All About our Mothers

All About our Mothers May 11, 2009

This was written by Youssef Rakha and originally appeared in The National.

“Happy Mother’s Day! Happy Mother’s Day, Mama,” the woman spewed forth, her face taking up far too much of my TV screen. “Thanks so much for breast-feeding me for so long.”

The woman was too emphatically ordinary to be convincing as a representative of the Egyptian middle-class, and she stood in the middle of a supermarket which, like most stores on Egyptian TV, was far more spacious and better stocked than anywhere average Egyptians shop. She held the hand of a child named something like Ruba. “Ruba is with me here, ya Mama,” she added excitedly. “She too says Happy Mother’s Day and thank you.”

All I could do from switching off the TV was remind myself – this is only the commercial break. As I listened, I somehow did not soften to the thought of rapturous tears trickling down Mama’s cheeks (though you could almost hear her sputtering: “Ruba and her mother are on TV!”). Instead, I wondered what to make of the slogan in this all-Egyptian Mother’s day-special Pril detergent ad: “The sweetest Pril, for the sweetest mother.”

It has been eight weeks now since I moved back in with my mother. Pril or no Pril, I have been all but smothered by the bouts of irrational attention and excessive concern that now punctuate my life. It was natural that on March 21, the day when paeans to Egyptian matriarchy seep through public life more than usual, far-reaching thoughts on the subject would course through my head. Watching detergent commercials at home didn’t help.

Nearly five decades after the appearance on the silver screen of Egypt’s archetypal mother, Amina, the heroine of Naguib Mahfouza’s Cairo Trilogy, this is what we have come to: commercials that identify Egypt’s most valued cultural institution, motherhood, with a totally uninteresting imported product for sale, Pril.

I mention Amina because she is so often referenced and so seldom analysed. A recent post by Mohammad al Azraqi, a regular contributor to the online discussion forum, typified the way Amina is nostalgically celebrated as a model of the perfect mother and wife, unparalleled in her patience, “big heart” and “spotless morals”. Azraqi describes her as “a wife the way she should be” and “a true picture of woman in early 20th-century Egyptian society”. Such accounts are common.

For some reason, few people remember or admit (at least publicly) what Mahfouz’s Amina is really like: docile, ignorant, practically asexual, feverishly devoted to her children but incapable of understanding them. She is a prisoner of her household, where she does hard labour day in, day out, unaware even of the possibility of a different life. She is so obsequious and weak-willed that the one time she goes out without asking her husband’s permission – only because he happens to be away on business – she can barely stand up. “She had an oppressive feeling of doing something wrong,” Mahfouz writes. “Her gait seemed disturbed and unsteady, as though she had not mastered the first principles of walking.”

Amina soon faints from the overstimulation and heat, gets hit by a car, and fractures her collarbone. Terrified that her transgression will be discovered, she agrees to go along with a scheme devised by her children: when her husband Ahmad returns, she will say the accident happened within the house. But she cannot help giving herself away. “She would not be able to lie. The opportunity had escaped her without her knowing how.” As soon as she has healed, Sayyid Ahmad (as he tends to be referred to) banishes her from the household. Looking on his wife with eyes of steel, he barely refrains from issuing the capital punishment, divorce.

Never mind that Sayyid Ahmad is himself a double-faced household tyrant who projects perfect morality while spending his evenings with belly dancers and prostitutes, women whom he treats infinitely better than his wife and children. Amina is not allowed to speak of this, and she doesn’t, not even to herself. And when Ahmad is prevailed upon to take Amina back into his house, she can barely contain her gratitude.

Economically and politically dispossessed, this woman is systematically cheated on, abused, exploited, then abandoned not because she disobeys but because she displays some will – the will to visit a nearby shrine, no more. She has no self-respect, let alone space in which to express it. She cannot raise an objection or voice a grievance, nor is she inclined to, even in the face of patent injustice. This is the Egyptian mother?

It is true, of course, that references to Amina in the popular discourse to which the Pril ad belongs may not be frequent or explicit. But just below the surface of Egypt’s contemporary social contract, which pays lip service to women’s lib (if only to encourage them to work and supplement their husband’s incomes), Amina lurks in wait for the slightest breach of accepted patriarchal norms. Indeed, if you talk to people in private, in situations where neither political correctness nor inter-generational defiance has any part to play, the vast majority of them, men and women, even express admiration for her, if not by name.

“To come home and not find the mid-day meal ready,” a friend recently complained to me, disregarding the fact that his wife’s job is just as demanding as his. “What kind of marriage is that?” One hears this sort of thing often.

Motherhood and Mother’s Day have always generated confusion in Egypt. March 21 is presented as a celebration of what is taken to be a feminine power, the power of selfless love (few images are as deeply rooted in Egyptian culture as that of a mother taking food from her own mouth to give it to her children). The discourse of the day emphasizes the wisdom, reliability and emotional generosity of society’s child-rearing half. But at the same time, it focuses almost exclusively on the woman’s role as mistress of her household: as Aminas.

In films, TV shows and advertisements (even court rooms) the good woman is still defined entirely in terms of her willingness and ability to provide men with comfortable living conditions. Hence the Pril ad and its message to mothers and wives: wash their dishes as efficiently as possible, making use of the latest developments on the consumerist front, all the while instilling the same values in the next generation. The mother is, disastrously for all involved, reduced to a manual labourer of love: a compulsive feeder, cleaner and clother.

Like all quasi-Platonic archetypes, Amina is of course non-existent. Contrary to Azraqi’s claims, it was extremely rare for women to be so housebound in early 20th-century Cairo; anyone who was would surely would have been murderously bitter about it. She is the worst kind of role model: one who only ever existed in a parable, yet has helped spawn real-life offspring. The new Aminas are everywhere in Egypt, though you may not recognize them right away, not even as they are being celebrated on Mother’s Day. But look closely next year: March 21 is not about working-class widows who struggle to put their children through school. It is not about giving women the right to go outside the house, or to have a job. It is not even about well-to-do sons buying their mother gold.

Women today are not only allowed to do the shopping, they are even allowed to appear on TV for everyone to see their bare faces (Amina would faint). They do so to tell themselves and each other, across the generations, that they exist to do the washing up, and to celebrate a product – the sweetest Pril – which might make the job easier.

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