Salam Canal, Egypt
Ali came to my house that day, well-dressed, handsome and carrying a pack of sweets. My father welcomed him into our house and my brother joined quickly. I was standing in the back room, leaning against the wall, trying to hold my breath. I used to see him often in the fields near to our house. He is good-looking and from the stories of my brother I knew that he is also kind hearted. But I did not get a chance to talk him. Oh! He is also very smart, I almost forgot that. I heard that he is a graduate student who applied for land in the new land reclamation project near the Salam canal. He is wealthy, he owns five feddan (~2,5 ha. 1 feddan=0,42 ha). My father always admired that project, he kept talking about it a lot, but I always listened carelessly.
I did not know him that much, but every girl has to get married and I did not want to become old and unmarried. I did not really have a say, but I hoped my father would agree with his proposal. After he left, my father asked me, while I was still hiding in the backroom: “So what do we do now, I know that you were listening!” I responded: “Yes, father”. Um Amira smiled, when she remembered this. My father concluded that he would agree with the marriage proposal. There was only one thing, the land the groom bought as graduate farmer is very far away from our house. We lived in the Sharqiya governorate and the land lies towards Port Said. Despite of my father’s concerns, I knew that he would accept, because I was not that close to him anymore. He always told me that the in the end, a girl only has her house and her husband and nothing else.
After the wedding, in 1995 we went to live in his house in the graduate village of Tarek Ibn Ziad. He told me that this graduate program gives a 200 m2 house with the five feddan of land. I was happy with the idea of owning a piece of land, I knew this is a life support. But when I went there for the first time, there was no one to be found in the village and near the land. The place was empty, few people passed by, you saw somebody only once every two to three hours. The whole village was composed of 196 houses, most of them were empty. I started to panic, but I kept silent, I couldn’t say a word. My husband came to me and he tried to comfort me by saying that although there were not many services here in this area, owning a piece of land was worth the wait. He told me that to compensate the costs, he needed to pay installments over thirty years to the government to become the owner. “Thirty years!!”. We are paying 350 pounds (40 USD) every year for thirty years. It is too much money and it is such a burden. I kept telling him to leave the land, that it was too much work and money, besides there were none of the promised services such as drinking- and irrigation water, electricity, schools, roads, etc. available in the area. Many of the graduate farmers never came or left the village for these reasons and sold their land. But my husband always used to ask me: “what weighs more: one meter of land or one meter of gold?”. And before I could answer, he would tell me that a meter of land, of course, is of more value.
My husband taught me how to plant and how to fertilize the land and the meaning of cultivation. He taught me what it meant to wash the land, as our land was high in salinity. We have been here since 1995, now I got used to the situation here. I kept telling myself that I got used to living here and that it was starting to get better, until I became pregnant. I had a daughter and I snapped. After this I was complaining a lot to my husband to move, but he kept telling me to be patient and that the introduction of public services to the area, would raise the value of the feddans. The pressure on my family was high, not only the pressure of how to raise a child in this harsh environment, but also my own family’s pressure. I used to get goosebumps whenever I heard that my brother was coming to visit us. He always kept telling my husband that if my parents knew how I lived here and how miserable the situation was, they would never be okay with it. And every time I had to fight with him and show him that I was okay with whatever my husband was okay with and to leave us alone. Whenever he left, I kept thinking about every word he had said and wondered if they were true or not. But the situation gradually improved. The drinking water was introduced only in 2008 as part of the East Delta Development Project. The government also used to help new settlers by bringing in oil, margarine, and duck, but they stopped this support since 2002.
Now, I have four kids: three daughters and one son, and I am a widow. Yes, he left me alone here, he died two years ago, which appears like a century. I am alone, but there is no time for grief. I have to get up, I have to protect the land, and I have to protect my family. With every step in working on our land, I thank my late husband millions of times. He offered me a chance to be independent and to protect the land. I know the engineers who work on my land and who provide the seeds and fertilizers. I sometimes take some kilos of the cultivated fruits and vegetables and sell it in the market to have some money in my hand, just in case any of the kids needs something. Although they are not kids anymore, I still need to protect them until I give my daughters to their grooms and my son finishes school.
Although I believe that marriage is the best thing for my daughters, to keep them safe and not to need anything from anyone, even if I am dead, I can’t push them too much. The oldest daughter is married now; she was fully convinced with the groom but I had to push her. Despite that I had to work twice the time on the land and stop buying my medication, but I managed to save money to prepare for her wedding. My other two daughters are still in middle school (secondary school). One of the farmers working near my land proposed to marry one of them. I know from my ancestors that there is no girl young enough for marriage and I know that her future will be safer that way. Although she hates me right now as she wants to complete her education, she was an A student. But still, as my father told me, that the girl only has her house and her husband and nothing else. She is young and she will understand later the importance of what I did. I just don’t want her to suffer like me now.
But I notice that the kids are different from what I used to be. They think and talk differently. They have this Cairo-accent, because they are travelling a lot to my family and their fathers’ family around Egypt. Even my son, although he seems to have inherited the concept of the ‘preciousness’ of inheriting land from his father. He wants to continue working on it, as this would be better than graduating with a degree and not finding a job. He is different from his father, he thinks and talks differently. Although I can’t fully cope with his thoughts, I do trust him.
I am not the only one here, I have my neighbors, they are so close to my heart. I even prefer to borrow money from them if I needed. This is better than to go all the way to my family and explain my needs to them. Some days come, when we all sit together and cook lunch or dinner. I love preparing sweets with them, it is like my away time. There are about six more widows like me in the neighborhood, we support and console each other. We are strong and we can survive, I know that. I just get afraid sometimes whenever I think how much I need to save up for my daughters’ wedding, and the annual installments for the land. There is this new law by the government, which allows me to take loans from the bank, whenever I am done with the land installments.
I heard about a widow, who is very wealthy and owns a lot of feddans (land) at the beginning of the canal. She is a different kind of farmer, an investor, as I remember, her late husband bought these feddans and used to work in them. I think her name is Madame Samira, I always hear her name in the market and from the irrigation engineer who helps me in my land, he used to work for her too. I knew these things about her, as I have always admired her personality and I always asked myself: “how could she alone take care of all these feddans and supervising all these men?”. But then it always comes to my mind that I do that too, but on a very small scale compared to her. In our area, there are all types of women playing different roles. I came to believe that the role of women is not only enclosed in household work. However, she still should be married. I can’t digest the idea of an unmarried woman. All women should get married and go around with their husbands where they settle.
In my opinion, we are unique in different ways and according to different factors. We faced trouble and we met happiness, this what forms our personality. My life started after my marriage, as it was always different in my father’s house. I came to the world and I want the same for my daughters. I hope they won’t hate me; they will know later that I wanted the best for them. I don’t see the education as a support in this life. I might be wrong, but they get to do what they want to do after marriage. My daughters will be strong in their unique way. For all that I know, is that a woman is not weak and alone she can do a lot. Misery and struggles make us stronger. I will always be proud of my daughters, unlike the old saying of my mother: “a girl’s mother is backed by a thread, while a boy’s mother backed by a wall”. I know my daughters will be my support, I know they will be great.