Her father’s chair sits beneath the window to catch the morning light, where he once held court with villagers who wanted him to discipline their sons, chase away thieves and settle land and dowry disputes on the lush fields between the Nile and the desert’s edge.
She eases into the high-back chair with the worn wooden armrests. A single woman of 53 wearing faded bluejeans and a pink blouse, her dark hair uncovered, she has her late father’s spirit and wisdom, though she has decided not to spank misbehaving children and, truth be told, she’d rather not know all the whispered sins and untidy dramas of her friends and neighbors in this brick-and-mud smudge of a village founded by an ancestor.
Few would have expected this place of millstones and poultry dealers to claim the “first” of anything. It’s there, though, in a picture frame: Eva Habil Kyrolos smiling and standing next to President Hosni Mubarak on the day she became Egypt’s first female mayor. It hangs near photographs of her grandfather, whose brow seems cut from stone, and her father, a scrubbed-faced raconteur in a turban.
“People from nearby towns used to mock us, ‘Oh, you have a woman mayor now,’ ” said Osama Gamel, a car mechanic, mimicking the needling chirps of those who poke fun. “But you know what? She’s better than a man.”
Better than a man. Not a phrase one often hears in Egypt. But those words resonate in alleys where donkey carts, piled with bundles of green grass, rattle past churches and mosques, and boys hoe brown-black furrows along the river. Gossip blows from stoop to stoop and fishermen moor their battered boats in the marshes. The restless and the young peek into visiting cars, hoping for an exciting face to peek back. Everyone can point you to the mayor’s office.
“I am part of history now. I am under the spotlight,” said Kyrolos, sitting in her receiving room, while outside a taxi driver, a lead-footed madman who minutes earlier had sent old ladies running and ducks scurrying through the dust, washed his car near a brick wall. The mayor heard the slosh and clatter, got up and shooed him away.
“The villagers are getting used to a woman, but sometimes when they address me as mayor they use the male gender. I was once the ‘mayor’s daughter,’ but I’m developing my own credentials. I’m a judge, but sometimes I have to be a mother to make them obey.”
Step outside, walk past corner shops and schoolgirls too young to know that in the late 19th century Kyrolos’ great-great-grandfather, a Coptic Christian, was granted permission by the state to lay claim to a village, providing he built a house of worship and a kiln to bake bread. He called it Komboha; family legend has it that it was named after a princess who walked with pharaohs.
Choosing a mayor is more official these days. Kyrolos, a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, was appointed by the state Interior Ministry in December. She is not married; she knows what goes through people’s minds about this, but once she hit 40 her relatives quit asking. As a strict Copt, she said, divorce is forbidden, so choosing someone means choosing him for life. That’s not easy, which leads to the tale of a husband who recently knocked on Kyrolos’ door.
“He came to me and told me his wife was fooling around on him. I was shocked,” the mayor said. “I told him to go to the church and talk to a priest. Then he told me he had told a lot of people about this. I said, ‘I can’t help you if you’ve told everybody, if it’s not private.’ His wife ended up solving things herself. She ran away.”
Kyrolos was born here. She and her friends were the first to graduate from the new elementary school, and every summer they watched the Nile rise around their village, turning it into an island. She later studied law at Ain Shams University in Cairo and then ended up in Iraq, working in a stationery store in Baghdad before being hired in the legal department of a government office. She stayed two years during the rule of Saddam Hussein before returning to Egypt and moving to Cairo to start a law practice.
“I wanted an independent life,” she said. “But my father got sick in 1990. I was the only one of his six daughters not married. I felt an obligation to take care of him. It was the toughest decision I ever made.
“He died at 85 in 2002, but while he was ill I helped him with his mayor duties and I was intrigued and grew politically active. I worked on women’s rights issues to stop early marriage, female circumcision and I helped women get their voting cards.”
The mayor’s job is law and order, handling civil arguments and listening to woes unfolding amid intimate gestures and sips of tea. Kyrolos has three deputy mayors and six guards, smiling men with Kalashnikov rifles. Crime is not a big problem, except for the bandits who robbed and ransacked a coffee shop and had to be run off by police. There are fewer babies than a generation ago, and life is more marked by a new blister, a slipped disk or a change in the price of chicken.
Kyrolos is polite, but not demure. She laughs easily and hard, her hair skimming her shoulders, her fingers rising like fluttery punctuation marks against her words. Her guards hover at the edge of her voice, which is occasionally broken by junkmen hawking their wares as they pass by her window.
She doesn’t yell or shout at the men who come before her; she tells them that legal action will be taken if they don’t move a car blocking the road or clean garbage from an empty lot. This talk of paperwork and court appearances was a bit mystifying at first, but the villagers have grown accustomed to the mayor’s penchant for legalese, although occasionally, in the heat of the moment, a twist of country logic can solve things quickly.
“After my father died and until I was appointed, we had no mayor. A sense of egocentrism took over the village. People felt they could do whatever they wanted,” she said. “We had a 14-year-old boy who used foul words, words too dirty to repeat, to curse and insult a man in his 50s. I called the boy’s father. I wouldn’t beat the boy, but I told the father he had three options: ‘You discipline your son right here in front of us, I’ll have my guards do it, or I will file a legal complaint against your boy.’ The father disciplined his son right then and there and went home.”
Most of her constituents are Copts. Several crucifixes and a big picture of Jesus hang in Kyrolos’ sitting room; the other day she fasted to commemorate the three days Jonah spent in the belly of a whale. The Muslim villagers, who tend their livestock and gather for daily prayers at a few mosques beneath a low skyline of crescents and crosses, mingle easily with the Christians.
“The people of the village are calmer and quieter than what you find in Cairo. You hear birds here, not car horns. We’re not rich, but we don’t have anyone who cannot earn his bread,” she said.
“There are sectarian problems in other parts of the country. But our Copts and Muslims are at peace with one another. They’re both too busy with work and don’t have any time to annoy one another.”
The Muslims seem to like Kyrolos as much as the Christians, who will mention, with a more than discernible glow of pride, that it’s no big deal to have a female mayor because, as one Copt put it, “We don’t believe a woman’s body is a stigma to be covered in veils.”
A few blocks away, Kamel Nadi abu Sedeira, a white-haired farmer with a staff in his hand, walked from a courtyard and stood outside his mosque as other voices fell away.
“Kyrolos is not like any woman. She’s a very serious woman,” he said. “It was tough to get used to at first, but I guess it’s hard for the whole country to get used to a woman mayor. We’ve only got one.”
She’s the unveiled one with her guards, her father’s wisdom and a voice that comforts as much as it demands respect.
Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.