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Book review: A woman from Upper Egypt

In her newly-published autobiography, Awatef Abdel-Rahman recounts 70 years of political and social life in Egypt

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Sunday 21 Oct 2012
Awatef Abdel-Rahman
Awatef Abdel-Rahman (Photo:Al-Ahram)
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Sifsafa: Sira Zatayea ('Willow Tree: An Autobiography') by Awatef Abdel-Rahman, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 2012. 379pp.

Writing the autobiography of a public figure is a challenge – on the one hand because it requires strict honesty and truth, and on the other because it reveals many unspoken truths, which is particularly difficult for Arab societies that generally avoid revealing weak moments.

The challenge is bravely taken up by the author of the book 'Willow Tree,' in which Awatef Abdel-Rahman presents one of the most important testimonies of over 70 years of political and social life in Egypt, especially given that it's told by a woman in a male-dominated society.

Abdel-Rahman was born in the early 1940s (she never states exactly what year), and is a professor at the University of Mass Media. She received various Egyptian and Arab awards for her work in media and published over 30 books, mostly on journalism and media.

The author's youth takes up a significant portion of her consciousness, and in the book, it is recalled with much ease and flow, including many rare details of life in the little village hugged by the western mountain in Assiut. In her own words:

"This period (following the annual flood) is considered among the few delightful periods in our lives, for it was filled with night visits, when the women and children would go, guarded by the servants, to the Nile, after the evening prayers, and stay till dawn….

We would go for mountain trips, waking in the early morning before the sun rises, with servants carrying baskets of food and fruits."

As usual at the time, every village had a small number of families usually related by blood, and retaining a strict class and race hierarchy. For example, there are the families of Arab or Muslim origin who are landowners, and there are the peasants, but also wage labourers and even African slaves who were serving in house and also as guards.

There were also the Copts who were living in separate communities and who specialised in certain professions, such as building houses or working as tailors. They were usually known for their professionalism and honesty.

Following a family divorce, the author moved to Cairo where she lived first with her uncle in one of the most important downtown buildings at the time. But soon the uncle fell into a trap by a half-famous dancer, which led to the uncle being banished from the rest of the family, which lived alone in Shubra.

The story of Abdel-Rahman is filled with strong powerful women who are able to take on the entire family responsibility on their own, whether in the village, the city, at university, or even in prison. Among these women is Abdel-Rahman's mother, who divorced her husband after losing five children in one year because of the father's extreme brutality.

This legendary woman lived with her two children and took full responsibility for them until both graduated from college, choosing not to remarry and struggle alone in a merciless city since 1964.

The autobiography follows key milestones: the village, the city, college, nomination for parliament in Assiut in 1984 and two periods of imprisonment, first in the 1960s and the second in 1981. The lucky moment was her appointment to work for Al-Ahram at the height of its glory in 1961, where she gained a lot of experience in the news section.

Her brief marriage to Mamdouh Taha, who was head of the news section and assistant to the chief editor, Hasaneed Haikal, at the time, was met with huge disapproval, due to the age difference and also because he was a widower with three children. Soon enough their relationship ended, and so did her relationship with Al-Ahram.

These eight years had "touched her pride as a human and wife, and resulted in a strong estrangement and will just disappear," her therapist described. She fought these destructive feelings by insisting on divorce.

Leaving Al-Ahram, Abdel-Rahman moved to the academic field, completing her Masters Degree and PhD. Her testimony reflects how the Egyptian universities deteriorated under the security fist. Her battle to fight corruption through her work in the March 9th movement for the independence of universities is also recounted in the book.

Finally, Abdel-Rahman talks of her experience in prison in 1981, when she was taken together with a number of writers and political activists, including Nawal El-Saadawy, Latifa El-Zayyat, Amina Rashid and Safinaz Kazem. The arrest order came when she was in South Africa with her son attending a conference. She was taken from the airport to prison upon her return.

The testimony recalls the story of the Egyptian opposition over an extended period of time, and recounts the struggle on its various levels and in many institutions.

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