His story/her story: Keeping one’s brother(s) in the loop

Medieval merchants on the move needed to be updated not only regarding business matters, but also concerning their families.

An ancient Egyptian language written on parchment 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
An ancient Egyptian language written on parchment 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Medieval merchants on the move needed to be updated not only regarding business matters, but also concerning their families. These men learned of births or deaths, of engagements and marriages, of divorces and illnesses as life continued in their absence.
Isma’il b. Barhun was a wealthy and active merchant from a well known family (the Tahertis) of Mahdiyya on the Tunisian coast. The Cairo Genizah contains a number of letters written to him, but one is particularly informal, written by his sister updating her brother(s) about family developments. Goitein assumes she was located in Qayrawan (Tunisia) while two of her brothers were in Egypt. The letter was addressed to Isma’il, but the wording alternates from singular to plural as she addressed one or both of them.
She began by wishing him a long life, God’s protection and good fortune; she hopes God will soon reunite the siblings. In this case, letters had arrived; she was not chastising her brothers for not writing.
However, it seems the family had been waiting with bated breath to hear from them, for she referred to the anxiety and tension that they had experienced until those letters arrived. She herself was fasting and praying for his (or their) well-being, and begging the Lord to grant him/them a long life.
Then she got down to the nitty-gritty: updates on the family members.
Everyone appeared to be well. The first to be mentioned were his daughters, Najiyya and Mawlat. We assume that he had only these two for the time being, as the girls’ aunt wrote: “May He let me witness a male child of yours in the near future.” She wished “her,” that is to say, her sister-in-law, good fortune; in short, she should bear this brother a son. One presumes that his wife was with their daughters, so until he returned home this wish could not be fulfilled.
At this point, the writer expressed disappointment. When her brothers’ letters arrived, they were not addressed to her. She received the news update via the courier, but was upset to discover “that not one of you sent greetings to me, not to mention a letter.” This woman felt entitled to be singled out and was distressed to have been ignored.
Yet she nevertheless continued to correspond, informing her brother that she was following the dictates of her heart; in addition, she enjoyed the act of writing, “for then I can envisage that I am actually speaking to you.”
His daughter Najiyya talked about him constantly, but her aunt thought that Mawlat was prettier than her sister. Regardless, she urged him to send gifts to them as well as to their mother, intimating that she trusted his judgment in this matter. A male member of their family had another daughter; she named her (possibly her granddaughter or niece) after their mother and wished her a good marriage in due time. Another birth was mentioned, this time of a son named Barhun, most probably another family member.
She reminded her brother to bring a gift when he returned, which she hoped would be soon. Clearly she had no idea when he would arrive, for she told him to send gifts for the women in his family and to bring a gift for others when he came.
Many regards were conveyed, from his wife and daughters and from other family members. In passing, she mentioned a wedding that was horrible, but did not go into detail. She mentioned Abu Ibrahim twice toward the end of the letter, most likely the name of another brother.
She never mentioned her own name, only that of her mother, Surura, and those of her brothers and nieces. The letter contains no address; perhaps it was being given to a courier who could find Isma’il and his brother somewhere in Egypt, where they were temporarily located.
This sister only wished her brothers and their families the best of everything, but until they returned would not rest easy. Hopefully they were all reunited soon after this letter was sent off.
The author is a professor of Jewish history at the Schechter Institute and the academic editor of Nashim, and is currently on sabbatical.