When I find myself in a new country with a little extra time on my hands, I find nothing more pleasant than rifling my way through a bookshop for local stories written in English. Now, I’m not just talking about having Shanataram on the shelf at home, but collections of stories from people and places. When we came across a fabulous bookshop in Luxor, I picked up two works in translation: The Yacoubian Building and No One Sleeps in Alexandria, which now sit comfortably next to Breathless in Bombay and Rediscovering Dharavi awaiting my time and energies. It all sounds very foreign, but the reality is that these stories, although dissimilar from my own upbringing, share so many similarities with other stories from around the world. I find myself fascinatingly lost in the worlds of others for hours on end; international escapism if you will.
But these are not the best books I picked up in Egypt.
A yellow book stood among the shelves in that expansive Luxor store, tucked among the local literature, and as I pulled it out on our return visit to the store, I knew I had found my holy grail of Egyptian stories. It’s called Khul-Khaal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories, and it’s a piece of history that I never could have anticipated. I’m not usually the kind of person that gets approached to discuss what I’m reading, but this little baby drew attention!
First published in 1984, Khul-Khaal is a collection of transposed oral tellings from five very different women in Egypt, each with extensive stories of love, loss and difficulty. The women are connected by the concept of marriage, which draws the reference of the khul-khaal, a pair of bangles worn around the ankles of women as a symbol of marriage (as opposed to rings). These women suffered torture and beatings at the hands of their husbands and fathers, endured female circumcision at the hands of their mothers and their counterparts, and dealt with the difficult loss of children in a time where marriage of cousins and close relatives was so desperately common and preferred. They are fascinating reads, albeit a little difficult to follow at times due to the oral nature of their telling.
While I had my nose firmly tucked among the pages of the simply presented book on the ferry from the Aqaba coast in Jordan back to Nuweiba in Egypt, the German woman helping to arrange visas, customs and transfers came to my side and crouched beside my seat. It didn’t seem strange as she had already helped us a few times that day, fielding our questions about Jordan, the currency and the tourist transfers. I think she liked us because we were so low maintenance and clearly not straight off a Nile cruise.
“I wore the khul-khaal for a year,” she said, “and they’re so awkward!”
Amazed by the clearly Western woman by my side telling this story, I asked if they were heavy or tight, but she talked about how the shape was just so restricting for when you are running, exercising or moving particularly fast. I nodded. Clearly, they were a ploy to keep control of women at the time, slowing them down and forcing them to move around in grace rather than with purpose. Not all too different from the abeya in some ways, though there is something so lovely about the grace of wearing one of those. She continued, telling me about how she had suddenly found herself married to her Egyptian husband “by rumour” and wasn’t a fan of rings. In order to stop any gossip or scandal, she donned the khul-khaal and made it known that she was a committed woman. Now that’s cultural commitment if I ever did see it. How awesome.
If you can get your hands on a copy of Khul-Khaal by Nayra Atiya, I do thoroughly recommend it. There is nothing proseworthy in the texts. It is not high literature, but it’s a damn fine insight into the world that Egypt once was, and the aspects of culture that still underpins life today.