetch water, giving them a chance to chat with young men on the way.

The women had been cooking all morning, and if we took snapshots now, our friends back home would think they were seeing pictures of flood victims, Hoda declared. They had to change clothes.

In fact, just in case eligible men might be seeing the pictures, Hoda insisted that we take two different photos. For one picture, she unbraided her hair, letting it flow over her shoulders. ``For the man who wants beauty,'' she said. And in the other, she put on a head scarf, ``in case he wants piety.''

``And don't get the pictures mixed up,'' she warned us.

Later that afternoon, as Mamoun and I walked through the fields of beans and okra to the Nile, I thought about what seemed to be the many different attitudes toward tradition existing at once. Within the same family, I had met old-fashioned, traditional people like Mamoun's parents and aunts, people like Hoda who could joke about traditions, and people who could redefine tradition, like the female cousin who was studying English at university.

Mamoun could live outside the traditions altogether. But perhaps in another way they were all traditional, and the tradition was tolerance. Perhaps the village could change in ways that would improve people's lives without destroying the sense of community that had made it possible for the villagers to have endured so many hardships and upheavals. At least, I had seen grounds for hope.

For change was coming. As we continued on our walk from the village to the river, we were joined by another cousin, a boy in a white gallabeyah who insisted on giving us vegetables and melons to take back to the family. He hoped, he confided, to go to university someday and study English, as Mamoun had. English and computers were the future, he said.

Finally, the three of us reached the bank of the Nile, where shore birds waded in the shallow water, and farmers joked as they pushed out in wooden rowboats to go over to the big island to collect animal fodder.

I had thought at first that the island was the other side of the Nile, which made everyone laugh. Would I like to see the other side of the island? They could take us over on their way, the fishermen suggested. Although it was almost sunset, they assured us that they had plenty of time.

They helped us aboard, and we balanced cross-legged on the bow as the boats raced each other up-current. The setting sun had turned the water gold, and as we rounded the head of the island, we suddenly came out into the main channel of the Nile, so wide I could barely see across it.

But across the river I could also see a startling sight - a sugar factory, puffing smoke into the still evening air.

There could be space enough and time enough, it seemed, for both the factory and the rowboats laden with clover that crossed and recrossed the Nile, as they had for centuries.

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