“She is a Mother”

How Legends Keep Alive the Inspiration of these Maternal Values

Vintage engraving from the 1870 of a scene from the Old Testament by Gustave Dore showing the Courage of a Mother. (Getty)
Vintage engraving from the 1870 of a scene from the Old Testament by Gustave Dore showing the Courage of a Mother. (Getty)

“She is a Mother”

 “She is a Mother” is a statement that is usually followed by a graceful pause. In Arab and Egyptian societies, motherhood is an honorable status. This bliss, however, is usually affiliated with complex, responsibilities, tasks and challenges that frame such portrait of a Mother.

Celebrating the mother figure materialized in 1956 when renowned writer and journalist Mostapha Amin launched the first national celebration of Egyptian Mother’s day on the 21st of March. Amin was influenced by the modern Western tradition that first celebrated motherhood with an exclusive day on the second Sunday of May in 1914. The idea was the brain child of Anna Jarvis, American mother and social worker.

On a parallel note, the mother figure has always been celebrated in traditional Arab and Egyptian heritage. “There is a difference between the mother figure’s portrayal in traditional stories and in epics, “explained Dr. Mohamed Helal, professor of folk heritage and mawal (rhymed stories) in faculty of arts, Beni Sweif University. “Traditional stories reflect real life characters while epics tends to focus on knights and royalty, he noted, adding that the heritage stories spoke of symbols of bad mothers as well. Omena Al-Ghoula (Mother Guru) is portrayed as the villain of all stories. Also the ungrateful mother of Seif Ibn Zi Yazan, who was forced to marry his father and disowned him in the forest where a deer breastfed him and he grew up to be a great epic warrior.”

On the other hand, Helal highlighted the key mother figures in our Arabic and Egyptian traditional culture.

Omena Khadija (Our Mother Khadija)

Our Mother or the mother of all believers, is Khadija Bent Khowailed, Prophet Mohamed’s first wife and the first woman Moslem. She is a great mother figure in Islamic culture. Known for her honesty and honour, Khadija Bent Khowailed chose prophet Mohamed to manage her trade. Despite their age difference, they were married and she was his beloved, mother of his first born child and held a dear spot in his heart even after she passed away. “Years after her death, in a traditional story stated by Saida Aisha, prophet Mohamed explained how he remains grateful to her saying: for when I was poor, God made her my richness, and when people hurt me, she was my shelter, and when people denied me, she gave me all that I needed,”  goes the traditional tale.

Khadra El-Sharifa (Honourable Khadra)

In the Beni Helal Epic, Khadra El-Sharifa is an icon of piety and resilience. “According to the epic, Khadra was married to the great tribal chieftain Rizk Ibn Nayel, and she gave birth to several girls. However he wanted a boy to be knight like him, and she was in great despair. One day she was walking beside a pond where she found a magnificent black bird who managed to push away all other birds and drank quietly alone from the pond. She wished to have a son as graceful and as dominant as this bird, even if her son would be dark skinned like the bird. God granted her wish and she finally gave birth to a dark skinned boy. However her husband and the whole tribe accused her of adultery. She then opposed the accusations, took her child and went to live among her own maternal tribe. Abu Zeid Al-Helali’s mother made sure he grew up to be a fierce warrior and knight. He became a key figure of his mother’s maternal tribe, where he grew up. And when the time came and he stood in front of his father, as a rival representing another tribe, Khadra El-Sharifa made sure that they did not fight one another and resolved all the differences.

Virgin Mary

The story of Khadra el-Sharifa, reflects some traits of the story of Virgin Mary, added Helal, explaining how the Virgin Mary was able to clear her honour when God made Baby Jesus talk as an infant and defend her, as stated in the Quran.

Princess Zat Al-Hemma (Princess of Will-power)

The epic story goes that Princess Zat Al-Hemma was a great warrior who refused to marry anyone who is not her match. After she had killed 700 knights of her father’s army who had proposed to her and faced her in a duel that they lost of course, her father tricked her.

“Her father sedated her and made her marry her cousin, “explained Helal, “ She got pregnant, but was so angry that she and took her son Prince Abdel Wahab and left the tribe to fight on the borders of Palestine against the Crusaders. Together with her son, they became legendary war heroine and hero of the tales of the Crusades.

Fatemah Al-Nabawia (Fatemah the Teacher)

She was the mother of famous Ali-El Zeibaq (Ali- the mercury man). According to the epic story, Fatemah was married to Hassan Ras El-Ghoul a prominent figure in Baghdad. After losing his job because of a vicious conspiracy of a woman named Dalila, Hassan went to Egypt and married Fatemah Al-Nabawiah. On the day Fatemah gave birth to Ali, Hassan was killed. Since then she managed to protect her son and empower him with tricks and ideas that made him survive and retaliate. Known as Ali-mercury man, because like mercury, he was not easily caught, he vanishes quickly and mastered the art of disguise. Throughout the epic, Fatemah was always there a few steps away from her son to help him.

Zebiba, the Ethiopian princess

The mother of famous legendary knight and poet Antara Ibn Shadad was Zebiba, an Ethiopian princess who was taken into slavery at that time. After being married to Prince Shaddad, and bearing his son Antara, the prince, his father refused to acknowledge him as his lawful son, because his mother was a slave.

Zebiba made sure her son was brought up as a great noble warrior and renowned poet whose poetry was among the poetry which decorated the holy shrine (moaalakat). Antara was also a hero of an epic love story with his cousin Abla. When he was refused because of his dark skin, he fought the whole tribe and won the heart of his beloved and married her.

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