We’ve had three children in three different countries, which has given us a chance to see some interesting birth rites in each country. Emma was our first child, and we wanted to have her in America to be close to family and just for the first experience. And common to our North-eastern American culture, we had a couple baby showers before her birth to get the nursery ready for her arrival. Our second, Hannah, probably had the least fanfare, although not intentionally. She was born in Tunisia, and as timing had it, we traveled to the states about 5 weeks after her birth. For this reason, we asked parents not to come, but to save their money for another trip later. After all, everyone would be able to see the new baby just a few weeks after her birth. So, little Hannah had only a couple visitors in the hospital, and then a few more at our home there. She did get some gifts just for her both from friends in Tunisia and America, but we didn’t have any parties for her. Hope she doesn’t hold that against us in the future!
Now onto Layla in Egypt. We had all we needed supplies-wise, since she was girl number three. But we asked the two grandmothers to come to Egypt, bringing all the baby clothes with them, and to help us out for a month, both preceding and following her birth. In the meantime, some of my friends started to tell me about some cultural things here in Egypt surrounding new births. I first heard about the subuu’, which kind of translates as “week”, from my Muslim friend, Nuur. She is a great friend who lives right above us, and she has told me many things about Egypt and given great advice for living here. But as she explained this cultural tradition of welcoming a new baby a week after its birth, I wasn’t too sure about it. (Apparently this tradition stems from the ancient Egyptians who only celebrated the new baby a week after the birth when it was clear the baby would live.) It all sounded quite strange to me. There were seven different seeds that you spread around your house, and you lay the baby in a sieve and shake her, and you step over her several times, and light candles, and put things in water, and even put a knife in the sieve with the baby! Can you see why I wasn’t so sure about it? She told me that if I wanted to have one of these parties for our new baby, she could arrange it for me. I didn’t want to offend her by saying no, but I wasn’t excited about it either. A few weeks after I heard about this, we traveled south to Maghagha for the Christmas holiday. And here, Jayson attended part of a subuu’ with the priest we were staying with. The priest showed up for a short period of time, to hold the baby and pray. But some of the rituals I heard about, Jayson saw at least in part. This gave us the information that the subuu’ was a shared tradition here in Egypt among both Christians and Muslims. I still had reservations about it though.
A week or so before Layla’s birth, several classmates in the Coptic class Jayson attends told him he needs to have a party following Layla’s arrival. We thought this would be a good idea, and a chance to invite all the friends we have at one time, to come see the baby. Little did we know, the classmates had a subuu’ in mind.
When one of Jayson’s teachers arrived, she carried with her the “sieve.” This is what they call it, but they dress it up to look like a comfortable circular bed for the baby. Apparently the flowers that adorn it represent domesticity and purification (which is associated with the sifting of the flour.) Although I hadn’t arranged it myself, I was curious about this tradition surrounding a new baby, and now somewhat eager to see it take place. Once most of the people arrived at the party, the subuu’ began. Jayson was able to video most of it, so you can watch it yourself, but I’ll explain what happened first to give you some context.
First everyone was given a lit candle, including our 3 ½ year old, Emma, and our 2 year old, Hannah. This made me quite nervous and I quickly went to stand by them. Within a minute or two, Jayson’s mom put out their candles and let them hold onto them without being lit. Good idea. I could just imagine them burning themselves, or lighting our couches on fire! The video picks up as everyone walks around our living room, carrying their candles and chanting. I can’t really pick up what they are saying, but I believe it is some sort of nonsense rhyme. Meanwhile, I carry the guest of honor, Layla, in her sieve.
At about 1 ½ minutes into the walking, Jayson’s teacher takes Layla from me and begins to gently shake her, or rock her, depending how you want to put it. They arrange some space to place her on the floor, where I step over her seven times to show my authority over her. The rest of the crowd is counting in Arabic as I step over her. Hannah looks on, not sure what to make of this. As long as she doesn’t get any ideas for future games with the baby!
At the 3 minute mark, they pick her up and shake/rock her some more as another classmate pounds a noisemaker in her ear. This shaking and pounding are meant to immunize the child against the hustle and bustle of life and instill in it valor and courage against hardship. If you look at poor little Layla, however, she just looks nervous as she flails her little arms and legs all over. She is thinking, “what are you doing to me?!” Along with the pounding, the classmate is saying things like, “listen to your mother, listen to your father, listen to your aunt, listen to Emma, listen to Hannah, etc.”
Jayson then pans over to our dining room table where you can see Emma sitting underneath. She started out participating in the circle walk, but didn’t like the attention it was bringing her, and decided to hide out under that table. Little did she know that it brought her more attention going there as several people pointed out to me that she was under the table and perhaps jealous of Layla’s attention. I told them that actually, she was hiding from attention she felt directed her way.
The circle-walking kind of resumed with my mom carrying Layla for another minute, and the last scene you see is little Layla herself who either looks worn out, or revved up. I thought she might not sleep that night after all that attention and noise, but fortunately, it didn’t seem to affect her too much.
It was definitely an experience for all of us, and a story to add to Layla’s photo album! Hope you can enjoy it along with us. Please click here to watch.
*Background information on the “subuu’” was taken from Egyptian Customs And Festivals, by Samia Abdelnour.