Son of a …
BY REHAM BARAKAT
The title of this article may sound like the beginning of an insult, but that’s not my intention at all. It’s also the beginning of a phrase often used in Egypt, that curious term, “Ebn Nass.”
Literally the phrase means Son of People. The plural non-genderized form of the phrase is “Welad El Nass” — Children of People — a term that is far from derogatory nowadays. In fact, in the past two days I have heard two people use the term so casually to connote positive attributes in people, and with no questions asked everyone around the table nods and completely understands what the term means.
Through a stimulating conversation and some desk research I discovered that the phrase stems from “Awlad El Nass,” a historical term from the time when the Mamluks ruled Egypt used to describe the second generation of Mamluk sons who were born in the country. The term points to the sons being of noble decent, that is, from the Turko-Circassian elite, as well as having common Egyptian roots.
Awlad El Nass at the time were not permitted to join the ruling military class and were also refused access to high offices in the state despite the fact that they might have good connections with the rulers. In a way Awlad El Nass were seen as a segment of society that lay between the nobles and the common people in Egypt.
But that’s history.
Today the term doesn’t have the racial dimension of the past. It is used very commonly and positively to define individuals in society with, for example, a famous family name, strong family history, economic standing, ethical outlook, vocation, status, ruling power, education, exposure and much more.
I am sure that I missed out other variables for what makes individuals Welad El Nass since I find that the term is as relative, fragmented and diluted as our society is. It is also a qualification that cannot in any way be measured or ever used in absolute terms because it depends on which part of the lens of our diverse and rich society you are looking through. And yet I find that the term is used so frequently and so freely with so much arrogance and elitism, as though Welad El Nass are a class of privileged people above everyone else.
What made me realise this was a journey with a taxi driver, someone I am certain several people would not for a moment consider defining as Welad El Nass, especially if the term is used to suggest socio-economic status or profession. This fascinating and interesting man who works very hard to make an honest living in the morbid Cairo traffic was telling me all about his family and what jobs they had and concluded the conversation with the phrase, “we are all respectable people.” Damn right you are. You have the same integrity we grant those we consider Welad El Nass.
Similarly, the list for several Egyptians who are noble and honest in the manner in which they manage the difficult circumstances of their lives is endless. This includes the lady who insists on serving in people’s homes although she is old, but is too proud to live off charitable donations despite being offered an opportunity to retire and receive a monthly salary from her former employer. It includes the seven-year-old boy who collects the garbage from the street corner. It includes the security guard with a computer engineering degree who slept on the ground of the building to pay his way through college and taught himself Facebook and Skype. I could go on forever.
To my mind the question is: Aren’t these people worthy of the term Welad El Nass or it is merely reserved for a certain segment of society with power, money, supposedly refined history, education, status?
Prior to the revolution, before Hosni Mubarak was ousted, the ruling elite were considered by some to be Welad El Nass. People would rush to rub noses with them and would boast if they knew them or invited them to social events.
But that too is also history.
Ironically, today some individuals from this former ruling elite are peering at the world from behind prison bars and are being accused of a litany of ethical crimes from abuse of power to insider trader. They are labeled and blamed for creating an Egypt that unfortunately forces the seven-year-old child to collect garbage in the street. An Egypt that denies the lady who helps in the house a pension due to the lack of a proper social welfare system. An Egypt that leads the security guard to continue working as a security guard despite having a degree in computer engineering because he cannot find a job in his field. An Egypt that has several people looking down on certain vocations and members of the society who should not be blamed for their miserable conditions. They cannot be blamed because they were not provided with education, justice, rights or even basic needs such as food, clean water and shelter because some Welad El Nass were supposedly too busy amassing fortunes at society’s expense.
So who are Welad El Nass? Why does the term not apply to all Egyptians in this great nation? I mean, think about it, aren’t we all equally born the Children of People? Isn’t it time we revisit this term and how we use it? It is either we are all Welad El Nass or not.
Reham Barakat is a Cairo-based commentator and creative writer.