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How the Poor Cope in Cairo: Families Make the Difference

Tomorrow, God Willing: Self-made Destinies in Cairo

By Unni Wikan

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U. of Chicago Press

333 pp., $55 (cloth) $18.95 (paper)

Grinding poverty and inner city decay are the ugly face of urban culture.

Homelessness, unwed mothers, drug abuse, and the violence that go hand-in-hand with poverty are almost a given in Western culture. That poverty corrodes lives and morals is the message. And the solutions seem as elusive as the problems seem permanent.

But the back streets of Cairo offer a different view. In "Tomorrow, God Willing: Self-Made Destinies in Cairo," Unni Wikan takes us into the heart of the poor districts and shows that despite material deprivation, overcrowding, and pollution, Egyptians manage to persevere with "dignity and zest." Daily trials and defeats barely seem to scratch their robust sense of self-worth.

Readiness to forgive and to forge new beginnings is how they cope - along with endless talking. "Self-made destinies" is how Wikan sums it up, for these Cairene poor have created a stable community for themselves where the streets are safe, violent crime is almost unheard of, and nearly all children are born in wedlock.

If this sounds like poverty romanticized, it is not. The misery is real. And Wikan, a Norwegian anthropologist who has spent years with Cairo's poor, doesn't spare us the details of physical abuse, suicides, and sheer hard labor.

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What is striking about this book, however, is that instead of producing a standard social study documenting her 25 years of research, Wikan offers us a "factual novel." There's nothing dry or statistical here. Umm Ali, the central player, tells her own story with all the melodrama and angst only she can convey.

We enter a social world with its own ground rules and networks of relationships. The mass of first-hand details allows us to judge for ourselves without the filter of an anthropologist. It also lets us experience the almost suffocating chaos and clamor of life among Cairo's 4 million poor.

The narrative begins in 1969, when Umm Ali is 34. She has been married for 19 years and is the mother of eight. Tall and poised, she probably weighs 220 pounds - a solidness highly valued by Egyptians. Her husband, Mustafa, by contrast is small, dark-skinned, and full of failings, according to his wife.

Umm Ali and her female friends have no qualms about openly criticizing their spouses. Egyptian society spares them the demands of a happy marriage and happy facade, even though their loyalty is unquestioned.

Over the 25 years of her narrative Umm Ali tells of one child's death, another's suicide, and a third's exile from the family fold for marrying an inappropriate bride. In between these tragedies unfold the daily grind of making ends meet and saving up to build a house away from the squalor of the city.

"Talking makes wise," she says constantly, and "God helps those who help themselves." She willingly talks to anyone and everyone about her deepest troubles as well as daily trivia. Talking is therapy, comfort, and community. Egyptians feel no shame about admitting all is not well. Whereas Westerners might hide their problems, Egyptians talk freely.

And this is significant, Wikan says. For where the West fails, she believes, is in its belief in human perfection. Egyptians accept fallibility and thus "relieve themselves of the pressure to play up to other's pretensions."

Umm Ali's second dictum, "God helps those who help themselves," is borne out by her resourcefulness in providing for her children, when Mustafa's inept financial dealings bring the family to near ruin. There's no general social welfare in Egypt. The broad network of family and friends provides the only support. And moral and material obligations to blood relatives run deep. This includes housing relatives for months at a time at a moment's notice.

Family honor is drilled into children early. Education is pushed as a way out of poverty. But the best education of all is the school of life, Umm Ali believes. Her children are privy to all the arguments, conflicts, mediation, and money troubles of the family right from the day they're born. "Tomorrow, God Willing" does not attempt to offer a template that can be neatly transferred to a Western context. This would be simplistic. What Wikan says rather is that a relationship-driven society can survive even the severest material deprivations and still produce responsible, balanced adults.

*Susan Leach is a former resident of Cairo.

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