“Samira” by Maye Ostowani

Non-Fiction, Short Stories

(In Loving Memory)

March 2011
Cairo, Egypt

Rummaging through an old Bally shoebox yesterday, in search of a family photo for my 5-year-old daughter’s “Family Tree” school project, I unwittingly fell upon a vivid picture of my maternal grandmother. I turned it over and read the inscription on the back: Grand-mèreSamira, 2008

Holding the precious photo, I moved toward my bed, sank onto it heavily, and gazed deeply at the lady staring back at me. She was seated upright, in a wooden lawn chair in my parents’ lush and colorful garden in Cairo. Her blue-veined, wrinkled hands with long delicate fingers were clasped together lightly and rested neatly in her lap. She wore a smart navy and red checkered dress that reached just below her knees and a pale red shawl around her shoulders. She was smiling widely at the person taking the photograph: my father, no doubt. Her ageing body was bent forward slightly, her silvery-grey hair coiffed gracefully, her eyes twinkled.

I smiled, remembering the day it was taken, just a few years ago at my grandmother’s favorite time of year: Christmas! It was a gloriously sunny day and, despite the cold bite in the air, Samira had been in high spirits surrounded by her children, grandchildren of varying ages, cousins, nieces and nephews. My mother always threw a big lunch in honor of my grandmother on Christmas Day and invited the entire family.

My happy memory of that day quickly receded as I once again registered the fact that my grandmother was no longer with us. We had lost her a few months earlier after a series of complications in the hospital. She was 86 years old. 

Death changes everything. One day you’re sharing cups of freshly-brewed English Breakfast tea and shortbread biscuits, as you do every afternoon with someone you love, listening intently to them recounting stories from their childhood that you’ve heard a million times before, and the next day they are gone. Forever.

September 1980
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

There’s a knock on my bedroom door. I crack one eye open. My head is mostly hidden beneath the bedcovers. It’s early morning, and I want to go back to sleep. I’m seven years old. 

My mother’s face appears in the doorway and she’s smiling in a big way. 

“You have a visitor,” she says, coming into the room fully now. “Come on, sit up and see who’s here!” 

I do as I’m told and slowly unfold my body into a sitting position on the bed. My mother’s excitement is contagious, and I feel myself smiling in anticipation. Then I see her. She comes out from behind my mother where she had been hiding and stands next to her. She has a smaller frame, but her features are remarkably like my mother’s. 

“Grand-mère!” I squeal and leap out of bed in one move. I run to her and she enfolds me in a big hug and laughs. 

Samira stays with us in Jeddah, where we lived and my father worked for many years, for nearly a month and, even though it’s the first, it won’t be the last time she flies in from Cairo to visit us. During her stay, she spends a lot of time with me. She talks to me and tells me stories. My favorite ones are of her childhood. These stories make me giggle. 

“Did I ever tell you about the time my brother Saad and I locked our governess up in the nursery?” I would laugh and shake my head no, even though I had heard this story at least a dozen times. “Ooohh she was horrible!” my grandmother would wrinkle her nose at the thought. Then she would chuckle: “But we were very naughty children too . . .” 

On and on went the stories and I lost all sense of time reliving the memories she wove. 

As I got older, my grandmother shared other stories with me. I remember one, in particular, she used to love to tell . . .

As a young, newly married woman, Samira had travelled from Egypt to Morocco on a journalistic mission for her father-in-law’s newspaper Al-Balagh (which literally means: The News) to cover the current political upheaval in that country. While in Marrakesh, she was abducted by one of the rebel factions opposed to the ruling family. She recounted how scared she had been for her life, but how surprised and relieved she was when they treated her well. The rebels offered her sweet tea which she sipped while listening to their leader talk of his people’s woes. They released her, unharmed, soon after.         

Upon returning to Cairo, she wrote and published an article in Al-Balaghabout her experiences in Morocco. Later that year, she was awarded an honorary badge and medal from the Egyptian Press Syndicate for her story. 

March 2011
Cairo, Egypt

I keep willing my mind to accept the inevitable: that I will never see my beloved grand-mère again. I will never sit with her in her handsomely decorated Cairo apartment, faded now with age, and listen to her stories. 

She had assumed so many roles throughout her life: mischievous daughter, devoted wife, loving mother, passionate writer, talented seamstress, and dedicated charity worker. Over the years, she had protested alongside fellow Egyptian women in support of women’s rights many times and received numerous awards and social recognition for her tireless work with Egyptian charities. 

Samira was born in Cairo in 1925 to a wealthy and politically influential Coptic Christian family. The Copts, who are the native Christians of Egypt, are believed to be the direct descendants of the Pharaohs. It is largely believed that Christianity was introduced to the Egyptian people by Saint Marc in Alexandria, shortly after the ascension of Christ. Christians remained the majority in Egypt even after the Arab Muslim conquest in 639 AD. 

By the 12thcentury, however, Egypt became predominantly Muslim. Today, Egyptian Copts form the largest Christian community in the Middle East and represent 10 percent of the Egyptian population. 

At the time of my grandmother’s birth, Egypt was in the throes of major political change. British rule was overthrown in 1922 and the country achieved full independence, becoming a kingdom until 1952. Samira, the youngest of three siblings, had always been daring, strong-headed and willful. As far as I could tell, she had a happy childhood. 

French schooling was a must for all well-to-do families in Cairo in the early 1900s and my grandmother’s early education was no exception. Breaking from tradition, however, I imagine she must have herself chosen to go on to study at the American University in Cairo, which was a profoundly modern thing to do in her day. It must have been her destiny, because that’s where she met my grandfather Abdel Qader and they fell madly in love.  

My grandfather descended from a politically influential family in Cairo. More importantly (for this story, at least) his family was Muslim. His father, Abdel Qader Hamza Pasha was considered a viable political influencer and a well-respected journalist in Egyptian society. He founded and operated Al-Balagh, a large publishing house and printing press which published a daily newspaper by the same name, and which was regarded as one of the two most prominent mouthpieces of opposition to British rule. 

Upon the death of Abdel Qader senior in 1947, my grandfather took over the running of Al-Balagh, a national treasure by then. In the early 1960s, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ascended to power after a coup that saw the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952, adopted wide-spread socialist policies, including nationalisation of industry. Upon receiving word that Nasser planned to confiscate Al-Balagh, my grandfather swiftly shut it down and it remained dormant for decades. Today, it has been fully restored by my uncles and runs as a printing house.

As my grandmother tells it, when her parents discovered her love affair with Abdel Qader, they forbid her from seeing him and even went so far as to lock her up in a room to keep her away from him. She managed to escape, however, with the help of a sympathetic aunt. 

Samira and Abdel Qader eloped and were soon married. My grandmother’s family was furious and disowned her. The Coptic Church excommunicated her, and the Coptic community shunned her. 

My grandparents had two children and, as the years passed, my grandmother slowly resumed contact with her siblings and eventually her parents. By the time I was ten years old, and we were visiting my grandparents in Cairo, it had already become customary for Samira’s brother Saad and sister Amsal to join us for lunch on Saturdays at my grandparents’ home. 

I remember once when I was very young, we visited Samira’s parents in their home in Cairo. They were well above 90 by then. Their double-story villa was large and dark, but they were kind to me. They died soon afterward and, even though they had reconciled with their daughter, they left her nothing of their vast inheritance, and the Coptic Church never pardoned her. 

Growing up, I spent many summers with my grandparents. My grandfather prayed five times a day as required by the Islamic faith and fasted the whole month of Ramadan. My grandmother, whilst ensuring that the rituals of Ramadan were carried out to a T in her household, didn’t observe the fasting herself. She did, however, fast in accordance with the Coptic calendar, and attended midnight mass every year at a Protestant Church on Christmas Eve. My mother and uncle were raised in a household where both religions were equally respected and honored. 

Abdel Qader died of a heart attack one night in 1996 when he was 73 years old and Samira lost the twinkle in her eyes for a long time afterwards. Ever since he had permanently closed Al-Balagh, some 30 years before, my grandfather had spent the following 3 decades as a retired man at home with my grandmother. 

For many months after he passed away, my grandmother would grab my hand fiercely whenever I visited her, tears welling up in her sad eyes, and whisper distraughtly: “You can’t imagine how much I miss him!” My attempts to console her with words of comfort always seemed hollow, even to my own ears, in the face of her anguish and suffering.    

Now it is my turn to suffer as I come to terms with the realization that I will never hear my grandmother’s voice again. How is that possible when only a few months ago I was sitting by her hospital bed, holding her frail hands in mine, stroking her soft silver hair, and reading passages from The Other Boleyn Girlby one of her favorite authors to her? 

Samira had been an avid reader and particularly enjoyed historical fiction and mystery books. She was as alive then as I am now. She smiled at me when I read to her and playfully slapped my mother’s hands away when she tried to make her more comfortable by moving a pillow here or adjusting the sheets there. She would glance at me and say with a twinkle in her hazy eyes: “She treats me like a baby!”

January 2010
Cairo, Egypt

A single, sharp, authoritative knock on the austere white hospital room door makes my mother and I jump. She glances at me from across the room, a quizzical look in her red-rimmed eyes. I’m seated at my customary position beside my grandmother’s bed. ‘Who could that be at this late hour?’ I wonder too. 

“Come in!” my mother squeaks loudly. My heart goes out to her. She is exhausted, having been with my grandmother at hospital for days, refusing to leave her side even for a minute.   

The door swings open and in walks an older, distinguished man I have never seen before. He is wearing a perfectly pressed dark-blue suit and a designer pale-yellow tie. My mother gets up immediately and hurries over to him. She knows him. She kisses him on the cheek and gives him a tired but warm smile. 

My grandmother, who had been dozing soundlessly, stirs awake. She focuses on her visitor and, suddenly, her face is transformed, lighting up with pure joy. He comes to stand beside her bed, and I move away to give them space. They talk animatedly and seamlessly in French. Samira looks much younger than her 86 years and the twinkle is back in her eye. I smile for the first time in days. 

I find out later that the stranger is her favorite cousin, Pierre Ghali (or Boutros Boutros-Ghali, as he was known in the world of international politics), the United Nations’ sixth Secretary-General from 1992-1996.  

Before Pierre leaves, he reminds my grandmother how much she used to love to dance and asks if she still does? She laughs, her eyes bright with untold secrets and unforgotten memories. He promises to take her dancing again the very next day. 

“The Tango,” Samira whispers wistfully as he walks out the door. 

We get a call late that night from the hospital, telling us that my grandmother had passed away peacefully in her sleep. My only thought is: ‘I hope she’s dancing the Tango in heaven with Grandfather!’

MAYE OSTOWANI was born in Egypt, raised in Saudi Arabia, and has lived in Switzerland, the United States and the United Arab Emirates. She currently lives in Montreal with her two children. She completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in Mass Communications at Boston College, USA. She has worked as a journalist for the Reuters News Agency in Egypt and more recently as a Corporate Communications manager for the Kellogg Company in the United Arab Emirates, before moving to Montreal where she is currently pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a novelist. A handful of her non-fiction work has been published by CBC Books/Radio Canada and Canvas Magazine (the premier art magazine in the Middle East), among others. 

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