Atlantic Council Middle East Published Articles

A Home with No Husbands: A Glimpse at Internal Egyptian Migration

Qufada Skyline

My article about life in an Upper Egyptian village published today on EgyptSource. Click here for the full article; excerpts are in the boxes that follow, interspersed by other material needed to be cut for focus or word count.

During a visit to the city of Maghagha to learn more about surrounding village life, the local priest brought me along to a family’s baptism party in Qufada, celebrating the forty day mark of their new baby boy. Earlier at mass the child received his rites of entrance into the Coptic Orthodox Church; it is conventional thereafter to invite the priest to their home for a meal.

The Coptic home of the now deceased patriarch, Shafik Khilla, in Qufada conveys few signs of luxury but has a dignity fitting proper village family life. The ground floor houses common areas such as the reception, kitchen, and bathroom facilities, as well as a place to store the family animals during the night. The upper level contains a single room for each of the five nuclear families who maintained residence. But is ‘nuclear’ a proper word when all the husbands are away?

Today, Shafik’s sons Masry and Ruweiss are elderly, peasant farmers like their father. They spend all day in the fields watching the animals, for if they were to join in the life of the house thieves might steal them away. The men return to bed with the beasts, privileged above them by life on the upper floor. Neither attended the church service for the baptism of their grandson.

Also absent were the three husbands of the home. Masry had three sons, Samir, Medhat, and Milad. Samir and Medhat married their cousins, the two daughters of Ruweiss. Milad had to step outside the family to marry, yet by appearance all six of their children avoided the genetic defects of intermarriage. All are in school or preschool.

In the article I describe how they found work outside the village. Speaking of one husband, the priest made his wife blush:

Milad, meanwhile, found a job as a clerk in Cairo, for which he earns roughly the same salary and comes home just as infrequently. The priest playfully asked his wife why she had missed early morning mass the week before. She looked at him sheepishly and replied, ‘Oh, you know, Father, my husband was home.’

The two younger wives also received education up to the high school level, which inspired Samir’s wife to also improve her situation. She took literacy classes from the church and recited in our presence a poem she crafted about Jesus and his love. Mother to three daughters, the priest wished for her a son. She demurred, denying cultural expectations, and expressed thanks to God for what she had. Still, the priest held up both his own example and described mine as well, where three girls were finally followed by a boy. He said he would pray.

Here is the root of the problem:

‘There is no opportunity to work in Qufada,’ states Fr. Yu’annis. ‘People finish their education, but because they have no land, money, or chance to open a project, they must search elsewhere. The only other option is to work the land as a peasant farmer. ‘Work can be found in the nearby city of Maghagha, says Fr. Yu’annis, but it pays poorly and transportation costs eat a quarter of the earnings.

And from the conclusion:

Amid the cries that Islamist government may whittle away the Christians of Egypt, a far more subtle phenomenon is underway. Christians, and their Muslim neighbors, are depopulating the villages of their ancestors, simply to find a better life elsewhere. Will Samir, Medhat, or Milad ever return to live in Qufada? How long can their families live there without them?

Demographic changes as these are not unique to Egypt. As the nation undergoes vast political upheaval, no less significant are these social realities. In fact, the question is fair: For the great majority of Egyptians, which is more significant – a president, or a husband?

Please click here for the full article. I’m glad for the chance to place more slice-of-life material in the blog, but the official version is crisp and better analysis – thanks to the professional editing which suggested to cut the above material in the first place.

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