In other words, the situation was critical. Our family's last name was in danger of disappearing, like a species of bird on the way to extinction. And was I partly responsible for this, or not? Their misery could be read in their faces. It's not right: three girls, one after the other, without a break.
And yet I have to be grateful to everyone (God first of all) not to have been born in pre-Islamic Arabia. Before the Prophet Mohammed, the Arabs buried poor newborn girls alive. What? It's true, really. I swear on the head of my daughter, Aida. Why did they do it? The reasons were ridiculous, utterly illogical.
My father, in a burst of pride and defiance, decided not to betray his political idol. He said to all the relatives who came to see the newborn, "This baby will be named Safia, like the wife of the great Saad Zaghloul." Some consolation! Obviously I couldn't say no.
Having a name like that is no joke. There are a lot of expectations. Performance anxiety is inevitable. Safia Zaghloul was called Umm al-Masriyin, Mother of the Egyptians. She was very involved in social issues, for example the education of girls. In history books she is recalled as the first Arab woman to publicly remove her veil. Also, she took part in the revolution of 1919 against the British occupation.
The name of Safia Zaghloul is often cited because of the role she played in her husband's life, and to illustrate the famous saying that in Arabic goes: "Waraa kull rajul adhim imraa," Behind every great man there is always a woman. I've never completely understood what it means. I find it extremely ambiguous; it can be interpreted in different ways. To whom does the term "woman" refer? Grandmother, mother, daughter, wife, granddaughter, lover? And also: a woman who hides behind a man raises some suspicions: why doesn't she go in front? What is she plotting? Does she want to stick a knife in the poor man's back? Is she a coward? Or maybe just timid?
This is the short story of my real name, Safia. But ever since I've lived in Rome I've had another name: Sofia. Let me be clear: it's not a pseudonym, in the sense that I didn't go and look for it. It was given to me and I accepted it. Isn't there a saying, in fact, don't look a gift horse in the mouth?
Why am I called that? I'm not entirely sure. Let's say there are two hypotheses. First: people easily mistake (and without any malice) Safia for Sofia.
"Hi, what's your name?"
"Sofia! What a lovely name."
It's annoying to act like a teacher who corrects her pupils and is quick to clarify: "It's Safia, not Sofia." And then why take offense and make a scene.
Second hypothesis. For many knowledgeable Italians, I (without the veil) look a lot like a famous Italian actress.
"Hi, what's your name?"
"Safia." "Sofia! Congratulations, you have a great name."
"You know who you look like?"
To tell the truth, Sofia is a name I really like a lot. Sofia Loren is a very beautiful woman and I'm fascinated by her story. She was a girl who was born into poverty and became a movie star. Of course, there are always envious people who say nasty things about her. Like that she married a big producer to help her career. The truth is that Sofia Loren is a great dreamer, and I'm like her. What meaning is there in life if you don't have dreams? None. Having a dream to fulfill is the best reason for living. There are people who consider life a real curse, not a gift from God. What a shame! Because in spite of everything life is beautiful.
I don't recall the exact year, but I couldn't have been more than twelve. At that time we lived in Sayyeda Zeineb, a workingclass neighborhood of Cairo. One summer afternoon Faten came over; besides being my cousin she was also my best friend. She was very agitated, and was hiding something under her shirt. She looked like someone who'd just left a department store with some intimate lingerie she'd stolen. "Close that door right away," she said. "I have to show you something." She pulled out a foreign women's magazine full of glossy color photographs and in a disdainful tone yelled, "There's your Marilyn Monroe!"
Excerpted from Divorce Islamic Style by Amara Lakhous. Copyright © 2012 by Amara Lakhous. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
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