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Tomorrow, God Willing

Self-made Destinies in Cairo

"I, without earning a penny, have to be the provider!" Thus Umm Ali sums up the nearly impossible challenge of her daily existence. Living in a poor neighborhood of Cairo, she has raised eight children with almost no help from her husband or the Egyptian government and through hardships from domestic violence to constant quarrels over material possessions.

Umm Ali’s story is amazing not only for what it reveals about her resourcefulness but for the light it sheds on the resilience of Cairo’s poor in the face of disastrous poverty. Like countless other poor people in Cairo, she has developed a personal buoyancy to cope with relentless economic need. It stems from a belief in the ability of people to shape their own destiny and helps explain why Cairo remains virtually free of the social ills—violent street crime and homelessness—that have eroded the lives of poor people in other major cities.

Unni Wikan first met Umm Ali and her family twenty-five years ago and has returned almost every year. She draws on her firsthand experience of their lives to create an intimate portrait of Cairo’s back streets and the people who live there. Wikan’s innovative approach to ethnographic writing reads like a novel that presents the experiences of Umm Ali’s family and neighbors in their own words.

As Umm Ali recounts triumphs and defeats—from forming a savings club with neighbors to the gradual drifting away and eventual return of her husband—she unveils a deeply reflective attitude and her unwavering belief that she can improve her situation. Showing how Egyptian culture interprets poverty and family, this book attests to the capacity of an individual’s self-worth to withstand incredible adversity.

352 pages | 20 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 1996

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Middle Eastern Studies

Women's Studies

Table of Contents

A Note on Transliteration
Cast of Characters
Prelude: Talking Together Makes Wise
Part One - Woman, Mother, and Poor
1. A Broken Dream
Presentation (anno 1982)
The dream
"And ever since have I neglected my looks"
2. Tomorrow, God Willing
"The man should have his freedom, but not at the woman’s expense"
"The man is like a child"
"God helps him who helps himself"
3. The Back Street Environment
The way in
Shoes make people
The modern quarter
The baladi quarter
4. A Woman and Her Man
Umm Ali
5. The Children
Rights to intercourse
Hit-or-miss contraception
Maternal love
6. A Life in Poverty
Living quarters
Life without schedule
"People think we are well off"
Figuring time and money
A closer look inside the flat
A house of one’s own
Tomorrow, God willing
7. Seven Brothers and Sisters
8. For the Children’s Sake
"I don’t care if they starve or they die"
"If only the children were happy"
Part Two - Umm Ali Speaks
9. The Source of All Misery: Mustafa and the Money
"As if ’never min’ can fill a belly"
"I, without earning a penny, have to be the provider"
"But you are poor and that’s no shame"
Simple treason
Securing one’s due
"The shepherd is responsible for his flock"
"It’s not you who will be shamed"
"It’s brains he lacks, not money"
10. Manchild Mustafa
11. Marriage and Love
"Like a third-rate girlfriend"
A flop
Sharing responsibility
"It’s a heavy burden to carry unreciprocated gifts"
Would you call this happiness?
"Marriage makes a man of you"
"He goes one way, I go the other, and never the twain shall meet"
"Like a stranger from the street"
12. Might and Vulnerability
"In many a house, she is the man and he the woman"
"For if I hit him, he wouldn’t be a man"
To control oneself
To strike first and think afterwards
The house of obedience
A blessed chicken
"The man is the wife’s best doctor"
"Only four times have I demanded divorce"
"I neither love nor hate him"
13. Three Desperate Attempts at Self-Help
The job: "So I can walk apart and look at him"
An accursed care and a heartbreaking savings club
The house site that gives wings to a dream
Part Three - The Back Streets as a Social Environment
14. Everyone Begrudges Others Everything They Have
The people’s talk
The evil eye
Invidious comparisons; or, Why everyone else seems better off
15. Materialism and Want
Status symbols
The material measure of a person’s value
The vulnerability of women
Part Four - Daily Life and Rhythm
16. Typical Days in Umm Ali’s Life
Part Five - Growing Up in Poverty
17. The Child in the Family
The problem of assessing experience
"Egyptian children are kissed, not disciplined"
Nature and nurture: The roles of mother and father
Brothers and sisters
Squabbling over food
Different faces of poverty
Bickering over clothes
18. The Everyday World of Children
A small world
Home versus street
The new age: TV
One day is like another
School: Pathway to the future
Social intelligence and competence
Part Six - Three Ways out of Misery
19. Amin’s Death
20. Afaf’s Illness
21. Hoda’s Spiritual Conversion
Part Seven - Some Important Persons and Events in Umm Ali’s Life
22. Childhood and Youth, 1934-1949
23. Amira: Sister-in-Law Who Has Enough with Her Own
24. Ahmed: Beloved Brother
25. Farida: Sister Whom Life Did Not Spare
26. Umm Magdi and the Friendship That Broke Up
27. Some Who Were Not Mentioned
28. Houseguests Holding Their Ground
Part Eight - Young Today
29. On Freedom, Choice, and Love
But freedom is not all
30. Ali: Freedom at a High Price
31. Hoda: "As If He Could Decide over Me"
32. Mona: "Marriage Is Like an Unopened Watermelon"
Part Nine - A Hope for the Future
33. Fulfillment
34. Talking Is Therapy
Part Ten - Epilogue
35. What Happened Next?
36. Cairo—City Victorious?
Four political regimes
Standard of living
The Contract with Egypt
Population explosion
Building and renting out
Savings clubs: A reprise
The rent freeze
Project Home
Life at the margins
Safety and human supports
Changing times
The fundamentalist upsurge
Making a future for the children
Postscript: Fieldwork

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