Walking like an Egyptian
Walking like an Egyptian
A personal crisis led British novelist Jo Chumas on a journey from modern-day Australia to 19th century Egypt in search of answers.
Back in 1998, I was a young woman, living in Australia. I had two small children and I was involved in a bitter custody battle with the Family Court overseeing it all. I was working as a freelance copywriter with a good, but very insecure and erratic income. I was exhausted from the insecurity of the work, and from being a mother to two young children, from the court battle, and from having no family to help ease the physical and emotional strain.
A daily treat, between assignments, when the children were at school and at playgroup, was to go and window-shop in one of Melbourne’s many bookshops; I say window-shop because at that time books in Australia were prohibitively expensive, even second-hand ones. Buying a brand new book with illustrations was a luxury I could rarely afford. But on that particular day in late spring, fate found my fingers touching the cover of a beautiful book by Alev Lytle Croutier called Harem The World Behind the Veil. It cost a fortune, but I bought it. It was such a beautiful book that I decided to use money put aside for my gas bill to buy it.
This split-second chance meeting with a gloriously illustrated semi-biography was to be the start of a two-year research journey that led me from Ottoman Turkey in the 19th and 20th centuries to Egypt, and backwards and forwards through the 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. From Alev Lytle Croutier’s personal experiences of growing up in the fast-disappearing harems of mid-20th century Turkey I quickly stumbled across the passionate feminism of wealthy socialite Huda Shaarawi, born to a well-to-do Egyptian family in the late 19th century.
Huda Shaarawi became my obsession. During the hot summer nights of millennial Australia I lived with her, reading everything I could on her and the world she lived in. I felt connected with her in an inexplicable way. There is no Egyptian heritage in my ancestry; no reason for me to feel connected by a common cultural thread to a woman whose culture was Egyptian, whose religion was Islam, whose parentage was linked to Sultans and royalty, but there she was before my eyes, refusing to disappear.
I hadn’t even, at that stage, been to Egypt, having only spent time in Tunisia with my parents as a young girl, but from the moment I saw the name Huda Shaarawi and read about her, I felt a thrill and a link.
I had been writing novels, unsuccessfully, for publication for three years after a long period of working in journalism. My novel genre was contemporary romances and Harlequin Mills & Boon was my focus. I was writing these stories, believing that this was my future; I was a romance writer who was peddling the belief that true love conquers all, and all that was missing from any career girl’s life in the late 90s, was the millennial version of a knight-in-shining-armour. All men in these romance novels were mega-rich; all wanted to eventually dominate and ‘possess’ the career girl in their sights. But I believed none of the scenarios I was writing about. I felt like a fraud. Rejection after rejection came, sweetened with enthusiastic compliments that the publishers believed in me and really wanted to buy one of my novels, providing I could make various changes here and there. That in itself seemed like an easy task, but nothing is ever easy when it comes to writing novels and dealing with that great ogre, the publishing world and all who inhabit it.
And then, over a series of a few weeks, post the rejection of my third romance novel, I slid down the slippery slope of dangerous self-doubt; how could I write about men rescuing women when I had been a feminist since age three? I was asking myself to believe in the impossible. I was living the exact opposite to the storylines I was writing about; I was involved in a bitter custody battle, I was always broke; my pay always stretched to the limit, I had no rich husband to buy me flowers or jewellery, take me out to nice places or even pay my rent, not that my feminist soul would have ever wanted that. But this shouldn’t have mattered if within the fibres of my being I actually believed in the Knight-in-Shining-Armour scenario. Writers write fantasy, write escapism and write to entertain. Feeling like a fake for not believing in my subject matter should not have stopped me in my tracks, but it did.
But the decision to say goodbye to Harlequin Mills & Boon and walk blindly down through history to come face-to-face with a powerful feminist from another culture and time was fate. Between being a mother, writing freelance copy for faceless corporations just to survive, waiting weeks to be paid and dealing with the family court, I walked into Huda Shaawari’s life and she into mine.
Huda Shaawari was born in 1879 in Minya, Egypt. She grew up in a large family mansion in Cairo and enjoyed the carefully monitored freedoms of her era; the freedom to learn languages, the freedom to go abroad, the freedom to mix with the European elite who used Cairo as their playground. But her privileged personal life did not blind her to the cruelty being metered out to others; to the working classes, to the peasants who toiled in the cotton farms along the Nile. She was a passionate pro-Egyptian Nationalist, at a time when Egypt was a pawn in the hands of the British. In 1919 when ordinary Egyptians began protesting with their own violence, against the torture and violence being used against them by the British army stationed in Cairo, Huda was by their side.
By then she was a mature woman of 40, known about town for her Egyptian Feminists Union, for her activism and for speaking out against the restrictions of her culture and her religion. She dared to challenge the rules forced on her by her culture, her religion and her family. She refused to veil and made a point of encouraging other Egyptian women to shun the veil and take up positions of power in Egyptian society, just like men.
The more I read about Huda and the times she lived in, the more I became fascinated by my attraction to her. My life and Huda Shaarawi’s life could not have been more different. I was an ordinary young woman in the late 20th century, early 21st century, who was alone in a foreign land, expected to raise two small children on a pittance, with no voice, no standing, ignored. I had no religion. Huda had Islam, but the struggles of Egyptian women in the 19th and early 20th century appeared alarmingly close to mine. Women had very few rights, beyond being a bearer of children and an ornament within the family. They were shamed if they held different views; in fact the airing of differing views was often impossible. This is why Huda was so brave. One hundred years later, on the other side of the world, I felt just as powerless. I could work, but only if I worked ridiculously long hours in offices where children were seen as aliens. I could work, but only if I played the rules that men had put down with the culture of the office. I could not work and be a mother to young children, unless I worked from home, as a freelance, with no rights at all; no rights to negotiate pay, no rights to any protection in the form of pensions or sick pay. The food in my children’s mouths was there upon the whim of a corporation boss who could use me or not use me, subject to their own desire. I could swap this for twelve-hours in a dreary office and my children in eight-hour day-care and with nannies in the evening. There was no choice, none at all. I chose my children, but it couldn’t have been clearer. The only way to be a mother in the 21st century was to have a rich husband, just like in Huda’s day; the only way to make it in a career, was to be a single, childless woman and play by men’s rules, working harder than men, for less money, just like in Huda’s day. Had we learned nothing in 100 years? Had women’s rights only been handed out to the lucky few, those with money, power and daily help? In Huda I found strength to carry on. In her, I found a sister, a mother, a grandmother, an ancestral bond so strong and a reason to carry on. In Huda I found solace and an inspiration to write again.
A hundred years previously, Huda was trying to be the voice of women like me. I experienced sexism and contempt on a daily basis; Huda was making it her mission to push away ridiculous religious and cultural prejudices and the sexism that women were facing daily in 1899.
In the global world of 1999, the news was beaming disaster at every turn. The Year 2000 would soon be upon us and Armageddon was predicted. Against this backdrop, I was making spaghetti dinners for my young sons, packing their lunches and washing their school uniforms. I was reading to them every night and pushing them on the swings in the park. I was buying them toys and paying my bills. I loved them to bits but I was angry; that because of my gender and my responsibilities, my opportunities had been reduced down to the size of a pen-point, so I decided to fight back with my pen, helped by Huda.
With Huda’s own anger raging across the pages written about her, her passion for Egyptian Nationalism and her country, I grew to understand more of what was happening to me. My life and Huda’s became linked by the diary I started writing for her. And then, this diary written for her, and about her, became my tribute to her. Huda Shaarawi’s diary metamorphosed into the diary of one of the main characters of my novel The Hidden; Hezba Nur Al-Shezira. Hezba could have been Huda’s fiery child. She could have been the daughter who took her own feminism to the next level. In Hezba, I became Huda’s child. Hezba Al-Shezira, my character, was born in 1903 and is the starting point for my trilogy of novels; Hezba’s story is told in The Hidden. Her daughter Aimee Ibrahim’ story is told in The Zephyr and Hezba’s grand-daughter Rana’s story is told in The Unforgiven. In all of their stories, I had finally found the answers to all my questions during that time and which continue to this day.
I finished my research, if research is ever really finished in 2001, completed my novel and then spent the next few years rewriting it many times. It would be another four years before I would finally visit Egypt for the first time. I flew there in 2006 with my youngest son, determined to physically immerse myself in Huda’s world. I arrived there the week one of my favourite authors, Naguib Mahfouz had passed away. The city of Cairo was in mourning for their beloved countryman, an author who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, the first Arab to have done so.
I fell in love with the real, physical Egypt, which mirrored everything I had read about in all those hundreds of research books; the colour of the buildings, the translucence of the light, the mystery of the desert, the scent of the streets and the souks, the edginess to it, its history, the warmth of its people. I recognised the country as the birthplace of a woman who had taken me from the edge of darkness in contemporary times and had been there by my side as I wrote out my frustrations. Her novel, The Hidden, because I dedicated it to her, was published in 2013. I owe her so much.
See more of Jo Chumas at Jo Chumas
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