Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist

Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist

by Huda Shaarawi

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781558619111
Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY, The
Publication date: 04/03/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 180
Sales rank: 715,500
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947) was among the last generation of Egyptian women to live in the segregated world of the harem. Her feminist activism grew out of her involvement in Egypt's nationalist struggle, and led to her founding of the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923.

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We used to wait eagerly for the visits of my maternal grandmother and uncles, who came every year or two from Turkey. They would come loaded down with enormous quantities of rare treats, such as spicy salted beef called basturma, sausages, Circassian cheese, walnuts, chestnuts, and dried fruits, which we shared with our friends and neighbours.

My grandmother was short and neither fat nor thin, with blue eyes and very pale skin. She dressed all in white and covered her two plaits of white hair, nearly as long as she was, with a gauze tarha. In this incandescent whiteness she had the appearance of a saint, and the kindliness that filled her face gave it a special radiance. I loved my grandmother very much even though we did not share a common tongue and I could not communicate with her except in signs. She used to amuse me with Circassian tales and songs, many of which I remember to this day. Yusif, my elder uncle, resembled my grandmother in stature, kind expression, and gentle disposition, and was much cherished by us for his light-heartedness. My uncle, Idris, the father of Hawa and Huriyya, with his slender figure and beautiful face, looked more like my mother. He was a tall, graceful man of exquisite manners who lavished great love and attention upon us and spent long days in conversation with us.

Our relatives used to spend the winter with us, but with the approach of summer my grandmother would begin to show signs of suffering from the heat. Her eyes would swell, her face would flush, and she would insist on returning to Turkey. The separation always pained us.

One year, after his mother and older brother had departed, Uncle Idris remained behind to study Arabic and deepen his knowledge of Islam. My mother urged him to take a wife. When he expressed an interest in marrying an Egyptian girl and my mother arranged his betrothal to the daughter of a respected family, we all rejoiced. The date for the wedding had already been fixed, when the parents of the prospective wife made it a condition for marriage that their daughter never be required to live abroad. Uncle Idris would not agree, insisting that a wife should follow her husband wherever he might go, and thus the engagement was broken.

Years later, after my grandmother had died, Uncle Yusif married and brought his wife to Egypt for a visit. One day, I pleaded, 'Why don't you stay with us instead of returning to Istanbul where there is nothing to keep you after Grandmother's death?' With a smile he said, 'Your father, upon him be blessings, asked me to stay the first time we came to Egypt. I did not agree, because it would have meant the disappearance of the family name in our country.' I pressed him, 'Is Bandirma (a port town on the Sea of Marmara) the home of your father and grandfather? Was the house you now occupy built by your father? You are from the Caucasus not Anatolia, aren't you?' He smiled again and said, 'These were the very words your late father used when he urged me to settle in Egypt.'

Uncle Idris returned to settle in Turkey, where he also married. One day my two uncles and other relatives in Turkey were invited to a wedding celebration in a neighbouring village. In those parts, it was customary on such occasions to travel in ox-drawn carriages because the horses could not pull loads over the rough terrain. When my elder uncle was about to set out for the wedding he asked his brother Idris to accompany him. Since my younger uncle had guests, and could not leave immediately, he promised to follow later on his new mare. When he set out galloping, his high-spirited horse let loose and began to run away with him. The horse reared up unexpectedly. He was thrown to the ground and killed instantly.

News of this turned the rejoicing of the wedding party into mourning. He left behind two little daughters, Hawa and Hurriyya, the elder not yet two and the younger still being suckled.


My mother was a strong woman, a private person who had firm control over her emotions. She seldom complained and kept her sadnesses hidden inside. I never once dared ask my mother about her origins and how she came to Egypt. But, very eager to learn about my mother's early life, I urged Uncle Yusif to tell me why his family had left the Caucasus and gone to Anatolia, how my mother had come to Egypt, and about her marriage to my father.

He told me that my mother's father, Sharaluqa Gwatish, had been the renowned headman of the Shabsigh tribe. When fighting broke out between the Caucasus and Czarist Russia in the 1860s, the Circassians defended the Caucasus with singular bravery. However, my grandfather's men were overcome and he was captured. Another tribal leader in the Caucasus, the well-known Shaikh Shamil al-Daghistani, an adversary of my grandfather, discredited him by circulating the story that my grandfather had betrayed his country and joined the Russians. A rival band of Circassians then seized his son Yusif, less than sixteen years old, and held him hostage under pain of execution if the allegations proved to be true. Relatives and friends of my grandfather, meanwhile, set out to rescue him from Russian captivity and save his poor, innocent son. Disguised as Russian soldiers, the Circassian rescue party which included Huriyya, the beautiful and courageous daughter of my grandfather's brother, penetrated enemy ranks. The Russians unfortunately discovered the rescue attempt and killed or wounded most of the Circassians, who were few in number and badly equipped. Despite injuries, my grandfather continued firing at the Russians from behind the mountain rocks, while Huriyya went for help. My grandfather fought until a bullet finally killed him. The Circassian reinforcements carried his body to his birthplace for burial, thus giving lie to the slander spread by his rival, Shaikh Shamil. His son Yusif was thus spared dishonour and death.

Afterwards, my grandmother decided to leave the Caucasus. With her five young children, three boys and two girls, she joined the stream of refugees making their way to Istanbul. My uncle told me about their suffering from hunger and other bitter experiences. While the Turkish government was still processing the refugees, Jacob, the youngest boy, died from pneumonia as a result of over-exposure. When his little sister was abducted from the woman who suckled her, my grandmother decided to send her other daughter – my mother – to Egypt to be raised under the care of her maternal uncle, Yusif Pasha Sabri, an army officer.

My grandmother entrusted my mother to a friend leaving for Egypt on a visit to Raghib Bey and his family. The man was asked to take my mother to Yusif Pasha Sabri in Cairo. When they arrived, my mother's uncle was on a military expedition abroad, and his wife (a freed slave of il-Hami Pasha), a peculiar woman, protested her husband had no such relative and refused to accept my mother. The man then took my mother to Raghib Bey's house to await her uncle's return. It seems that her uncle's wife remained silent.

My mother stayed where she was. Raghib Bey's daughter cared for her like a daughter and took her with her when she married and set up a new household.

My mother grew into a striking beauty. Her guardian decided to marry her to a wealthy man. It was her good fortune that my father took her as his wife. One day, after she was married, she was standing near the window helping my father dress, when she began to cry. When my father asked her what was the matter, she told him she had seen a young man who looked like her brother enter the salamlik (men's reception area). My father asked about her family and she told him her story. He then sent for Ali Bey Raghib to seek their whereabouts. My father located the man who had originally brought my mother to Egypt and dispatched him to Turkey to bring the brothers back.

When my mother's two maternal uncles arrived our clan expanded. The reunion changed my mother's life.


My father died when I was five years old. I have only a few memories of him, as he was often away from Cairo. I used to go to his room with Ismail, my brother from another wife, to kiss his hand every morning. We would find him sitting on his prayer rug praying or meditating. After we kissed his hand and he kissed us, he would go to his cabinet to get chocolates for us. We always left his presence beaming with joy.

My father played an important role in the political life of Egypt and rendered noble services during his long public career. Unfortunately, I was unable to lay my hands upon historical records to document the story. When I looked for contemporaries of my father, the only person I found who could assist me was Qallini Pasha Fahmi, who as a young man had been closely associated with my father during the last years of his life.

My father entered government service after receiving a letter that designated him Commissioner of the District of Qulusna in the province of Minya. He immediately went to the governor of the province to explain that he could not accept the appointment because he was acting as guardian to his brother, Ibrahim, and the children of his paternal uncle who were still young and needed his care. After much discussion, the governor confided, 'It was your friend Hasan al-Sharii who advised me to appoint you.' My father retorted, 'Why didn't he suggest one of his cousins for the job?' The governor held firm, however, and Father accepted the appointment.

Around that time, the ruler of Egypt, Said Pasha (1854–63) paid a visit to the province of Minya. When he told the governor, Mustafa Bey, that he wished to visit one of the notables of the province, Mustafa Bey suggested either my father or al-Sharii Pasha. Because Father's village was closer, the ruler decided to visit him first. While he sat with Father in the kiosk in the garden, he asked, 'Why don't you build a house worthy of yourself? Do you think I am like Abbas Pasha (ruler of Egypt 1848–54) who did not wish to see symbols of wealth in his subjects? I wish all my subjects to have mansions and palaces like my own.' In reply my father said, 'We understand the wishes of him who has given us prosperity, and we beseech God that he will live long and will honour us with his presence in mansions worthy to receive him.' Said Pasha replied, 'God willing.' Later, when Father was deputy governor of Bani Swaif and he heard of Said Pasha's imminent visit to Upper Egypt, he put the finishing touches on his new house and garden. There he spent hours poring over Mustatraf fi Kull Mustazraf and other books. Some people gossiped that he was taken up by books and had no time for the demands of administration.

However, Father went on to become governor of Bani Swaif, then Asyut, and finally Rudah al-Bahrain. He also served as deputy inspector of Upper Egypt and went on to become Inspector General.

During that time a rift developed between him and Khedive Ismail (1863–79) who had succeeded Said Pasha as ruler of Egypt. One day when the khedive was touring Minya he asked Father if Abu Hamadi would make a good governor of Minya. (The governor at the time was Aslan Pasha.) Father demurred. The khedive repeated his question, and Father finally responded, 'He would be good as governor of Suhag, his own province. Is not the present governor of Minya competent?' He added, 'Afandinah, it is better to assist Minya instead of being concerned with changing the governor.'

On the train to Cairo, a few days later, the khedive asked Father about tax collection. 'Your majesty,' my father said, 'has sought my opinion twice before and I have given it, and now you ask about tax collection. It would be more beneficial to the public welfare if His Majesty were to concern himself with improving the condition of his subjects.' The khedive became enraged at such outspokenness and ordered Father to leave the train immediately, even though it was in motion. Father was preparing to jump off when, by God's will, the train stopped, perhaps to fill up with water, and the khedive suddenly relented.

Following the incident on the train, the khedive appointed my father head of the Legal Consultative Council at Khartoum, in the Sudan, a posting that amounted to exile. Father lost the use of the train, Tair Khair (Good Omen), that had been placed at his disposal for inspection trips in his province. Friends of my father began petitioning important personages on his behalf. Nubar Pasha, Sharif Pasha, and Riyad Pasha went to the khedive pleading that the country needed Father's services. Other friends petitioned the khedive's mother. His devotion to her was widely known. Finally, Ismail Pasha Saddiq, Ahmad Khairi Pasha, and Shaikh Ali al-Laithi went to Prince Taufiq (he became ruler of Egypt in 1879). It seems his intervention was the reason the khedive rescinded the order.

Father had already set out for the Sudan and had reached Rudah (a Cairo port for Nile traffic to the South), when word came that the order had been lifted. After his return from Rudah the khedive's mother gave him a golden zarf encrusted with diamonds and emeralds and other gifts I cannot recall now.

My father had been maligned by certain so-called patriots, distorters of history, who have recently charged that he assisted the entry of the British into Egypt by bowing to the wishes of Khedive Taufiq (1879–92).*

Two severe shocks ruined my father's health. One was the death of my brother, Ismail, upon whom Father had placed all his hopes. The boy was possessed of intelligence and lively curiosity. In every respect, he seemed older than his age. He was not yet four when he died. My other brother, Umar, less than two at the time, was not of good health and hopes for him were slim. The second shock was the Urabi tragedy.

My father died on 14 August 1884 in Graz. He had gone abroad to consult eminent physicians in Austria and Switzerland when doctors in Egypt had been unable to cure him.

I sent for Shaikh Abd al-Rahman Qaraa, who had accompanied a companion of my father, to learn about his final voyage. He gave me the following document.

On the eve of our departure from Alexandria Hasan Pasha Abd al-Raziq, Muhammad Uthman Bey al-Hilali, and Ali Bey Shaarawi were present. I believe Hijazi Bey and al-Sayyid Ibrahim al-Sanusi were there, as well. Sultan Pasha recited a few lines of his poems to us. One began:

I think of Egypt, defending her children and
  caring for them.
I hold back all who trammel her rights though
  banners fly o'er their heads.

Sultan Pasha gave me a piece of paper upon which he had written a eulogy of his son, Ismail. I can still recall the following:

In my grief and distress let me
  endure what I must.
Let me weep alone,
  no one can mend my heart's wounds.
Avenging fate has struck a blow
  that can level mountains.
It wrested my soul's companion,
  my joy and my life.
I guarded him for the glory to come after me,
  that he might build on a strong foundation.
But time hastened to him before me;
  my hopes lay crumbled.
Oh, God, you are my God,
  cast me not aside
  without solace or succour.

I knew Sultan Pasha was suffering from a kidney disease and that it was growing worse. When he decided to seek a cure abroad he was growing worse. When he decided to seek a cure abroad he asked Shaikh Ali al-Laithi to accompany him. He agreed to accompany him to Lebanon but if he wished to go to Europe, he suggested that I should travel with him. When Sultan Pasha asked me to accompany him to Europe, I happily agreed.

While we were in Graz, Khedive Ismail (then in exile) was in the same hotel. When the ex-khedive learned of Sultan Pasha's arrival he made known his wish to call upon him and indeed did so a week before his death.

After some time in Graz, we departed, only to retrace our steps later. The evening of our return to Graz, Sultan Pasha requested me to remain in his room, which I did. In the morning he summoned his servant, Ali, to bring him his ewer and basin so he could wash. Meanwhile I left to make my ablutions and morning prayer. I was in my room when Ali hastened saying, 'Come quickly!' I rushed to the Pasha's room and found him with his eyes wide open. With Ali's help I carried him to his bed and immediately sent for Qallini Fahmi Pasha and Musa Shukri, who were also in the Pasha's party. They called for the doctor, who came and pronounced him dead.

Qallini Pasha wired Nubar Pasha, then the Prime Minister of Egypt, and he wired Blum Pasha, the Egyptian Minister of Finance, who was in Vienna at the time, to take care of the necessary expenditures since Sultan Pasha's money was held up in bonds. The body was embalmed and returned to Egypt.

In 1924, when I attended a conference on ethics in Graz, I did not know my father had died there. We knew only that he had left Graz for Switzerland and understood he had died there. When I returned from the conference, Qallini Fahmi Pasha asked me where I had stayed, and when I told him the Elephant Hotel, he said, 'Your father died in that hotel. After the doctors in Switzerland gave up hope to cure him they advised him to return home. Feeling tired and weak on the return journey he decided to stop in Graz. He stayed only one night. The following morning he died.'


Excerpted from "Harem Years"
by .
Copyright © 1987 Feminist Press.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
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Table of Contents

List of photographs,
Circassian Relatives,
My Mother,
My Father,
Two Mothers,
My Brother,
The Eunuchs and the Maid,
Lessons and Learning,
Routines and Events,
Women Pedlars,
Family Friends,
Visiting the Palace,
Childhood Companions and the Farewell,
Betrothal to My Cousin,
The Wedding,
A New Bride,
Lessons Again,
Attempts at Reconciliation,
Sojourns in Alexandria,
Portrait of the Hard Life of a Woman,
A New Mentor and her Salon for Women,
A Cure in Paris,
Being a Mother,
A Turkish Summer,
The First 'Public' Lectures for Women,
The Mabarat Muhammad Ali,
The Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women,
The Final Illness of Niece Huda,
A European Summer on the Eve of War,
Two Deaths,
The Bridge of Nationalism,

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Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Shaarawi's memoir details the precious moments of her childhood escapades. Because she was close to her brother, she was able to venture beyond the usual activities of most girls. In her later years, she was afforded many freedoms because of her family's status and protection, the cooperation of her husband, from whom she separated for a number of formative years, and by the movement of the Egyptian government in those days to 'modernize' and to encourage women to be educated and have careers. Interestingly, the Koran was used as the justification for women's equality. This is a very important historical record from which to view the change in women's status in Egypt and the Middle East in general. This book helps us understand the how today's political motives also utilize religion for their purposes.