His Story/Her Story: The agent

As a businesswoman, she charted her own path, defying social norms in a society in which men were often intimate with their maidservants.

Port of Alexandria_521 (photo credit: Asmaa Waguih / Reuters)
Port of Alexandria_521
(photo credit: Asmaa Waguih / Reuters)
Almost every scholar who has studied the Cairo Geniza material or has read the publications of Shlomo Dov Goitein is familiar with the infamous Wuhsha al-Dallala (the agent). Karima a.k.a. Wuhsha was born into a comfortable Alexandrian Jewish family and had at least two sisters and two brothers. After moving to Cairo, she entered a short-lived marriage to Arye, a Sicilian Jew, giving birth to one daughter prior to their divorce. Her father the banker had provided her with a respectable dowry, but it did not account for the wealth she later amassed.
Wuhsha was a businesswoman, a commercial agent or broker who was involved in impressive dealings. When summoned to small claims court in 1098, she didn’t bother to appear because it wasn’t worth her while. Interesting documents about her can be found in the recently published India Book (Goitein and Mordechai A. Friedman, 2008). They detail the partnership she had with her brother, Abu Nasr, who was murdered in 1104 while on a trip to India. Her attorney sued the major investor-partner in this joint enterprise for her considerable share of the goods. At the end of the drawn-out investigation, Wuhsha was awarded 22 camel loads (5,000 kg.) of merchandise.
When Wuhsha appeared in court, there was no need to introduce her since she was so well-known in the community. She was an unusual woman due to the extent of her business dealings and the wealth she accumulated and as the result of the lifestyle she chose. After divorcing, she took a lover, Hassun, a Jew from Ashkelon, and became pregnant with his child. Her main concern was protecting the baby’s good name and being able to arrange a respectable match for him. To ascertain the father’s identity, she coordinated a surprise visit to her chamber by her associate, the cantor, together with a second male witness.
This plan ultimately succeeded, but her maverick status as a pregnant unmarried woman upset the president of the Iraqi synagogue; he resorted to drastic measures and evicted her from services on Yom Kippur. Goitein thought she might have registered this union with a Muslim notary, but on second thought he realized that such an act would endanger her independence, for Muslim law would grant her lover inheritance rights; she had no intention of allowing this to occur.
We know this because in her will she specified that the father of her child was not to receive a penny; he had never repaid an 80 dinar loan from her. Her will, drawn up around 1100, was quite amazing: She left money and possessions to family members, synagogues, the cemetery, orphans and for repaying debts. She left funds for employing a private teacher for her son, but made it clear that he only needed to learn the essentials; there was no need for him to become a scholar. She left nothing to her daughter, but one assumes she provided her with a dowry since Sitt Ghazal bought a house in 1132 and presumably had access to funds for this purchase.
Her funeral arrangements were elaborate and included details of the expenses to be arranged for her coffin, shrouds and a procession with cantors and escorts. Not only did she orchestrate going out in style, but she left money to the very synagogue from which she’d been expelled. This was most likely an act of defiance; despite the existing tensions, she (correctly) assumed that her money would not be refused.
This successful broker was unusual, partly because of the level of her success in a man’s world, and partly because of her well-guarded independence. As a single woman for most of her life, she charted her own path, defying social norms in a society in which the men, both Muslim and Jewish, consorted with concubines and were often intimate with their maidservants. She did not seem to suffer a serious defeat after that unforgettable Yom Kippur, but went her merry way, leaving a detailed and defiant will in her wake. Wuhsha certainly made a long-lasting impression, both on the medieval Cairo Jewish community and on those of us who study her.
The writer is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute, academic editor of the journal NASHIM and the author of numerous articles and books on Jewish women and Oriental and Sephardi Jews.