Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Rooting Into The Past

Before leaving Egypt in 2010 I had been living there for 32 years. Naturally, I have many memories with people as well as the country itself. Whenever I would come back for visits, I always end up being flooded by sweet echoes of the past.  

Something unexpected happened a few days ago which led me to write the following in a Facebook post titled: “Rooting”


Fadila joined the household of my grandmother’s sister 40 years ago — a year before I was born. She was the nanny of my cousins, then over the decades she almost became part of the family. She helped my grandmother’s sister, her husband, and one of their two daughters before they all passed; also helping with my cousins’s children later on.

The same can be said about her older sister, Hanem, who was one authentic Chef and who is still in the family and currently helping out another grandmother through her final days.

I remember visiting them as a kid when Fadila would always offer me yummy minted lemonade, which you could only find there. This Zamelek household held so many lavish lunches over the years, that I think those two angels need to be properly remembered for all their efforts and heartfelt dedication.

Being a lighthearted person, I also remember how Fadila used to sincerely laugh at the jokes and wordplay I would often tell her.

On my first morning in Cairo, my sister and I were walking in the streets of Zamalek when I saw a woman who looks like Fadila waiting by the bus station. As we went closer I recognised her, even though it has been at least 12 years or so since the last time. I then went and stood right beside her, took off my purple shades, and gently blurted out her name. She looked at me and my sister and smiled before I said “I’m Omar”. She was a little perplexed so my sister helped out: “Omar we (and) Karima”. Her face lit up, said Habayby (loved ones), and took us both in her arms. What a compassionate hug that was.
Before parting ways I thought that we should take a picture together and we got this. O’ The Memories.

The post received quite a bit of attention. One group consisted of friends and family who knew Fadila. Because it reminded them of a recent past of that welcoming Ibn Zanki St. household which she embodies — reminiscing about my gentle grandmother’s sister, her fun husband, and their one-of-a-kind daughter who have all been gone for at least ten years now. The other group were readers who just enjoyed the story.

From Venice Beach straight to Fadila’s warm hug in Cairo

With more days spent in Cairo, after this encounter I got the chance to delve into deeper memories.

Yesterday was my sweet grandmother’s 94th Birthday and we were celebrating among the family at her household. There I reunited with Bassima, my lovable nanny since I was one year old and later live-in domestic help, and Khadra, my grandmother’s exquisite cook of 35 years. 

One thing I have learned is that photographs add substance to storytelling like nothing else. With this in mind, after lunch and following the Birthday cake and tea I asked my sister to come with me to the kitchen where she snapped the featured photo.

First, Khadra who is shown on left. She is a simple Egyptian woman in her late 60s who’s a mother of several ‘children’ and a grandmother of more. Like many other brave women in Egypt she is the breadwinner of the family. Her husband has been handicapped for at least the past two decades, yet she managed to support her family until one of her sons became a successful engineer while the girls got married.     

Khadra — meaning ‘green’ in Arabic — lives in Banha, the capital of the Qalyubia Governorate in north-eastern Egypt located between Cairo and Alexandria. This means it takes her about two hours and a few commutes to arrive at her workplace in Zamalek, six days a week; plus of course another two to return home.

When I was 6 my father was promoted from Resident Manager of Sheraton Montazah in Alexandria, where we had resided for a couple years, to General Manager of Sheraton Madinah in Saudi Arabia. I was starting school then and it was best that I stay in Cairo. I ended up living with my grandparents for two years and eat from Khadra’s hands everyday.

Other than that, my grandmother’s household has been hosting a weekly family lunch for as long as I can remember. For years it was on Thursday, then it became Sunday for many more years; now for some reason it’s on Monday. So for almost three decades lucky me feasted on her sensational cooking at least once a week. And she’s still going strong.

One particular memory I have with Khadra is from that time I was living at my grandparents’.

I was a cheeky and playful kid yet decent and well-behaved. My usual fun was hiding somewhere and scaring Khadra — also my grandma. Telling them jokes, songs, and wordplay. But one day, for some reason, I decided to break the norm… and other things.

My grandmother was going to visit her next door neighbour, Salha Aflatoun the mother of the renowned painter and activist Inji Aflatoun, and I wanted to go along as I had done once or twice before. But she refused. She told me to stay until she’s back and went out from the backdoor you can see in the featured photo on the right. Outside there is a small corridor connecting the kitchens of the two flats where the service elevator is. 

Totally unlike me, I got all pissed and wanted to retaliate. I opened the cupboard where the glasses are, held one in my tiny hand, and threatened Khadra that I’ll brake the glass if I don’t get to go with my grandma — who had already left. I believe I wanted to flex my muscles on someone whom I know wouldn’t punish me. My grandfather was napping while grandma was gone, and for some odd reason I wanted to do something unusually crazy and dangerous. Khadra tried to change my mind but to no avail. I then counted out-loud till 10 before opening my hand and dropping the glass. It fell on the floor of the kitchen and broke into pieces.

In a way, I was shocked that I had the guts to do something so naughty; in another I realised the uselessness of acting like a spoiled child as sometimes some of my girl cousins would. As expected, Khadra only calmly told me to get out of the kitchen... to clean up. I can’t recall if she told my grandma upon her return or not.

Needless to say, I never did anything like this ever again.

Another thing I always associate with Khadra is (عايزين نفرح بيك), translating into: “We want to be happy for you,” which is an Egyptian Arabic expression said to people as a wish for them to get married. Remember that in many of these parts of the world getting married and having children is synonymous with happiness.

You can further read about that in a recent exposé of mine: Why I Choose to Remain a Non-Dad for Now — Reflections on Being Childless.

As such, since my early 20s whenever I would go into the kitchen before or after those weekly lunches to say hello to her, she would always tell me her wish. Every time I would just smile and/or crack a related joke. Not-so-surprisingly, Fadila would also do the same. 

Yesterday, however, when after all these years Khadra told me “We want to be happy for you” I merrily responded that I’m happy without marriage and that my happiness should make her happy. Her, Bassima, and I ended up sharing a heartfelt laugh. 

Now to dada Bassima — dada in Arabic means nanny by the way.

Bassima was working for a Japanese family back the mid-late 70s, also in Zamalek. She took care of the kids, walked them to and pick them up from school and took them to Karate practice. Then she met my grandparents who offered her to work for them.

She had long black Indian-like hair — she still has most of it but I mean she didn’t wear a head cover — as she also had a fit body. Bassima joined their household for about four years before having to take a break for one year due to illness. My parents had already travelled by then, and when they came back in 1984 she moved in with us and has been around ever since. 

Interestingly, this is when we lived in Cairo Sheraton when my father remained a General Manager for 17 long years. With her own room with bathroom and TV she certainly had a different and quite a luxurious life. She also went away with us for the summer holidays, whether to the Red Sea or to the North Coast on the Mediterranean in later years. Bassima was happily integrated into the family. 

Apart from cooking, she would “babysit” us the first few years as our parents sometimes travelled as well as went out at night often — my sister was only four then. Though her main specialty remained cooking along helping out with some laundry, as there was a full laundry department in the hotel.

We had a kitchen in the suite and the woman is one great cook. This, I think, gave living in a hotel a whole new flavour. Room service was great of course, plus there was about seven restaurants of different cuisine, but home food is home food. After all, those were 17 years so we would probably get bored if we were to only order from the fixed menus. 

Bassima never got married and had no children. “I didn’t want a man to control me,” she would say when I ask her. A few had proposed before, but she always refused. Naturally, she became the mama hen for her three brothers and three sisters and, as I came to find out just now, their army of 20 children. She selfishlessly dedicated her entire life to support her family by working in homes.

Another remarkable feat about Bassima is that she is an autodidact, meaning she never went to school yet taught herself how to read and write. Impressive.

You see, whether we mean it or not, we naturally develop a human bond with someone living at the same house as us for years. Eventually they become part of the family, a new kinship. They share our joys and sorrows as we share theirs.

Now that I think about it, Bassima has never really been a mere nanny, cook, maid, or cleaning lady; but rather, she was like a second mother to my sister and I — very kind and loving. Being the exact same age as my mother actually helped cementing this notion in my mind. 

And I dare saying that other than her siblings’ kids, we also became the children she never had. 

More about the pros and cons of having live-in help can be found in this earlier Article.

There are so many memories with dada B of course, but I will share whatever comes to mind first.

  • As a two-year bambino in Agami I once fell into the toilet as I was trying to go about my affairs. I cried for help and it was Bassima who came in to the rescue. Ha.
  • During my mid-late teenage years when I began bodybuilding I used to treat her like a sandbag and punch her arms to test my newly-acquired strength. Because, again, I knew she would let me. One day I jumped on her WWE-style and she fainted for a good five minutes.
  • Around the same time, my raging hormones and I would spy on her through a tiny vent in the wall while she was in the bathroom, trying to catch a glimpse of anything.
  • She would wake me up in the morning to go to school with a brief back and shoulders massage.

  • She was around the house the first time my girlfriend and I had sex. My parents were away while my sister and I were sleeping at our grandmother’s. We had agreed on the day and prepared a tape with all the lovey-dovey songs we wanted to listen to while losing our virginities. Cute. When we went home we found that Bassima was there. So I told her that we’ll be watching a horror movie and the room will be dark, so to never, ever, try to interrupt us. “I’m trying to really scare her [my ex]”, I told her. She didn’t interrupt. 

  • In later years when I was deep into drugs she could sense it. Just like the rest of the family, they didn’t know what was up or wrong, but they knew something was; simply because they knew me all too well.

    One day she passed by my place with cooked food as I was sitting there getting high. Don’t you want to stop whatever you’re doing? Coming from my second mother, this sole question made me tear up. I subtly smiled, though she could see the tears flowing down my cheeks. “Are you crying, Omar,?” She asked. I brushed it off and tried to change the subject. Still, the same woman who had helped me out of the toilet as a toddler could see right through me.

    Actually, many times when I did not have any money yet needed to score I would resort to her to spot me.

After leaving Sheraton in 2001 Bassima remained with my parents; only from 10 to 5 or so and without spending the night. This was the time I began living alone for 10 years with some weekly domestic help.

Recently, however, when my grandmother reached an advanced stage of Alzheimer and needs constant assistance, Bassima is one of few people we could trust to be with her at night. So she now sleeps in the bed next to her, takes her to the toilet, and gives her bathes. She leaves in the morning while my grandma is being assisted by a more professional nurse. 

Now she’s between my parents’ place where she mainly cooks in the morning a few times a week and my grandmother’s house where she’s back to babysitting... a much older baby — the wondrous Circle of Life. In truth, we’re all so sincerely grateful for having this angel in our own lives. One couldn’t ask for anyone purer or more suitable.

Personally, after leaving my comfort zone in Egypt and living totally unhelped in Canada then the U.S I’m even more grateful for all the prior assistance I have received throughout my entire existence. 

May you cherish those noble souls who spend their time helping you and making your life easier. May you equally apprehend that you are not in any way, shape, or form superior than them due the  different circumstances most of us never got to choose.

Shine On.


Who Are We? 

Why I Choose to Remain a Non-Dad for Now — Reflections on Being Childless  

What Nomad Lions Can Teach Us About Growing Through Life

A Saturday Evening with an Old Brotherman & His Doggy

The Pros and Cons of Live-in Help
Echoes From The Past — Alexandria in Photos

Beautiful Things Happen When You Are In Sync With The Universe

Give That Man Some Groceries 

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