–Al Odaysat in 1959. I'm Fatmah, Salim's sister. 15 years of age. My tragedy started when I met my brother's ex-wife, Altaaf, under the roofed passage within the entrance of Al Odaysat village on my way to my friend Mariam in Al Nasara Lane. I happened to meet Altaaf weeping, with her eyes full of tears, lamenting what my brother had done to her. He had divorced her a week before and that was the first case of divorce in the village. Although it's permitted by Islamic Shari'a, divorce in Upper Egypt is one of the acts prohibited by social traditions: "divorce is deemed the most resented act permitted by Allah."
Altaaf has become the talk of the villagers. So I sympathised with her, embraced her and wiped away her tormented tears. She asked me to escort her to her father's house as she couldn't find her way alone as her eyes were full of tears. I immediately agreed to her request, as she was helpless. At the door, I was about to leave when Altaaf fell to the ground unconscious. I screamed as loudly as I could, calling out to the inhabitants of the house. Then Sheikh Mahmoud and his wife, Altaaf's parents, came out and carried her into the house. I helped them to put her on her bed. As soon as we got into the room and Altaaf was lying on her bed, she opened her eyes, raised her right eyelid, and a ridiculous smile appeared on her lips. I looked at Sheikh Mahmoud and saw that he was closing the door and was about to take off his clothes, whereas Altaaf's mother had taken me in her arms, stripping my clothes off. I can hardly remember what happened next.
– I'm Mariam, Fatma's friend. We were born on the same day, and this united our two families. We grew up together and shared everything: toys, clothing, food, interests... So we closely resembled each other in all. We never left each other except on Sundays. I'm a Christian whereas Fatmah is a Muslim. I used to go with my family every Sunday to the church of the Saints' Monastery on Al Tawd Mountain in the Eastern Bank of Luxor. Christians from 14 villages – affiliated to Luxor –, that is to say more than 1300 Christian families, used to go there to say their prayers as there was nowhere but the Saints' Monastery to do so. Thus more than eight thousand Christian people used to cover several kilometres to pray, baptise their children and hold the marriage ceremonies of their sons and daughters as well as saying prayers for their dead. Both Fatmah and I dreamed of having a church built one day, so as to never be separated.
– I'm Salim, born in 1938 to a poor family from Upper Egypt. I spent my childhood and my youth in Al Odaysat with my father, my mother and my only sister, Fatmah, who is five years younger than me. She was such a lovely girl that I loved her to bits. For me, she was the source of my life. Her smile was so tender and affectionate that it could relieve the woes and misfortunes of the whole universe. My mother had the upper hand at home – as was the case with most women in Upper Egypt –; my father's presence at home was merely honorary. Nevertheless, my mother was careful to show off my father as a powerful man and dominant at home. I was the only one educated of all family members. I had been determined, since my childhood, to complete my education. I got a place at Al Azhar University and soon left for Cairo. Every year, I used to spend my summer holiday with my family in Al Odaysat where my first love, Mariam, lived. She was Malak's niece, and she was my and Fatma's friend when we were children. Though Christian people inhabited an area called Al Nasara Route or Al Nasara Lane, you found that all houses in the village wherever you went were wide open to receive everyone. We, as children, used to play "hopscotch" at the entrance of Al Nasara Route, which was just a narrow street of six meters wide. Since then, my love for Mariam has always been deep-rooted in my heart and nourished my soul. Yet, I’ve never been able to reveal my love, even to myself. Mariam is a Christian, and no one would ever accept this prohibited love.
I was seventeen years of age when I met Altaaf during my annual visit. She was a young girl from Upper Egypt. I wonder what happened to me when I looked at her eyes. I was swept with strong feelings that I couldn't explain. I rushed over to my mother and asked her to let me marry her. At the time, young people used to get married when they were fourteen years old. Yet, I was shocked when my mother refused my request. She told me openly that she wasn’t against my marriage at all; she was only against the people of that family. That was all she said. She objected to the idea and was determined not to let me marry her. However, as I was stubborn like my mother, I was determined to get married to Altaaf. I wish I had listened to my mother and taken her advice because my marriage to Altaaf was the beginning of the tragedy of my sister, Fatmah.
– I'm Altaaf, Salim's wife, and Sheikh Mahmoud’s daughter. My father was not sheikh in the sense the word may imply. He didn't study the Islamic sciences at all. He was only called "sheikh" because he was well-known for his acts of magic, not only in Al Odaysat village but in the whole of Upper Egypt. Many people would come and ask for his advice and help; for example, some women would go to him and report that their husbands were incapable of sexual relations as a way of revenge on them in case those men decided to get married to other women. This was the only way to stop a husband having a normal sexual life with his new wife. From then on he would only be able to have a normal sexual life with the avenged wife.
I really admired Salim but he was beyond reach. He was the only university graduate in Al Odaysat village. I didn’t even dream of getting married to him. As my mother had great experience of life, and she well-understood men, she encouraged me and told me that my father had prepared a "black magic deed" for Salim so that I could get him close to me and get married to him. In the summer of 1955, my mother asked me to go to the roofed passage at the entrance of the village to buy her some kerosene – known as gas – necessary to light the house. On my way back home, I met Salim; I got confused and dropped the kerosene bottle. He got closer to help me and perhaps to talk to me. Two nights later, someone knocked at the door. It was Salim who came to ask my father for my hand. He was in a hurry to have the marriage ceremony before the summer holiday ended. We knew that his family was against our marriage, but my father was determined not to break our hearts. I got married to Salim and we both lived in a room in my father's house. A year later, God blessed us with a nice baby girl and Salim was determined to name her after his sister Fatmah... If only he hadn't, as she was affected by the curse of that name.
– I'm Fatmah, Salim's daughter. I was named after my dear aunt, who my father adored. My mother and my grandmother used to call me a "bad girl". I knew that they didn't like my aunt at all. That wasn’t because of any shortcoming of my aunt but because my father loved and adored her, and because she embodied my father’s love of his family who opposed his marriage to my mother. Besides, she was Mariam's friend and my mother felt that my father loved her dearly and secretly. I used to see my aunt Fatmah. Occasionally she came to see us, without her mother's knowledge, especially when father was away studying at the university.
Now I'm three years old. Father’s in Cairo. Mother and grandmother are busy doing some housework, and grandfather’s shaving. He’s got a small mirror in front of him. There’s a glass of lukewarm water. He’s got some shaving cream on his chin and is rubbing it with his wet fingers in a semi-circle movement to make a thick foam. Then he scrapes it with an old rusted blade which he dips into a glass of water to clean. I frequently watch my grandfather while he is shaving, with the transparent glass full of clear water and those tiny hairs floating on top. I will soon try this gigantic drink; I wondered how it would taste… After he has shaved, my grandfather changes his clothes to get ready to leave, and then I hurry to drink the content of the glass.
– My wife Altaaf telephoned me to tell me about our daughter's death. I left my studies at the university and hurried to Al Odaysat in order to bury my kid who wasn't even three years old. I was grief-stricken and it tasted as bitter as a colocynth. I became angry with my wife and her family. If they hadn’t been so negligent, Fatmah wouldn't have died and I wouldn't have met such a tragic end… When I looked at Altaaf, I remembered my dead daughter. All my feelings towards her had died. It was her fault that I had lost my family and I had lost everything. What made me even angrier was what people said in Al Odaysat. They whispered to each other secretly that I was a victim of the "black magic" performed by Sheikh Mahmoud, Altaaf's father. Now there was nothing binding me to her anymore. Feelings and sentiments were completely dead and defunct... My daughter was not alive anymore. Therefore, I irrevocably divorced Altaaf and rushed to my mother to bury my sorrow and sadness in her arms.
– I'm Fatmah, Salim's sister. I opened my eyes to see myself lying under the roofed passage with my clothes completely torn up. The last thing I could remember was Sheikh Mahmoud trying to rape me with the help of his wife and daughter. They had raped me to avenge their daughter's divorce from my brother. They wanted to defile my family's name in order to shame my brother and father in Al Odaysat. People gathered around me. I was semi-conscious ... I heard them calling for revenge... I hurried as fast as I could to hide myself in Mariam’s house at Al Nasara Route, but there was no one in the house. I ran to the church of Al Odaysat which had been recently built without permission. I knocked at the wooden door and soon uncle Morqos, the night watchman, opened it and let me in when he saw my torn clothes and my state which reflected the enormity of my distress in spite of the fact that Muslims aren't allowed to go beyond the mud fence surrounding the church. That was the first time I saw the church from inside. Uncle Morqos made me sit in one of the chairs of the nave, right in front of the one assigned to the bishop. The floor was covered with flagstones whereas the roof was made of wooden boards. There, in front of me, I noticed the three altars: the one of the Virgin Mary, the one of Samuel and the one of the Martyr with two Swords. They corresponded to Mariam’s description which I had in my head. I saw Mariam running towards me. When she looked in my eyes she embraced me and burst into tears. When I had told her what had happened, she sheltered me in the reception hall of the Christians – the church courtyard – that was right in front of the church.
– I'm Mahmoud… Some people would call me a charlatan… Others would call me Sheikh Mahmoud… I'm a blessed man and I don't care that people from Al Odaysat dislike me. What I really care about is the fact that people fear me… All are scared of me… but to be more accurate, I would say that people avoid my evil deeds thinking that I'm in contact with the worlds of Jin and spirits. I married off my only daughter to a jobless educated fellow with no income… I offered him a room in my house. For four years, I covered his, his wife’s and his child’s needs and expenses. The only result was that this ignoble man divorced my daughter!! Divorce in Upper Egypt is disgrace and scandal… My daughter is now known as "the divorced woman." No one would ever marry a "divorced woman". Such shame! Yes. That cockroach had exposed me… I would take revenge for my dignity and the prestige I had lost in Al Odaysat… I would rape his sister and disgrace her… I knew how much he adored her and I would bury his head in the mud… I didn’t care about the consequences. All the villagers were afraid of me. What would they care about the disgrace of this whore, Fatmah? That whore who couldn't keep her virginity. And Salim wouldn’t have the courage to report it to the police because Upper Egyptians have their own laws and traditions and wouldn't let the police interfere in settling their own differences. Even if he did, I would deny the accusation and say that she was the one who seduced me.
– Once I heard what happened to my sister, I decided to give up my university studies. I had to go back to protect Fatmah from her fate… It was all because of me… She wouldn't have been raped if it hadn’t been for me! She wouldn't have been at the mercy of Al Odaysat people who called for her to be killed if I hadn’t been away from her. Fatmah wouldn't have suffered all this pain if I hadn’t been married to Altaaf. I persuaded my father and my mother, who supported me, that I was the one who should have been blamed for all this, but I would take revenge by killing Sheikh Mahmoud. I had already bought a gun and some bullets with all the money I had. I waited for him at the entrance of the village to kill him because he had raped my sister and deprived her of the most precious thing she had ever owned and he had taken my family's honour and dignity in the eyes of the village people. I waited many hours while he was supposed to be performing the five prayers at the mosque. But the ignoble dog was expecting my reaction. So he stayed at home with the door and the windows shut. I continued waiting until the church priest saw me and realised what I was going to do. He calmed me down and said:
"You lost your daughter, your wife and your studies; your sister is not a virgin anymore; and your family lost its honour and dignity. Your sister hasn’t been killed; she’s still alive thanks to your support. Do you want her to lose you forever when you are imprisoned because of killing that charlatan?! Stand up, my dear son, and pray to God so that he can show you the right path."
– After hearing the priest’s advice and after supplicating to God, Salim turned away from killing Sheikh Mahmoud. However, he decided to leave Al Odaysat with his family forever. They wouldn’t be able to face people unless Salim or his father killed Fatmah. Everyone regarded her as a prostitute and demanded that she be killed. Even if Al Odaysat’s people tried to forget that scandal, no Upper Egyptian would accept marrying Fatmah in such a state. So they emigrated to Quena and Salim refused to complete his studies and leave his family again. Many years passed, and Salim worked for a government body. He did his best to make his family happy, particularly his little Fatmah, and to compensate them for the pain they had suffered for so long.
In 1970, Salim got married to an Upper Egyptian woman from Quena. He told her his story, and she cared for Fatmah and his very old parents. The wife tried to find Fatmah a partner, but as she was no longer a virgin, despite her fascinating charm, potential fiancés refused to proceed with the engagement after Salim told them what had happened. One day fate provided Fatmah with a chance when a person who loved her agreed to marry her as he did not regard her as being guilty.
– Al Odaysat 2006: My name is Mariam. Today’s Wednesday, 18th January, coinciding with epiphany night. I’m a grandmother now and I’m sixty-two years old. I was asleep at home and it was about 7pm when the lights went out all through the village. Then, I heard screaming outside. When I went out to find out what had happened, I found women in the Al Nasara Route shouting: "Oh, help us Virgin Mary! Help us Virgin Mary!" There were soldiers and I saw fire in one of the houses. Everyone was screaming as fire spread further. There were some Muslims holding bottles of kerosene and oil. I knew because I could smell it on my clothes. I saw two guards and a soldier beating some Christian women. One of the women shouted to me that the Muslims had tried to burn the church as it hadn't been granted a licence. The soldiers supported the Muslims as the formal documentation indicated that the place was a guesthouse and not a place of worship. I ran towards the church which I found burning and there were people throwing fire torches towards the west where Muslim houses stood. We were busy extinguishing the fire. At that point two other people came and hit my left arm and I fell down to the ground and cried (I would never let the Church get burned even if I lost my life). When my daughter’s daughter came back after her private lesson, some Muslim children teased her and said to her: "We’ve burned the Church." When some of our relatives came to express their sympathy to us, since my son's son – who was not even four years old – had died in the fire, the Muslims drove them away twice from the village in an attempt to send them back home. In addition, my sons' cattle were stolen. What a pity! If only the old days, when there was no difference between a Muslim and a Coptic, would come again! Good night, Fatmah!
(If we live, we do so for the sake of God! If we die, we do so for the sake of God! Living or dying, God is our destiny)
Quena 2008. Upper Egypt's City of Light as they call it now. Salim still visits his mother's tomb, especially after the death of his parents who insisted on being buried in the same tomb as their first granddaughter – Fatmah – in Al Odaysat. One day Sheikh Mahmoud was found murdered under a roofed passage on his way back home after dawn prayers. Some people rumoured that Salim was the murderer. Two years later, Altaaf was burned to death. No one knew whether she had burned herself by pouring a litre of kerosene over her body and setting light to herself, or whether the kerosene stove had exploded in her face! Altaaf's mother, who was nearly one hundred years old, was said to be a lunatic, asking alms within Al Odaysat quarters since she had lost her husband and daughter!
As for aunt Fatmah, she gave birth to three girls, the eldest is Mariam. She insisted on educating them so that they wouldn’t face the same fate as her. As did Salim; God blessed his wife and she gave birth to five children, three boys and two girls. I’m the youngest of them and my name is Fatmah.