Tomorrow, God Willing: Self-Made Destinies in Cairo
By Unni Wikan University of Chicago, $50, $17.95 paper
What began as a thesis topic in the late 1960s has now spanned a career: Unni Wikan is a Norwegian anthropologist who has spent the last 25 years observing (and becoming friendly with) a poor Egyptian family in Cairo. Wikan uses her friendship with Umm All, the matriarch of this sprawling family, on two levels: first, toward the novel-like description of the family’s experiences, and second, “as an entry into a social world with its own ground rules and network of relationships,” whose structure both confines and empowers its members.
This book is, of necessity, woman-and family-centered. Because Wikan is a woman, she was unable to venture into the public (male) world in the same way that she was able to enter the streets and homes of the private (female-dominated) sphere.
Through Umm Ali, Wikan gives us the opportunity to reevaluate terms that Western readers often take for granted— third world, slum, poverty, misery—by showing us how one family copes with adversity. Umm All’s house and family are indeed miserable by North American standards; their lives are filled with dirt, disease, and hunger. The vivid portrait of Umm All’s overcrowded apartment allows us to understand just how difficult it was for her children to sleep, let alone study. Nonethless, Wikan challenges Western misconceptions about those who live in poverty: the majority of the children that Wikan follows become educated, raise families, and generally avoid crime.
Tomorrow, God Willing refers to the phrase uttered constantly in the streets of Cairo. Without noting the irony, Wikan interprets these words as a call to self respect: by helping yourself, and only by helping yourself, life will bear fruit. But tomorrow also speaks to the actual misery of today and the hoped-for improvements that often seem impossible without the help of a higher being. Wikan’s observations allow her to reinterpret this phrase: Over the last 25 years she has watched Umm Ali and her family better their lives all on their own.