Shahhat an Egyptian
By Richard Critchfield. Syracuse Univ. Press, 1986. 223 pp. List: $10.95. AET: $7.95 for one, $10.95 for two.
Reviewed by Uzra Zeya
March 1990, Page 45
While the grandeur of their ancient civilization is a matter of pride for modern Egyptians, in a sense this heritage has overshadowed the vitality and richness of the Egypt of today. Among contemporary Egyptians who certainly deserve greater attention are the fellahin of Upper Egypt, direct descendants of the empire builders of ancient Thebes. Richard Critchfield's Shahhat, an Egyptian presents the true story of a year in the life of a 19-year-old Upper Egyptian. What emerges is a fascinating portrait of the fellahin experience which far surpasses more traditional sociological studies in its emotional intensity.
From the outset, Critchfield presents the central figure, Shahhat, as realistically as possible, detailing his upbringing in Berat, a village of just 7,000 persons alongside Egypt's famed Valley of the Kings. Ommohamed, Shahhat's proud and strongwilled mother, faces a constant struggle to raise and feed her family. Despite the deaths of a number of her children at an early age, she maintains hope in the future, particularly for her eldest son Shahhat.
After providing a brief explanation of Shahhat's background, Critchfield essentially allows the story to unfold on its own. Rather than analyzing the values and practices of the fellahin lifestyle, as many anthropological works would attempt to do, Critchfield for the most part presents the central figures and events of Shahhat's life in a straightforward narrative form.
A strapping young man on the verge of adulthood, Shahhat faces a host of conflicting influences and desires. His mother urges him to pursue an honest life and work the small parcel of land owned by his family. Shahhat's father, Abd al Baset, however, provides a quite different example to follow. As one of the village's most notorious revelers, Abd al Baset squanders the family's meager resources on drinking and gambling. Although Shahhat often criticizes his father's carrying on, he spends his own evenings at Abdullahi's, a local gathering place for cardplaying and drinking.
Other formative influences in Shahhat's life include his uncle Ahmad, a pious and authoritative man who protects Shahhat from trouble, yet often reproaches the young man for his reckless behavior. Shahhat is drawn to a number of young women, including Suniya, the daughter of an outcast clan looked down upon by most of the village. Both Ommohamed and Abd al Baset forbid Shahhat from seeing the girl, as such a marriage would bring dishonor on the family. Throughout the book, Shahhat faces similar conflicts with his family over the social repercussions of his behavior.
The book's wide range of fascinating characters illustrate the changing nature of rural society in Upper Egypt. Diminishing harvests and government inefficiency add to the hardships already facing Shahhat and the residents of Berat. The Aswan Dam provides valuable agricultural and industrial benefits to the whole nation, but has profoundly changed the Upper Egyptian way of life. Annual harvests, which for centuries were planned according to the flow of the Nile, have been supplanted by year-round rotation of new cash crops. Many Upper Egyptians remain suspicious of the new technology and the bureaucratic excesses of the central government.
Shahhat's story illustrates both the joys and hardships which exist in fellahin society. Midway through the year chronicled, Shahhat's family, rarely enjoying a surplus of food or money, throws an exquisite weeklong hafla (celebration), which captivates the residents of Berat as well as the reader. Even Ommohamed, who has faced many bitter humiliations at the hands of her son, remains caring and good-humored in regard to Shahhat's future. Although generally on the brink of utter destitution, members of Shahhat's family retain their dignity and stubborn desire to work their own land.
Although obviously sympathetic to Shahhat and the fellahin way of life, Critchfield injects negative racial overtones into certain points of the narrative. Early on in the book, Critchfield points out that Shahhat's non-African appearance sets him apart from the other men of the village:
"Except for his curly black hair, with its hint of African negro blood, he [Shahhat] looked more Arabian than Egyptian; most of the men in the village were shorter, more heavily built, and had strong cheekbones, thick noses, and heavy jaws. Among their rugged faces, Shahhat's stood out as singularly expressive."
The reader might conclude from such a description that Critchfield's initial attraction to Shahhat was due to the fact that his features were much less African than those of the majority of Upper Egyptians. Ironically, that is the attitude of some inhabitants of northern Egypt, who refuse to acknowledge Upper Egyptians as Arabs, and consider darker skin to be a negative trait. Such prejudice is the second challenge which faces Upper Egyptians, in addition to poverty: racism.
Although I did take issue with the presumably inadvertent racial implications of Critchfield's observations, Shahhat, an Egyptian is an entertaining and vivid introduction to the richness and diversity of rural Egyptian life.
Uzra Zeya is a program coordinator for the American Educational Trust specializing in Islamic affairs.
Advise and Dissent and Shahhat, an Egyptian are available from the AET Book Club.