Nagya Muhammad al-Bakr — known as Umm Muhammad, mother of Muhammad — is 37 years old and works as a hospital attendant in the Heart Institute in Imbaba, Cairo. She is married to Bayoumi ‘Abd al-Baqi and has eight children. This interview, excerpted and translated from the Arabic by MERIP editor Judith Tucker, was published in the Egyptian journal al-Tali‘a in February 1976.
Where are you from?
From the peasantry. Our village is Minya al-Ghamh, in the province of Sharqiyya, and I’m from the ‘izba of Shalshamun. We came to Cairo twenty years ago.
Can you read and write?
Very little, just the book [probably the Qur’an] in the village.
Why did you come to Cairo?
My husband was working here. He came to ask for me in marriage and brought me here…and Cairo is still the “mother of the world.”
Is he from your village?
Yes, he is.
Did he own land?
No, he didn’t have any land.
How old were you when you married?
Fourteen. My family knew him and they made the engagement, they reached an agreement. I didn’t know anything and I agreed to what they wanted. He was forty.
Wasn’t that a big age difference?
I don’t know. Peasants are happy with someone who works in Cairo.
Do you have any children?
I have eight. The oldest is sixteen and the youngest is three months. Muhammad is in the ninth grade, Haniya in the fifth grade, another in the third grade, one in the second grade and one in the first grade.
What do you earn, Umm Muhammad?
4.75 Egyptian pounds a month. (One pound = 100 piasters = $1.78.)
How many hours do you work in the hospital?
From 7:30 am to 3 pm. That’s the normal day, and the second day from 7:30 am to 7 at night. One day is eight hours and the second day 12 hours. I leave home at 5 am and I return at 6:30 pm. Every other day I leave at 5 and return at 10 at night.
Do you get overtime pay?
No, I don’t.
How much do you spend on transportation?
Three piasters going and three returning.
That means you work for about 16 piasters a day and you spend six on transportation.
Yes, and there are other hospital attendants who spend 10 piasters on transportation.
Your wages are 4.75 pounds. Do you get any bonuses or tips from patients or anyone else?
No, but when I was hired I worked for 10 piasters a day.
How many hospital attendants have the same situation as yours in the Heart Institute?
Many, but I’ve been there the longest…since 1970 when Dr. Hasuna, the director of the Institute, wrote a recommendation for me and I sent it in. They answered and told me: “Currently, we are employing the families of the martyrs, but when a vacancy occurs, you will have priority.”
What exactly is your position?
Seasonal work. Temporary, day labor.
Why don’t you work in another place which pays the legal minimum wage of 12 pounds?
There’s no job for 12 pounds. I accept it because I hope they will give me permanent status.
You’ve been working for six years on a temporary basis. Is there anyone who came after you who got a permanent position?
Yes, from the families of the martyrs.
Other than them, was there anyone with “contacts” hired on a regular basis?
No. There was an ad in the paper. Dr. Hasuna, the Director of the Institute, was asking for new people and he thought of me. I went for an examination at the Research Institute. Then a request came from the Ministry. I went to someone named Mr. ‘Abd al-Mun‘im. He gave me a form, and I filled it out. Afterwards, I went and asked about it. They said: “Go to the fifth floor.” I went to the fifth floor and they told me that I got a low rating. “We’re going to take those with a higher rating first, then we’ll take you.”
What did they examine you in?
So the hospital attendant who officially holds the job pays you ten piasters a day. Is that a regular wage or does it only happen on some days?
Nearly every day. Sometimes ten piasters for me and sometimes for someone else. She pays because her salary is good, 18 to 20 pounds a month.
What do you do exactly at the Institute?
I work with convalescents. I give enemas, I bathe them, I send instruments for sterilization, I bring them food. All these sorts of jobs.
Did you take a leave when you had your last child?
Ten days. They deducted it. The day I’m absent I’m not paid. I gave birth to two girls at work — I was working. I was on night duty and one was born at three in the morning. I gave birth alone.
Did you buy clothes for the baby?
No, I didn’t. People brought me some clothes. The nurse gave me two pieces.
At holiday time, do you get any help from the doctors?
No, except for the director. Lord keep him, he gives us a pound.
Have you worked anywhere else?
I did look but I’m not actively searching because my children need my income now. If my salary was good…we could eat and drink.
Is there any other work you would like to do if you didn’t work in the hospital?
Work in homes…but there’s no future in it.
Have you ever worked in homes?
What is your husband’s job? What does he earn?
He works as an ironer in a shop in al-Matariyya. He works by the day, for 45 piasters a day. Some days he gives me a pound, some days 25 piasters for the household and the children.
And the rest?
He eats, drinks tea and smokes cigarettes because he is away from home all day long.
Where do you live, and what is your rent?
In al-Matariyya. We pay 1.75 pounds. We have one room, we all sleep in it… I, the older children and their father on the bed, and the other children under the bed.
Is the room independent or is it part of a shared apartment?
It’s shared. There’s a mother with children in another room and an old woman in a third room.
Your wages are 4.75 pounds and you pay 1.75 in rent, leaving three pounds. Your husband contributes 25 piasters a day, so you have about nine pounds a month. How do you spend it?
Each day we get stale bread for 15 piasters, three loaves for one piaster. Then, we buy anything in the market, sometimes mulukhiyya or khabiza if the price is good.
If mulukhiyya and khabiza are not in season, what do you buy?
My daughter gets a kilo and a half of potatoes.
What do you cook with?
We cook with water. I get oil to use less often.
How often do you eat meat?
When we want meat, I go to the slaughterhouse and get a little meat, maybe intestines or some bits. I go once a month and get about half a kilo for 45 piasters. Everyone gets a small piece…it’s very expensive.
And your children’s food?
For breakfast, the older children eat something like ful. I make sandwiches for them from the market, like a bit of mulukhiyya or khabiza, potatoes when they’re cheap. My daughter manages. At night, when I return from work, I bring a little food and bread…and so it goes.
How much do you spend on food per day?
About eight piasters, maybe a little less, excluding the cost of bread.
No, we don’t eat fruit, except when God provides and someone gives me oranges to take home to the children.
When was the last time the children ate oranges?
An important guest brought us a bag. I don’t buy them in this season.
Do you buy monthly supplies in a single purchase?
No. I do bring sugar and tea for those who want it. I take money and get things. I keep 10 kilos of rice and a little oil at home. The neighbors buy supplies from me.
Do you keep any tea or sugar for yourself?
A very little. No one drinks tea except for my husband. When he asks for a cup of tea, I make it for him. If Muhammad asks, I make him some also. He is not very fond of tea.
Do you keep sugar for the children?
Yes, for the youngest. We reserve three quarters of a kilo for him.
Do you buy milk for the youngest?
Do you nurse him?
When I get home.
And all the time you are gone, all day long?
He drinks karawiya [made of boiled caraway seeds and sugar].
Do you buy clothes for the children at holiday time?
No, I don’t.
Do you buy meat for them at the ‘Id al-Adha?
I cooked some green beans with rice. As I told you before, I went to the slaughterhouse and got a little something. It worked out.
On the ‘Id al-Fitr do you make cookies?
No, we don’t. Things are expensive and more so every day.
If you could ask the government to lower prices of three things, what would they be?
Cloth, cooking gas and oil.
What would be an affordable price for meat?
Sixty piasters a kilo; higher than that, we can’t buy it.
What’s the most expensive thing on the market?
Meat, cloth and oil.
What’s the cheapest thing?
There’s nothing cheap.
If you could ask the government for one thing, what would it be?
For work, for permanent work, at 12 pounds a month. I hear that permanent employees get 12 pounds.
Do you have a union? Do any of your fellow workers belong to a union?
No, I don’t know what this “union” is.
How much do you think the woman doctor spends for a dress?
Is there anything more expensive than this?
I don’t know…is there anything more expensive than that?
In order for you and your children to eat and dress decently, what would be a reasonable income?
Our needs are small. If we had 12 pounds a month in addition to what my husband contributes, we would live well.
Before you worked, was your life better?
Life was cheap then. A rutl [one pound, or almost half a kilo] of meat was 12 piasters, 10 piasters wholesale.
Did your situation improve after you went to work?
No, everything was the same. But, because of my children, all that is of little importance. Muhammad says to me: “Mama, when I get my high school certificate, I’ll help you, I’ll work, I’ll join the army, and we’ll become comfortable people.”
Is there a gama’iyya, a government-run shop which sells goods at subsidized prices, near your home?
Where do you shop?
At vegetable stalls and the market.
Have you heard of the public and private sectors?
The public sector is the government and the private sector isn’t.
Which do you think is better?
The government, because government workers get their rightful share of money if someone dies, and they get money for the children.
When you buy things, do you buy in the public or private sector?
The private. There’s no cooperative near us. It’s far away, very crowded and the lines are long. And my daughter can’t leave the other children.
Why is your eldest daughter not in school?
She stayed in school until sixth grade. Then we didn’t have enough money for her photograph and to get her form processed so she stayed home. The form is 35 piasters and the photograph 35 piasters. We didn’t have it so she stayed at home. Then, the same thing happened with Muhammad. When we didn’t have the money, his father told him: “If it works out, it works out. If not, you can find work in a shop.” I said no, I will work for Muhammad’s sake.
Why didn’t you borrow 70 piasters so your daughter could finish her education?
I couldn’t borrow. I had sold the furnishings, the bed, everything in the room. Whenever I found myself in need, I was forced to do so. We didn’t have anything left except one bed, made of wood, and the divan my son Muhammad sleeps on, and a stool to eat on.
Does you daughter want to continue her education?
Yes, she wants to, but how? She’s at home, taking care of her brothers and sisters. She’s sixteen. She launders and cooks for them, and minds the youngest.
If she returned to school, who would take care of the children at home?
She tells me: “You stay home, Mama, and I’ll go out to work.” I’m afraid for her. I fear for the girl. She’s a good, big, girl.
Don’t many girls work here?
It doesn’t matter. I would wear myself out working before having my girl go out to work. You hear people talk….
What does the girl want to do?
She wants to work in a factory.
And what do you fear?
Those girls, and that men will joke with her.
How old were you when you started work? Did men joke with you?
Thirty. I was a married woman; she is still a girl.
You worked after marriage. Did your husband agree?
Yes, we didn’t have anything…what can you do?
And before marriage, did you work?
I was in the countryside. We planted and harvested cotton, things like that.
What was your father’s occupation? Is he living?
A peasant. No, he’s dead.
How many brothers and sisters do you have? Do any of your relatives have land?
Two sisters and a brother. My maternal uncles own one feddan [1.038 acres].
What does your mother do in the countryside?
She lives with her brother.
Did your father acquire any land through land reform?
No. I don’t remember if the land was divided before or after my father’s death.
Do you visit your relatives in the countryside or do they visit you?
No, there’s no money. We spend first on the children.
Which do you think is better, life in the countryside or life in Cairo?
It’s a hundred times better here. I can find work here and my family’s here.
How do you provide your children with supplies, such as notebooks?
I provide. There are women doctors who need some laundry done or something like that. I go to their houses…so I can keep an emergency fund of one pound in my pocket. When they need notebooks or something, I get them.
How do you manage other school needs, such as special materials?
I tell the children that I haven’t the money, and I tell them to wait until I do.
Where do you take the children when they are sick?
To the clinic attached to their school or to the hospital. Sometimes I take the sick child with me to the hospital where I work.
Do you have electricity at home?
Muhammad studies with a gas lamp because we don’t have electricity. With a gas lamp, sitting at the stool in the room.
And how do you clothe the children?
There’s a market called the “Thursday market” where they have secondhand clothes. I buy their clothes there, and shoes socks. A galabiyya is 22 piasters.
After supper at home, when you talk with each other, what do you talk about?
I tell the children to study and I watch over their studying.
Do you have a radio or television?
Do you ever listen or watch at a neighbor’s?
When the neighbors turn up the radio, I listen; but not the television.
You and your husband have spent 20 years in Cairo. Have you ever been to the movies?
And the children?
No. Muhammad asks to go to the movies and I tell him there’s no money. So he goes to watch television at the neighbor’s.
Does your husband read and write?
Do you get any newspaper at home?
No. Except when Muhammad sees something, he says to me: “Mama, I want a newspaper.” So I say: “My beloved, your allowance is one and a half piasters, take a half piaster of it and get a newspaper.” He gets a paper twice a month, roughly.
Now people are attacking President Gamal Abdel Nasser. What is your opinion?
He was a good man. May God bless him.
How was he good?
From the point of view of the cost of living…. Life was a little less expensive then.
Have you heard of land reform?
Yes, everyone was working on the land, then the agrarian reform said that those who had a feddan or two could keep it and their expenses would be defrayed. That was good.
Was daily life better before land reform, or now?
That’s another question. Before, people were eating a lot of bread. People were working and had money and bread.
Do you know who is president of Egypt now?
Of course, President Sadat, may God keep him. He’s good. He’s done much for the country and he brought us victory.
What do you think of people who call for the dismantling of the public sector?
That’s wrong. The workers wouldn’t have a future, neither for themselves nor for their children. They’re mistaken to attack the public sector.
Many Egyptians go to work in the Arab countries. Isn’t this profitable?
No, it’s not good for us…. It’s a shame when we go to other countries to work. Also, I hear that the women there employ them.
Do you accept to remain poor?
No. I’m poor but God will grant us wealth. Let Him help the children to grow and flourish.
How will you improve your situation? When the children grow up? Or can you do so before then?
That depends on the will of God. When we, the poor, talk with each other, we say that God will improve our situation, that He will send us a good employer who will give us permanent jobs.
Is there anyone poorer than you in the quarter where you live?
No, there’s no one poorer than me. They’re all comfortably well off. One’s husband works for the government. Another’s husband earns 18 pounds…they’re in good shape.
There is now talk of women’s rights. Some want a personal status law to limit divorce so that men don’t have the right to repudiate at will. Have you heard of this proposal?
No, I haven’t.
How would you feel about such a law being issued?
It would be very good.
Do you think women in Egypt are ill treated?
Women in Egypt… their men, for example, go abroad to work and leave the women and children at home.
Would it be better to have a law to protect women? Do such laws fit with Islam?
Why wouldn’t they fit with Islam? They fit very well indeed.
Do you pray?
I pray when I’ve the time to do so. I pray in the morning and when I’ve finished work in the evening.
You know your means are few. Why did you bear eight children?
I had them. When I was taking the pill, I lost my strength. People told me you must get nourishment with them, you must eat well. But the meat I got in the hospital at noon, I saved that for the children.
And so you didn’t take the pill?
Yes. When I was taking it, I couldn’t even climb the stairs. I lost my strength. I would have liked three children. A large number isn’t good. Their father says God will provide.
Their father wanted many children?
No, not many. He told me: “Are you going to kill yourself…what can you do?”
Do you have any female relatives in the university?
I’ve heard of such, but I don’t know any.
What do you think of girls entering the university?
University is very expensive, but if their parents can afford it, why not?
Do you think girls should work after they leave the university?
Of course, don’t they have a diploma?
Some say that a girl should stay at home. What do you think?
Men say that. OK, when a man marries and they are poor, he will enslave her.
If the man is wealthy, should she stay at home?
It’s still wrong. At least she can help him earn a living. Life is expensive.
Thank you, Umm Muhammad.