Journal: Wednesday 8 October 1997
Haga’s other name is Omm Mohammed. Haga (or Haja) is a honorary female title given to those who have done Haj, the sacred journey to Mecca. Omm is the name given to a mother and Mohammed was her son, the first of twenty children she was to bear in a life of hardship and poverty in the village of Kom Lolla near the ancient temple of Medinet Habu on the West Bank of Luxor. According to Haga, she made one great mistake in her life. After the early death of several sons she prayed to Allah, bought amulets and charms from the local sheikhs and sufis and even sought the help of Coptic priests in the hope that she would bear a son who would survive into adulthood. After all else failed she had prayed to the god Amun-Re for a strong son, in a local tradition associated with the sacred lake in the Mortuary Temple of Rameses III. The Koran states that ‘There is no god but Allah’ and Omm Mohammed had spent many years of her life ashamed and trying to atone for this one un-Islamic act. Her great desire to visit Mecca was to appeal to Allah for forgiveness. Her wishes were both granted. She bore a son, Shahat, (who she named Mohammed after the prophet) and who survived many of his brothers. Much later in life she was able to go to Mecca and became known as Haga.
Haga’s story, or rather that of her son Shahat, was written down in a book by Richard Critchfield, published in 1978 – ‘Shahhat, an Egyptian’, which tells about the life of an Egyptian fellah.
I first met Haga in October 1997 when I was introduced by her nephew Hassan Sayed, knowing nothing at the time about the book. Haga struck me as a proud and stately lady, around her mid-sixties and she welcomed me into her humble home as though I was a long-lost relative. I could not speak Arabic and Haga spoke no English, but somehow we communicated and were friends from the beginning. Her house in Kom Lolla was small and entered through a courtyard which led to the front door. The outside wall, now faded, had once been painted with the traditional scenes of Haj, the brightly coloured aeroplanes and flying carpets, busses, camels and mosques which represent the holy journey which she was so proud of. Inside, there was invariably a tray of tea and a welcome, and it seemed like there was always a religious programme or prayers coming from the radio on the table. As I got to know her over the next few years, I would sit in the kitchen with the women and Haga tried several times to teach me (rather unsuccessfully) one of her favourite pastimes, to crochet blankets and table-covers in brightly coloured wools. The women, their heads uncovered away from the public gaze, sat and gossiped and smoked their home-made shisha pipes, while children and grandchildren scrambled on and off their laps. I felt very privileged to be included and accepted, even though I was just another western tourist.
When I later found Critchfield’s book and read it, I felt like I knew the whole family, even though I had never met Shahat himself. Another son of Haga’s, Nubi Abd el-Baset, became a good friend and I would often go to visit him, his wife Zeinab and their young family. Nubi is a skilled reis (overseer) who has worked with many Egyptologists throughout Egypt and especially as an assistant surveyor to David Goodman. In fact most of the Abd el-Baset men were connected to Egyptology, being part of the Saidi team of workmen who are so much valued by excavators. Shahat, Nubi and their brother Ahmed have all worked for Mark Lehner at Giza. Since the time of my first meeting with Haga, Shahat has sadly died and I haven’t seen Haga in a while, but I will never forget this wonderful lady and my introduction to her traditional Egyptian family.