Celebrating Births in Modern Day Egypt
A Bit of Background
Egypt is often described by the western media as a “moderate Islamic state”. This is somewhat misleading, and falls short of reflecting the real fiber of Egyptian society. Although Egypt is an Islamic country bordering on the Middle East, it is actually in North Africa. Throughout its history, Egyptian culture has absorbed African, ancient Mediterranean (first Greek, then Roman), and more recent European influences. The majority of Egyptians are Muslims, but there are many Egyptian Christians (roughly 10% of the population), most of whom belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church (the dominant religion in Egypt before the advent of Islam). There is a wonderful sentence in Edward Lane’s book, Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians: “Egypt is like a document of fine leather in which the Bible is written above hieroglyphics and above that the Quran, while the ancient writing is still clearly seen beneath it all.”
All Egyptians share a common popular heritage, and the customs and traditions related to the events of their daily lives (weddings, funerals and births) are very similar – and not necessarily identical to those of Egypt’s Muslim neighbors. The traditions centering on newborn babies described in this article are observed by all Egyptians, regardless of religion.
Family and Children
Family is still very important in Egyptian society and is the backbone of the country’s culture. Most urban families are now “nuclear families”, and all over the country, the traditionally large extended family made up of parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and all sorts of other people is gradually shrinking. Still, family members usually try to live as close to one another as possible and remain very much involved in one another’s lives.
Egyptian children are generally adored, valued and fussed over by the adults in their families, and the arrival of newborns is an event to be celebrated. The birth of the first child, especially if it is a boy (still!), is a momentous event. The father and mother of the baby are often called by the titles “Abu” and “Umm” (“father and “mother”), followed by the first-born child’s name - so baby Mariam’s parents would be called “Abu Mariam” and “Umm Mariam”.
Because children are so precious, it is the custom in Egypt never to praise a baby or a child without adding the phrase “mash’allah”, meaning “by the will of God”. This is a way of conceding that God has the power to alter anything at anytime, and that nothing should be taken for granted. Repeating the name of God is also supposed to protect the child from the Evil Eye, which many Egyptians still believe in. Whether or not one believes in this phenomenon, it is impolite in most segments of Egyptian society, to compliment a mother on her newborn without referring to God in the very same sentence. For those readers who may have preconceived assumptions, I would like to point out that the word “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God, used by both Christians and Muslims.
Traditionally, the baby and its mother used to spend the first forty days after the birth in the home of the mother’s family. During this period (when both mother and child are considered to still be in delicate health), the new mother was the center of attention and was waited on by the women in her family. She was fed “nourishing” foods to bolster her health as a nursing mother: chicken, chicken broth, molasses and a variety of rich dishes prepared with ghee (clarified butter). With the dwindling of extended family units, this custom is becoming less common. Most parents simply take their baby home from hospital, hoping they will be able to arrange for some form of help!
One of the most popular and cherished Egyptian celebrations is the celebration for welcoming babies into the world, the “Sebou’”. It is held exactly one week after the baby’s birth. The word “sebou” means ‘seventh day’ in Arabic and is a form of the Arabic word for ‘week’. For convenience’s sake however, many parents today celebrate the Sebou’ a couple of weeks, or even a month, after their child’s birth. Although this event is the Egyptian equivalent of western pre-birth baby showers, it would be utterly unthinkable for Egyptians to celebrate a birth before it actually happens since it is presumptuous to assume that the pregnancy will come to term safely. The “Sebou’” used to be the occasion for naming newborn children, circumcising boys (Christians and Muslims alike) and piecing the ears of girls. Nowadays, in most cases, these practices take place separately from the celebration - usually before mother and baby leave the hospital.
An important component of the celebration is food. Those families who can afford to arrange for the slaughter of an animal (usually a sheep), and this is referred to as “sacrificing” or “offering” an animal to safeguard the child’s life. The practice is derived from the story of the prophet Abraham (Ibrahim, in Arabic) whose son’s life was saved by a heaven-sent ram. The story is related both in the Koran and in the Old Testament. In Egypt, sacrificing an animal and distributing the meat to the needy is a common ritual upon acquiring something new and valuable. One may choose to “offer” a single lamb or more, or one may donate the cost of the animal(s) to charity. The women of the family (but not the still-recuperating new mother) prepare a big dinner. In addition to the ‘Aqiqah’ (the lamb meat), many different dishes are prepared, and a special hot beverage, ‘moghat’, is served. Made from a powdered herbal fiber, it is thick and sugary, heavy with ghee and sesame and is commonly believed to be beneficial for nursing mothers.
The “Sebou” is the occasion for family and friends to visit the new baby. Nowadays, it is a convenient alternative for parents who may not feel up to receiving visitors at the hospital. It is also a way to have everyone visit at the same time. Visitors bring gifts for the baby. Gold earrings, necklaces and bracelets are typical gifts for baby girls. Amulets (written prayer rolls placed in gold or silver cases) are given to both boys and girls. These are pinned to the babies’ clothes or placed in their beds - to provide protection against the ill luck and disease. Pendants or pins decorated with turquoise stones (blue is a lucky color) or representing Quranic verses or crucifixes are also common baby gifts. More practical baby items may also be given, and close relatives often give a gift of money. The new mother is not left out and receives her share of gifts (usually jewelry). In accordance with Egyptian etiquette, gifts are only opened after the guests have left.
The actual ceremony begins with the guests scattering salt on the mother and around the house (again, to ward off the Evil Eye). The baby, bathed and dressed in a brand new outfit, is then placed in a special decorated container and taken on a tour of the family home, followed by a procession of family members (mainly children) carrying lit candles and chanting songs welcoming the baby to the world. The container in which the newborn is carried is a large sieve, or colander, filled with nuts, corn and other seeds. Once the tour is over, the “baby-shaking” begins. The baby, still in its brightly decorated colander is (gently) shaken, or rolled, while the women form a circle around it, singing. Baby-shaking dates back to the Pharaonic era, and is a means for “cleansing” the baby of evil spirits. The grandparents in particular are supposed to shake the sieve while reciting chants instructing the baby to obey its parents and family throughout its life. The mother must then step over the baby (hopefully asleep in the sieve) seven times without touching it, while the older women sing and make as much noise as possible, beating mortars and pestles, saucepans, and anything else that makes a racket. The noise is meant to clear evil spirits out of the way, and prepare the baby for life in a very loud and hostile world. Towards the end of the ceremony, after the meal, each guest is given a small white cloth bag (made of silk for those who can afford it) filled with nougat, colored crystallized sugar called “sokar nabat” and gold and silver colored coins. Among the Bedouins in the western and eastern deserts and in the Sinai, a second celebration is usually held forty days after the baby’s birth. Sometimes, the baby is only given a name at that time. This is because of the high infant mortality rate that used to prevail among Bedouin children.
Today, most of the customs described above are observed in a spirit of fun. Some well-to-do urban families have even begun to organize “Sebou’s” in public venues such as hotels, amusement parks - or even at the neighborhood McDonald’s. Still, an element of superstition continues to lurk underneath, and the sentiment behind the celebration remains the same, with most families feeling that not throwing a “Sebou’” might somehow bring misfortune to the baby.
Finally, the number seven is a lucky number for Egyptians. In fact, this number is of particular significance in all Abrahamic traditions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). The seven-day week first originated in the ancient Near East and was spread throughout the world by the three religions. According to Muslim tradition, the Prophet Muhammad ascended into the seven heavens, coming into direct contact with God. The Quran is replete with references to the seven heavens and the seven periods of creation. The number seven is also incorporated into art and children's stories, such as "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad" from the popular Arabian Nights, and, as we have seen, it turns up in many rite of passage ceremonies.
Customs surrounding the milestones of life, such as childbirth, exist in every society. I believe that in Egypt such customs are particularly fascinating since they can be traced back to ancient times so easily. Records on tomb and temple walls show just how old many of these traditions are. The walls of the Temple of Queen Hatchepsut at Deir Al-Bahari on Luxor’s west bank show the events of the Queen’s birth: Anubis, god of the Underworld, is depicted rolling the sieve. As god of the dead, only he can predetermine how long the queen will live. This is an example of how ancient and modern Egypt are intertwined. It explains why most Egyptian customs are the same - regardless of whether a family is Christian, Muslim, rural, urban, rich or poor. The forty-day period traditionally required for mother and child to fully recover can also be traced back in history. It seems to be derived from agricultural practices in ancient Egypt, where the seed had to be in the ground for forty days before germinating. This may also explain the significance of the seeds placed in the sieve at the “Sebou’” ceremony.
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