THIS HISTORY is, in part, my grandmother’s story. Born in Egypt around 1920, Amina Qandil grew up flanked by two very different generations: that of her own mother and the generation represented by her youngest sisters. Like many women before her, Amina’s mother never learned to read or write. Meanwhile, the younger women of the family were part of a new generation of learning: they all went to school, some continued on to higher education, and one became a doctor. As for Amina, education was pursued at the hands of a series of female tutors who came to her home to teach her sewing, crocheting, baking, reading, and writing. Throughout the many roles she played in her life, Amina used these skills to their utmost capacity. She was the amateur seamstress who saved the family the cost of school uniforms, the baker who made enough bread for the entire street, the family scribe who noted debts and payments in her delicate handwriting, and a voracious consumer of novels in her youth and a dedicated reader of a daily Qur’anic litany in her old age. But her story as an unschooled literate—for whom literacy was part skill and part treasure—is absent from the common narrative of Egyptian history, which tends to divide the population into the literate elites and the uneducated majorities. She was neither illiterate nor part of the country’s new, empowered, school-educated classes. Nevertheless, she was part of a growing stratum of Egyptians for whom particular kinds of literacies were deployed, used, and cherished in their everyday social circumstances. Her informal education allowed her to pursue her economic interests when needed, ...
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