Mabrouka, or the sad story of a peasant woman in Egypt
Thanks to H. Belfadhl & A. Gough for the translation.
I met Mabrouka a few years ago in a village in the Fayoum Oasis of Egypt. From time to time she did the cleaning in a house in the same village. It was the house of artists, friends of mine.
This nearly forty-year old woman was charming, active and talkative. Mabrouka was a peasant and wife of a peasant. He was older than her by at least twenty years. This age difference itself is not very important (we know happy spouses with even greater differences) but Mabrouka’s husband did not seem much older than her. He was lazy, authoritarian and a self-appointed morality guardian. When, in the course of a day, he sat, he rarely moved again and would call Mabrouka if he needed something. The signs of a life full of misery were drawn on his face, exactly like the one lived by four million smallholder farmers, peasants and their families in Egypt. Peasants whose farms never produce enough food and who find themselves marginalized by the liberal political choices adopted over several decades in Egypt. The pattern is the same for smallholders almost everywhere; peasants find themselves deprived from their agricultural resources (water, lands, seeds, local varieties, local diversities…), from public services and from sources of income that could cover at least their primary needs.
Mabrouka’s husband was one of these peasants who were crushed by the unfair and the non-egalitarian market rules on which they are unable to act efficiently. The family had a small holding of barely one Egyptian feddan (1 feddan= 4200 square meters, i.e 0.42 hectares) and a cow buffalo or two. They lived in a house totally deprived from any type of comfort, whose thin walls and roof no longer protected its inhabitants from the cold, the heat or the rains. The oldest of Mabrouka’s six was twenty and the youngest was three, because of the family’s lack of resources and means the children were progressively obliged to leave school one by one.
Mabrouka’s family’s poverty was due to the liberalization of agriculture and to the lack of access to resources and services. Mabrouka had no choice but to look for a job outside her house and farm. That’s why the proud and skilled peasant became a cleaning woman in the house of a rich family where she was not all the time well treated.
I remember an evening at the home of my friends where Mabrouka did the housework for some hours a week. That evening, we held a competition over how to cook couscous, as a friendly exchange about the difference between Tunisian couscous and the couscous available in Egypt. Of course, each one defended his “national” couscous. And obviously, for a Tunisian coming from the Barbarian lands of couscous, an Egyptian couscous; consisting of thick semolina mixed with sugar, dried grapes and sometimes with milk is not, in fact, a couscous. The ingredients were not very well chosen, neither was the manner of cooking. In a Tunisian traditional family, a similar couscous could lead to the repudiation of the “bad” cook.
We spent that evening cooking, laughing and squabbling like two real competitors looking for the right medal. When the couscous was ready, Mabrouka only laughed and commented that if they finished my couscous first, it would be because my Egyptian friends were so polite that they would not humiliate me in front of her, the “fallaha” (peasant). Perhaps she was not completely wrong; class alliances function around the table as well.
A few months after this dinner competition, Mabrouka’s husband got a job in Saudi Arabia. It was extraordinary news and all the relatives of her family were hopeful for a decent income and that her children may have a better future. Mabrouka’s husband occasionally sent money from his job and Mabrouka was beginning to make her family more secure.
During the absence of her husband, Mabrouka shouldered the responsibility of the small farm and carried out the principal tasks except for some activities which are particularly hard for an Egyptian peasant woman, such as the irrigation at night. But soon, there were conflicts over the farm and the water with her brother in law. The brother of her absent husband saw an opportunity to take control of her farm by pressuring Mabrouka to look after her children and house. Mabrouka’s brother in law had long hated Mabrouka and had tried many times to convince his brother to divorce her and marry another woman.
Mabrouka resisted her brother in law’s attempts to control her farm, so he concocted a plan to inflict maximum revenge and pain. He called his brother in Saudi Arabia and told him that a young man from the village who had confessed to committing adultery with Mabrouka. In the Egyptian countryside and even in some towns, these situations, whether they were real or assumed, usually end in violence.
As a result of his brother’s call, Mabrouka’s husband took little time in punishing his wife. He told her that he would come for a short holiday to see her and his children. He pretended that he “missed them very much”.
Mabrouka was happy. On the day of his arrival she wore her best clothes. She prepared her youngest children and dressed them up as if for a party.
As he had already told her, her husband arrived in the evening, just before the prayer of Maghreb (sun set). He bought some goods including meat that she eagerly cooked, a meal to welcome her husband and the father of her children. She was glad.
After the prayer, the husband laid where he used to lie in their home. While waiting for dinner, he asked about the news of their relatives and of the inhabitants of the village. Mabrouka started by serving the children and as soon as they finished, she quickly sent them to their “room” or to what was considered as a room. She then she set two plates for herself and for her husband, the same husband who waited for the right to slip the poison into her dinner. Mabrouka started feeling an unbearable stomachache. To prevent her from screaming, the husband put his hand firmly on her mouth. Mabrouka tried, in vain, to resist and escape from this hold but the husband’s determination was stronger, much stronger. A few minutes later, Mabrouka’s body became lifeless.
Only meters away, one of the children, barely five years old had seen everything. He said nothing, fear had simply immobilized him.
A child is the only witness to the murder of his own mother by his own father.
I promised that one day, I will write the story of Mabrouka. This is a first and quick attempt. Perhaps too quick because your story, Mabrouka, is worth much more than few lines.
Some descriptive details were intentionally changed to keep the children of Mabrouka unknown.
Habib Ayeb, Lyon. September 2013 (English version).