Scattered Pearls Among the Classes of Cloistered Ladies

Translated by: Marilyn Booth. Original language: Arabic
Cairo, Egypt

Sharafiyya daughter of Sa’id the Captain

She was born in the year 1260 of the Hijra [CE 1844] and is still living.  This biographical subject has events to her name that testify to her fidelity and loyalty; she may be considered to have an odd and wondrous story.  I was told of her by one of the ladies who are trustworthy in what they report.  These events are so strange that I wanted to include her in this history so that for all ages remembrance of her would remain.

There lived in the city of Bulaq, in Cairo [Madinat Bulaq Misr] a man who was a captain, and whom people called Sa‘id Qabudan [Sa‘id the Captain].  He had married a young woman, Mistress Makhduma, sister of Ra’if Pasha, one of the high naval commanders in the government of Egypt.  From her Sa‘id Qabudan was blessed with a daughter whom he named Sharafiyya [‘the Honorable’].  But she remained in her father’s embrace only eight years, before he passed away in 1268 AH [CE 1851/52]. For he fought in the recent Crimean war.[1]

This girl was of utmost delicacy and sweet grace.  She was raised on fine principles, and her mother taught her reading and writing and handiwork and all of women’s particular occupations, embroidery and the like, to the point where she surpassed other girls of her era.  She was obedient to her mother, and in her actions she was led by her mother’s words.  This mother was affectionate and caring toward her daughter, always compassionate and fond, and thus the girl flourished and reached the age of eighteen.

In the city of Izmir [in the Ottoman Empire] lived a woman of middling status whose husband had left her, evacuating his city.  She did not know where he had gone.  He left her with a son who, although still very young, rivaled the full moon in beauty and the tree-bough in his erect figure and even temperament.  She was still raising her son, with much yet to do, when all of the money she had saved ran out and she could find nothing for them to eat.  She had gotten word that her husband was in Cairo and so she took her son, aged thirteen, and went to Egypt to search for his father as she remembered him in her mind.  As fate would have it, she stayed with Sayyida Makhduma, who received her in welcome and with generosity, opening her heart as well as her home to their widest.  She spoke to her brother Ra’if Pasha about the situation. He mounted a search for her husband but turned up no word of him.  Unable to find him, he took the boy and enrolled him in one of the government schools.  Ra’if Pasha did not have children of his own because he had never married; indeed, he reached the age of 80 without marrying.

At that time Sharafiyya was still eighteen years of age, and Muhammad Kamal was thirteen.  Sharafiyya was of medium height, her body full and her face round, her eyes large and well-spaced, her eyebrows joined and her complexion wheaten.  She was appealing and amiable, with black hair and eyes that beguiled the heart of anyone who saw her.  As for Muhammad Kamal, he was tall, slender and light-complexioned, with light hair and blue eyes, his face well-filled out and his disposition generally charming, though few of this description can acquire such a magnetic quality as he had.

When he entered the Sa‘id Qabudan home, Sharafiyya began to look after all of his needs, from clothing to food to anything else of which he had need.  Her mother viewed her with an astonished eye and pondered her situation and her preoccupation with this boy, but she restrained herself from having any suspicious thoughts about her daughter, for she deemed the lad far too young to engage the affections of an eighteen-year old. At this age, he was not someone with whom one would fall in love.  When he entered the school and consequently was no longer in Sharafiyya’s presence, her thoughts and musings were many.  She began to much prefer withdrawing into solitude.  But she did not fritter away her time in idleness, without occupations that would benefit the lad, such as sewing clothes and addressing other needs.  He would return to their home only on the weekends—the eve of Friday, following the usual rules of boarding schools in Egypt. Sharafiyya always awaited expectantly the time of his arrival for holidays.

During this period, many suitors were coming round.  Her mother wanted to marry her,[2] since she was her only child, and celebrate her wedding joyfully before her own death might come.  Each time a suitor came, her mother would present him to her and show him favorably, but Sharafiyya did not accept this easily from her mother.  She responded by weeping and wailing to the point where she could not endure hearing anyone broach this subject with her.  Her behavior upset her mother terribly.  She suspected that the person who was seducing her away from doing such a thing as marrying was the boy’s mother.  So she spoke to the woman about it, and was so insistent and rude that she ejected her from the household.  After her departure Sharafiyya’s emotional state grew worse.  She feared that now she would be deprived of seeing her beloved.  She became so stricken with grief that she could not eat or sleep.  She remained full of bewilderment and confusion until Thursday evening came and Muhammad Kamal arrived as usual.  Told that his mother had left the house and gone to the home of Ra’if Pasha, he was distressed and worried.  For the lad too had imbibed Sharafiyya’s love from his childhood.  And the older he got, the more her love imprinted itself.  But he regarded himself as paltry, poor and contemptible, whenever he compared himself to her.  Yet he had been working hard, striving to acquire enough learning that he would be deserving of her and fitting for her.  It was not long before he graduated from the Mubtadiyan School and entered the College of Military Arts, through the intercession of Ra’if Pasha.

After a time, Sharafiyya’s mother Sayyida Makhduma died. The girl passed into her uncle’s care, as though she were his own daughter. Suitors began to ask him for her hand and he presented these men to her, but she always refused.  He was at his wits end with her.  He could not imagine what could be keeping her from getting married.

Kamal was still in Ra’if Pasha’s home with his mother.  From the time she had left Sayyida Makhduma’s house, she had entered the home of the aforementioned Pasha and was still there when the girl joined the household, and so once again they were all in one house.  The uncle did not suspect in the slightest that Sharafiyya’s hesitation and reticence were due to this boy, for he regarded them as enormously far apart in both wealth and age.  The Pasha did not know the boy’s lineage, but in his nature and comportment he saw indications of a sound family background, and that he was of good stock and honorable.

As Sharafiyya’s refusal to marry persevered, the Pasha feared that God would take him before he could arrange the wedding of this orphan girl.  He complained to a friend and asked him to get his wife to ask, for she could ask as if she were the girl’s mother; she could probe [the girl’s feelings], to understand why she continued to refuse marriage.  The Pasha’s friend (also a Pasha) did as his friend asked.  When his wife asked Sharafiyya, she made it very clear that she could not go against nature, for she was utterly and completely inclined toward Muhammad Kamal.  The motherly figure who spoke to her deduced that she would not marry anyone other than this lad, and that she would not go against the feelings of her heart, and this is what she told her husband.  At that time, Kamal had acquired the rank of lieutenant and with that he had gained some courage about asking for Sharafiyya in marriage.  He went to the Pasha we have mentioned and begged him to speak to Ra’if Pasha about Sharafiyya, with merciful treatment of him and of his request, accepting him as an [equal] servant of God in this world, since he had shown his mercy. So his friend approached Ra’if about the engagement and told him that he had learned well what Sharafiyya’s situation was from the words of his wife, who had found her strongly inclined toward the youth.  This was the reason, he said, why she would not consider marrying anyone else.  When Ra’if Pasha heard this, his reaction was that this was an impossibility.  This can never be! he said. The boy is not her match.  How can I marry him to the daughter of my sister, when I have raised him as a charity case?  He is poor and cannot offer a dowry nor can he even pay his own expenses, let alone establishing a home. And in the end, his origins are unknown!

Said his friend, Well, he is poor but he will advance little by little, getting one rank after another, until he attains the rank that we have attained.  We were poor in the beginning, weren’t we?  We had salaries of 150 dirhams and we struggled and strove until we attained the highest positions appropriate for the likes of us. He’s trying to do exactly the same thing.  And as for him being from an unknown origin, well, we don’t know ours, either.  None of us knows our family background!  We don’t know who is Circassian and who is Morean and who is from Crete. We left our homelands not knowing what would happen to us.  And now here we are—praise be to the Almighty!—among the men of the Egyptian governing elite.

His friend did not relent in arguing until the Pasha relented.  But meanwhile, years had passed.  He allowed the lad’s engagement to Sharafiyya, and they began working on the trousseau and all of the necessary wedding arrangements.  It was as though Sharafiyya had found her dead hopes brought back to life. She was newly alive to all that was astonishingly beautiful in life.

Alas, though, fate did not allow her to realize these joys, attacking her with its strongest phalanx.  She was stricken with a shocking blow, the sort that would collapse high mountains and dissolve the bedrock of the earth.  With a week to go before the wedding, the lad became bedridden, and in days he was gathered into the Almighty’s embrace.  The green branch of his youth was severed and his beauty withdrew inside the layers of the cosmos, praise be to the Everliving One who never dies.

Let the onlooker contemplate the state of Sharafiyya, for the pen is incapable of describing her state and the grief and despair she endured.  She entered her room—which she called the house of sadness—and dropped the curtains upon it and upon herself, and mourned her beloved, and she does so still.  Her uncle Ra’if Pasha died.  To this very day she remains buried under layers of grief, begging to die, that she might join her beloved in the other world.  But she cannot do so.  She has been imprisoned in her house of grief for more than thirty years. Rare are those who would have the patience to endure this tragedy.



Zaynab Fawwaz al-‘Amili, al-Durr al-manthūr fī tabaqāt rabbāt al-khudūr (“Scattered Pearls in the Classes of Cloistered Ladies”, Cairo/Būlāq: al-Matbaah al-kubrā al-amīriyyah, 1312 [1894-95]), pp. 258-60.

[1] This seems an error on the author’s part, as the Crimean War began toward the end of 1863.  Perhaps the error is in Sa‘id Qabudan’s death date.

[2] While this could be more felicitously translated as “wanted to see her married”, I use the transitive to suggest her mother’s active interest and role—a form of the verb used in this era more often with regard to fathers marrying off their daughters.