It was the fourth day of my trip to the South.
And it was my first time visiting the mosque of Abu Haggag, although I had been in al’Aqsar before. After taking a walk around the mosque, my digital camera gave me a real sense of what was standing before my eyes. Its actual weight had eluded me until that precise moment, since in order to be able to fully comprehend it I first needed to climb to the balcony of the mosque and contemplate the temple from above. The call to prayer began to sound while I stood there. I thought the place was stunning. It truly inspired me! Hence, I began to mull over its gravity.
Suddenly, a girl interrupted my musings, asking without any sort of preamble, “Are you married?”
I turned my head toward her and gazed at the beauty of her face, as well as the long, loose black garb she was wearing. She had sparked my curiosity and I was hoping to start a conversation with her to find out why, despite looking so young, she was already thinking about marriage, why she was there to begin with, and whether she might be seeking to marry at such an early age. Therefore, I replied in a rather nonchalant way, “No, I am single. What about you?”
She then answered in the dialect of Upper Egypt, “No, I ain’t married nor have I studied.”
I offered her a seat. The fresh air was invigorating and I felt for her. The day had been long and exhausting.
Right after we sat down, I took a deep breath to summon every ounce of strength I could envision myself needing in order to swallow the answer I feared she might give me after I asked, “So you haven’t studied. Why is that?”
She replied, “I have not studied and neither have any of my sisters.”
That didn’t come like a bolt from out of the blue, since I was already aware of the traditions ingrained in Upper Egyptian families. However, just in case she might actually offer some revealing insight about the matter, I asked again, “Why?”
She shrugged her shoulders as if she didn’t care and I’d just asked something utterly preposterous. But in the same breath, she said, “Because. I have another question, you are from Egypt, right?”
“Yes, I am.”
Visibly cheered up, she moved a little bit closer and asked with sparkling eyes, “And is Egypt like this, like al’Aqsar?”
I told her while at the same time caressing her hands, “No, of course not. Al’Aqsar is much better.”
Unexpectedly, she burst into a fit of anger as she moved away a little, back to where she had been sitting before.
“Do not lie to me,” she said. “My sister ran off to Egypt! It has to be a lot better over there.”
Dumbfounded, I asked, “Did she really run away? Why?”
A loud husky, rasping voice interrupted our conversation. “I demand to know who the hell this person you hang out with is, child!”
The girl got scared and moved closer to me, grabbing my hand and signaling me to answer in her stead.
“She is with me, sir. There is no cause for concern.”
The girl’s father, speaking in the Upper Egyptian dialect, then said, “She’ll run off as well.”
In response, I stated, “You have nothing to be afraid of. I am going to stay put.”
He clutched her arm as if to drag her somewhere else, maybe some place with a less charged atmosphere.
However, instead, he calmed down and took a seat next to us. He stayed there gawking at us for a while and the girl did not utter a single sound. Poor man, I thought. Once he had completely cooled down, he went inside the burial vault and sent up his prayers. Perhaps he asked Abu Haggag to allow him to see his daughter again.
The girl then turned toward me and asked me once more, “Why are you still single?”
“Because I’d rather wait to get married,” I told her.
“Know what?” she said, letting her imagination run wild, “I will also stay single and go to Egypt to make my own decisions.”
I then realized I hadn’t asked her about her age.
“How old are you?”
“Fourteen, and I am still not married,” she confessed, as if she were already over the hill.
I smiled at her and said, “Don’t you worry, you’ll get married someday.”
Thereupon, her mother, a dejected and gaunt-looking dark-skinned woman wearing a black jilbab came out of the vault, grabbed her daughter’s hand without saying a word, and pushed her to enter the mausoleum. I looked at the girl while she was being dragged away, forced to leave without any strength to put up a fight. I didn’t want her to go either. Her eyes were begging me to take her with me, but I couldn’t pull any strings on her behalf. I wished Abu Haggag had some strategy up his sleeve.
I completed my tour around the place and realized that I hadn’t asked the girl her name. Perhaps the situation hadn’t led to the occasion or perhaps I had deemed what I’d already learned about her to be enough information. I was glad the girl’s sister had been able to cut loose from her family. In spite of her becoming a sinner beyond dispute, she must have boasted some true grit. Besides, what is the greater sin: to deprive a young girl of education and force her to marry at an early age or to break away from such a fate? I really don’t have a clue. Life as I understand it is certainly poles apart from how Upper Egyptians seem to spend it.