Saturday, 5 January 2008

Om Somaya

One of the few people who have witnessed all stages in my life is someone I hardly talk to. She always seats herself in a strategic position where she could observe everything around her - from footsteps to weddings and funerals. She sits, in a white plastic chair, wrapped in her black shawl during winter or holding a hot cup of tea with mint in summer evenings.

For eleven years she was there every morning I went to nursery or school. She was the one who received my university acceptance letter. She wished me a warm goodbye the few times I took my suitcase to the airport. She glanced at whatever bag I carried in an attempt to know where I came from. Whenever we received guests, family or friends who usually looked and dressed differently from what she is used to, she made a point of both welcoming them and wishing them goodbye on their way out.

“Reuters” is the title she's earned with no competition. She's one of those women for whom news feel too itchy to be kept untold. She waits for you to greet her to make a reply sealed with a mouth gesture that means “What a world!” in an attempt to make you ask her ‘What happened, Om Somaya?’ She will never waste this opportunity to tell you that a police car came in the middle of the night to mercilessly grab Sheikh Mahmoud from his wife’s arms as a suspected member of the Muslim Brotherhood group. Or about how the gallant residents of the nearby alley beat life out of three new tenants and dragged their prostitute out to the street with nothing on but a bed sheet. Or about the poor Om Mohamed whose husband turned out to be married to a second wife in Saudi Arabia where he worked for nine years.

I address her the same way I do my aunts “Good morning, tant” (auntie). “Good morning, sweetie” she would usually reply and add a couple of prayers depending on what she thought I needed then. “May Allah help you with your job”, “… bring you back safely”, “… rest your deceased’s soul in peace”. There is, yet, one prayer she hasn’t changed over the past year: “May Allah send you a good man.” She started saying this prayer the same day I graduated from university. It became more frequent from my mid twenties on. Now, approaching the end of my twenties, I am a ‘poor’ girl whose suitors are blind enough not to see her. For Om Somaya, a representative of the vast majority of the Egyptian female voice, a woman’s ultimate aim is to get married and have children. No other goal in life will make up for this one.

“The shadow of a man is better than that of a wall” is the proverb /slogan that explains why a lot of women feel pressured to get into a life they don’t want or tie themselves into a marriage despite clearly seeing how terrible life will be later. If she complains about her life she will be asked to have patience so that people, of Om Somaya’s type, don’t talk and gossip or so that God rewards her in the afterlife. A team of female brainwashers will quickly network using telephone calls. The team usually consists of the mother, sisters, cousins, neighbors, and married friends. All of them will discourage her from getting a divorce and tell her that it’s “the women who makes the relationship work”. If all attempts fail and she gets a divorce, her life will be a series of stories to be told in a blog titled ‘Be dead but not a divorcĂ©e