His story/her story: Two separated couples in medieval Egypt

By RENÉE LEVINE MELAMMED
October 24, 2013 11:43

A penniless mother and daughter; a wife refusing to join her spouse.

3 minute read.



Alley of a Medival Egyptian market.

Alley of Medival Egyptian market 521. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A mother, most probably a widow with only one daughter, had arranged for her daughter’s marriage to a groom named Joseph.

Unfortunately, after the wedding, her daughter fell ill and seems to have been incapacitated for quite a while. This woman, the wife of Abu Sar, described her plight in a petition to the Nagid Masliah in Egypt. She was beside herself and could not figure out how to extricate herself from her predicament.

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The son-in-law traveled, presumably for business purposes, although the reason for his travel was not specified. While he was away, his mother in-law cared for her daughter to the best of her ability, but she apparently was short on funds. She explained that she had sold all of her daughter’s belongings in order to provide for her; all that remained was the blanket in which the young woman was wrapped. She must have been staying home the entire day to be with her sick daughter, for she wrote that no one had spoken to either of them in a year and a half! It certainly sounds as though they were completely isolated from the community.

The urgency grew as the petitioner explained that she had just received news from a cousin that her son-in-law had been murdered in Nasrawah (a city in Egypt without a known Jewish settlement). A messenger had arrived to inform her that she had to pay a dinar. She did not specify why they were demanding payment from her; perhaps it was to transport or bury her son-in-law’s body. She was frantic and desperate, for she had no viable means of paying the dinar. It seems that the person who was en route to demand this payment from her was unaware of the fact that she had no funds whatsoever available.

The letter-writer’s sick daughter was now a widow. She turned to the Nagid as someone who could solve this problem because she saw herself as an abandoned woman with no means of coping with such a stressful situation. The Nagid was committed to aiding orphans and widows; the assumption here is that he helped these women in distress.

BUFARAJ moved to Fustat, but his wife had no interest whatsoever in joining him. She sent him a letter containing mixed messages. On one hand, she asked to be reunited with her husband in happy circumstances and in good health. It is unclear as to when her husband had relocated, but the wife was fending for herself and was not particularly pleased about this. In addition, she stated that since his departure she had not received any letters from him. She felt spurned and told him that if he had turned his back on her, then God would rescue her.

On the other hand, under no circumstances was she willing to leave her abode. Perhaps she was living near her family (although she did not mention this) or friends; perhaps she had misgivings or qualms about city life. She did not tell us. But she made it perfectly clear that she not willing to move to Cairo. She declared that were she do to so, the two of them would be at one another’s throats, fighting continuously. Since they would not be happy together there, it was preferable for her to remain where she was rather than join him. She did not want to live a life full of dissension and discord, and would not be moved.

Unfortunately we have no idea how long these two had been married; there is no mention of children, whether they were newlyweds or about to celebrate their silver anniversary. We also do not know how long the husband had been in Fustat. His wife did not specify an address of a domicile in the letter, but rather directed it to the marketplace, presumably where he worked or where a friend, relative or colleague of his worked.

The address used was a store in the Berber shuk. If Bu Faraj received this short but clearly worded letter, perhaps he wrapped up his business in the big city and returned home. On the other hand, perhaps he decided that marital bliss was best achieved by keeping his distance from his wife.

The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute, and the academic editor of the journal Nashim.


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