Clouds of smoke fill the room. Young women sit talking about the events of the day, while Sana’ inhales smoke from the strongest water pipe tobacco available on the market. “Everything else is for innocent children,” she scoffs. Her smoking habit symbolizes her social status. Sana’ is the sheikhat al-hara, the wheeler-dealer of her neighborhood, a position normally reserved to well-liked and respected men. Sana’, however, is considered by the people in her neighborhood as sitt bi-mi’at ragil, a woman worth hundreds of men.
Her sphere of doubtless influence stretches over the streets of the Cairene neighborhood of al-Warraq on the northwestern bank of the Nile where endless kilometers of unplanned housing slowly shift into agricultural land. It is a mix of rural migrants from across Egypt who began settling here some 20 years ago, when the square meter cost not more than a few cents. A chair factory constitutes the most important landmark; but it is the countless workshops of car mechanics, plumbers, carpenters and small-scale tile producers for which the area is famous.
Daily survival preoccupies people here. Family life is stressful. Noisy disputes spill out on the streets. Events sometime tum violent. When conflicts cannot be solved, the concerned parties pass by Sana’s small tailor shop. “My door is always open for children, cats and troubled neighbors,” she announces.
A person like Sana’ was not easy to find in the struggling neighborhoods of Cairo. Many of the traditional social networks that existed when these neighborhoods were still villages have fallen apart. The constant flow of migrants from across Egypt who do not know each other has created communities from which the only support often comes from within the family. Community leaders such as Sana’ seem not to be the norm, even more so because of her gender and age.
Only 35 years old, she has dealt with many different situations. “I can be a respected, educated person or, if a person does not understand this, I can give them a glimpse of the soles of my shoes. I can show different colors.” She appears frequently in a bright modem skirt and blouse; other days she wears an abaya (the traditional long black cloak).
Regardless of her clothing, her tailor shop is courtroom and social affairs office all in one. If a couple wants a divorce, if a husband beats his wife, if someone from the neighborhood ends up in the police station, or if a neighbor stricken by cancer needs money, it is Sana’ who gets involved. She patiently listens to lengthy descriptions of married misery and offers advice; she makes sure that the case just filed at the police station is withdrawn; she organizes the collection of money for people in emergency situations.
Even the toughest characters listen to her. Husna (name changed by the author) is known as the local troublemaker. Husna’s formidable size, “as large as a refrigerator,” demands fearful appreciation. Anyone who needs to settle a score can pay her to target their enemy and stir up commotion on the street, which on occasion has ended with the shedding of blood. There is still talk about the young man who tried to compete with her. Husna sliced up his leg which then had to be sewn back together with not less than 14 stitches.
When events got out of hand, Sana’ had to interfere before the police station became Husna’s final destination. Husna still dabbles in her profession but has abandoned the heavier hits in the past two years, during which time she became a regular guest in the tailor shop of Sana’ — the informal probation officer.
“I have this position because people are content with my judgement,” she says. Indeed, not only her seven brothers and sisters but also those in her neighborhood talk of her ‘ayn al-qubul — her “eye of acceptance” or, more precisely, her power of persuasion. Her “magic” eyes and “walking cappuccino” persona are not the only reason the neighborhood turns to her for support and advice. Divorced ten years ago after a one-year marriage, she has no children. This, however, is not the only reason for her independent stance: Sana’ has also achieved a modest degree of wealth.
While her grandfather was still working as a cargo shipper on the Nile, her father made his way from the Upper Egyptian town of Asyout to work as a small-scale contractor in Cairo. He not only organized construction but bought and sold small pieces of land. The house in which Sana’s tailor shop is located belongs to her family. Sana’ first set up a travel agency in Cairo, specializing in trips for workers to the United Arab Emirates. When she married she gave up her business. The income she had earned from her work, however, gave her the opportunity to buy some pieces of land.
After her divorce, she set up the tailor shop. The success of the shop lies in the fact that she offers an installment plan — the only possible way her neighbors can afford to buy her products. She also runs a variety of small projects on the side, providing employment to some in her neighborhood. Recently she bought a car to operate a taxi service. “Something I had to stop because the cost of the repairs meant constant losses,” she reflects.
As in any poor, urban neighborhood like al-Warraq, much remains to be done to improve the basic state services, such as water, sewage and garbage collection. Sana’ organizes small campaigns to present officials with complaints of a broken pipe or similar problems. She knows where to address the complaints. “But you know how it is with complaints here. The first round ends up in the garbage bin, the second in the drawer; so things have to be organized,” she explains. Sana’ is helped by her good family contacts within the local state institutions, a topic upon which she does not want to elaborate.
Sana’s position as sitt al-kull (the “everything woman”) has not gone unchallenged. For local Islamists like the Gama‘at Islamiyya (Islamic Groups), a woman like Sana’ is more than suspect. They cannot understand a woman who runs around the streets wearing a headscarf and sits in her office smoking the water pipe, which some consider to be haram (forbidden). “In discussions with them about religion, I was able to talk in their language. They realized that I have a fair amount of knowledge about religion.” As for her water pipe: “I am accountable to God not to them.” Discussions with the Islamists ended, according to Sana’, in mutual respect. Sana’ describes herself as very religious but does not subscribe to the spreading religious conservatism. “If I go to the beach in Alexandria in the summertime I wear a bathing suit into the water and if I am running around the streets I am dressed in more modest clothes.” Her religion is a mixture of popular Islam and a strong belief in fate. “Your heart is full of sadness,” she tells one woman in her office while reading the grounds in her coffee cup. She lays cards and presents her extensive knowledge of astrology. Religion is for her the underlying motive for her social work — activities that she believes will one day be paid back by God.
As for a second marriage, with a dismissive movement of her hand, she casts this thought away. Her one-time experience seems to have been enough for her. “I have no time for romance. I have more important things to do,” she discloses. “Anyway,” she laughs, “most of them are no match for me.”