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"I, without earning a penny, have to be the provider!" Thus Umm Ali sums up the nearly impossible challenge of her daily existence. Living in a poor neighbourhood of Cairo, she has raised eight children with almost no help from her husband or the Egyptian government and through hardships from domestic violence to constant quarrels over material possessions. Umm Ali's story is amazing not only for what it reveals about her resourcefulness but for the light it sheds on the resilience of Cairo's poor in the face of disastrous poverty. Like countless other poor people in Cairo, she has developed a personal buoyancy to cope with relentless economic need. It stems from a belief in the ability of people to shape their own destiny and helps explain why Cairo remains virtually free of the social ills - violent street crime and homelessness - that have eroded the lives of poor people in other major cities. Unni Wikan first met Umm Ali and her family 25 years ago and has returned almost every year. She draws on her firsthand experience of their lives to create an intimate portrait of Cairo's back streets and the people who live there. Wikan's approach to ethnographic writing reads like a novel that presents the experiences of Umm Ali's family and neighbours in their own words. As Umm Ali recounts triumphs and defeats - from forming a savings club with neighbours to the gradual drifting away and eventual return of her husband - she unveils a deeply reflective attitude and her unwavering belief that she can improve her situation. Showing how Egyptian culture interprets poverty and family, this book attests to the capacity of an individual's self-worth to withstand incredible adversity. Unni Wikan is the author of "Behind the Veil in Arabia: Women in Oman" and "Managing Turbulent Hearts: A Balinese Formula for Living", both published by the University of Chicago Press. She is fluent in Arabic and has conducted extensive fieldwork in Egypt, Oman, Bali, Bhutan and New Guinea.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780226898353
ISBN-10: 0226898350
Format: Paperback
(228mm x 152mm x 23mm)
Pages: 352
Imprint: University of Chicago Press
Publisher: The University of Chicago Press
Publish Date: 10-Oct-1996
Country of Publication: United States

Other Editions

Reviews

US Kirkus Review » The ordinary life of a resourceful woman of Cairo makes for an illuminating and unexpectedly engaging study of women, poverty, and Cairene life. Wikan (Ethnography/Univ. of Oslo) has spent 25 years visiting and living in the poor quarters of Cairo with a woman named Umm Ali and her husband and eight children, chronicling their predicament-filled life. As members of the lower class, they know that life is relentlessly difficult: Money is scarce, space is cramped, violence to women is customary. Yet the family members' common refrain of "Tomorrow, God willing" suggests a hope for the future built on a link between God and their own initiative, an "encouraging message . . . that by helping yourself, and only by helping yourself, life will bear fruit." Umm Ali is proof of such belief, constantly generating money for family necessities through loans or savings clubs, preparing her children for marriage, and enduring the self-destruction of a son and the beatings and lack of support of her husband. As Umm Ali sees it (Wikan is smart and caring enough to set the bulk of the book in her words), these incidents are part of life, and life, while it is often painful, is also often fraught with excitement and possibility. Wise, proud, giving, and volatile, she makes the book a page-turner, one of the few ethnographic studies to be fueled by the question, What happens next? Thanks to Wigan's skill, readers are plunged into the dense reality of a third-world society facing chronic poverty, yet maintaining a strong sense of family, community, and self-respect. By chronicling Umm Ali's family with compassion and leading readers to feel the same, Wikan has gracefully accomplished the book's goal - to begin to forge a better world. As Umm Ali would say, "Talking together makes wise." (Kirkus Reviews)


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