His Story/Her Story

A worried grandmother in Old Cairo.

Ratty tents at rainy Tahrir Square in Cairo 370 (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Ratty tents at rainy Tahrir Square in Cairo 370
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Letter writing was an essential means of communication in medieval Egypt. Letters could be composed by literate individuals themselves or dictated to scribes. The latter option was not necessarily a sign of illiteracy; one might desire to obtain a text in a nicer handwriting or containing more elegant wording.
Overland mail was carried out by courier. S.D. Goitein, in A Mediterranean Society, tells us that Jewish couriers appeared to be serving the routes between Alexandria and Cairo and between Egypt and Palestine. The courier might also be asked to read the letter he delivered to the recipient, if he or she was illiterate. This service seems to have been fairly regular and not at all costly.
Some letters reveal the locale of both the letter writer as well as the recipient, while others leave us in the dark as to their precise whereabouts. In one letter, a mother writes her son(s) on behalf of her daughter-in-law. She seems to be living in the same location as her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren, namely, in Fustat or Old Cairo, but it is not at all clear where the sons are located.
The first three lines of this letter address two of this woman’s sons and are written in a calligraphic Arabic script. This mother misses both sons terribly and wishes them success and health. She adds her hope that soon her family will be together and lets them know that in their absence, her heart aches. At this point, the script, presumably that of a scribe, changes from Arabic to Judeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew letters).
One could never be certain who might read one’s mail. Since the woman was about to describe suffering on the part of the Jewish community that might well offend the authorities, it must have seemed safer to write in a language accessible only to Jews.
The letter writer contends that life in Fustat has become insecure and dangerous; no Jews are entering or leaving the city. According to her report, slave soldiers (Mamluks) are the instigators of this havoc and are running amok throughout the city. The Mamluks appear to have entirely destroyed one of the quarters, attacking homes, mills and oil presses; the damage was tremendous and the suffering great. She discusses the devastation of a house overlooking the Nile that belonged to a family they knew.
The woman opts not to go into further detail; in her opinion, if she were to attempt to do so, it would be an impossible task because there is not enough paper to describe what had transpired. At any rate, she emphasizes the fact that her description, whether oral or written, could never be as powerful as the visual impression made after seeing this catastrophic devastation with her own eyes. (The script has switched back to Arabic letters).
She lets her son know that whatever he had sent had arrived, but that his children are extremely ill and that she and his wife cannot care for them.
The women are unable to procure medicine or even bread for the children! How on earth will they manage? The attacks seem to have taken their toll on the children as well.
The women wonder if the husband/son is in danger or not, and worry about him as well, although they are under the impression that the suffering has been in their area rather than his. The mother urges her son not to leave wherever he may be; they are in Fustat and cannot even reach Cairo.
The letter ends with a plea to the son not to abandon “the little ones.” She apologizes for her daughter-in-law; perhaps she was urged by her son’s wife to compose this letter. If the children had not been ill, she never would have troubled him. However, she lets her son know that he and his brother must take action.
There is no signature; this worried mother and grandmother remains anonymous as do her son, his wife and his children. We can only hope that her call for help was answered and that the children recovered from their illness once life in Fustat returned to normal.
One can only hope... ■
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute and the academic editor of Nashim. She is currently a fellow at the School of Historical Studies at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study.