His/Her Story: Complicated family matters

Umm Sitt al-Nas (“mother of the mistress of mankind”) married her first cousin; matches of this nature were quite common in this society.

June 6, 2013 16:38
3 minute read.
Downtown Cairo.

Downtown Cairo 521. (photo credit: Wikicommons)

A letter found in the Cairo Geniza uncovers a complicated family situation concerning two sisters who were not on good terms, and their brother, who became the protector of his niece and then married her first cousin. And the 11th-century plot thickens.

Umm Sitt al-Nas (“mother of the mistress of mankind”) married her first cousin; matches of this nature were quite common in this society.Based on references made in the letter she wrote, there appear to have been three siblings in the older generation, one of whom was the writer’s mother. Her mother, Baqa, was widowed, which explains why Umm Sitt al-Nas turned for help to her maternal uncle, her closest living male relative. Her mother (his sister) seems to have strayed from the straight and narrow path after the death of her husband, so Uncle Abu al-Fadl Ibn Sabra took care of his niece. The third sibling did not deal well with her sister’s unacceptable behavior, as will be seen.

The first cousin that this orphaned niece married was the son of the aforementioned aunt, her mother’s sister. This family was originally from Tunisia; the uncle receiving this letter was apparently a prominent member of the community there as well as in Fustat or Old Cairo, as pointed out by S.D. Goitein in A Mediterranean Society. The younger couple (niece and nephew) had been living in Dammuh, near Cairo, together with the groom’s parents, but we already know that this aunt was not feeling kindly towards her sister or her daughter.

According to the letter writer, her mother-in-law sought to embarrass and alienate her niece from the community by comparing her to her mother and stirring up hostile feelings on her son’s part as well.

It seems that this young woman’s father-in-law was also related to her uncle, for she refers to him as “his cousin.” (Goitein concluded that her father-in-law was her father’s brother, which by my calculations would mean that two sisters married two brothers. He also concluded that he was his wife’s cousin as well.) Be that as it may, this father-in-law accused her of inappropriate behavior with a different and older cousin, intimating that she was following in her mother’s footsteps. This young woman was beside herself.

She then wrote: “I have not left Dammuh by my own choice, but rather by the ‘beautiful’ choice of your sister.” In other words, her mother-in-law forced her to leave their house. In addition, her cousin-husband did not treat her much better than did his mother, and she expressed the hope that God would reward him for his actions.

The niece then asked her uncle for help because she was destitute, living with a widow, where she had developed a serious medical condition in her hands. She asked for funds so that she could travel to be with him, and to buy a cap and mantle, as she had none. She assumed that her uncle was still her protector; he was the only one to whom she could turn. She emphasized the fact that there were no other uncles from either side of her family except him. “Do not abandon me, for I am still under your care.” She reminded her uncle that he generously gave charity to strangers and that his obligation to her was even greater. She described herself as his child who was now in a horrendous situation, facing hardship and abandonment.

One would think that an aunt and uncle who agreed to the marriage of their son to their niece would have compassion for her, even if her mother had embarrassed the family. Rather than helping her overcome the loss of her father, who seemed to have been their relative as well, this threesome proceeded to mistreat this young woman.

The mother-in-law managed to convince her son and most likely her husband that the apple did not fall far from the tree, and that it was best to toss the apple aside. Let us hope that Abu Fadl had compassion for his maltreated niece, sent her the funds, and created a safe haven for her in his home.

The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute and the academic editor of Nashim. She is currently on sabbatical.

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