“It ‘s the only way of life I’ve known. I was raised by a single mum.”
Today, being a single mother is not uncommon in the West, but decades ago, in a conservative Muslim majority society, raising a child alone was, to put it mildly, unorthodox.
My mother, or Madam Esmat as her neighbors and colleagues called her, was an Egyptian lady like no other. As a middle class lady from Egypt’s bygone era of elegance and grace, she lived a very humble life. She was pious but liberal, feminist but traditional, soft but determined, reserved but warm and welcoming. Such an eclectic mix of qualities undoubtedly helped her survive Egypt’s turbulent social changes after the collapse of the monarchy until today.
Unlike most Egyptians, my mother’s family was pure Cairene (natives of Cairo) with Turkish blood. They adopted an incredibly multicultural outlook, which eventually affected the way she raised me. She sent me to an Italian school, occasionally treated me to desert at her favourite Greek café (Charinos), and only bought beef sausage, salami, and cheese from a trusted Armenian deli.
In her parental home, she enjoyed a way of life that was much less hurried. She grew up among beautiful surroundings full of herbs and vegetable gardens as well as rare trees such as the Bambozia (Syzygium cumin) and the Zapota. Bambozia fruits are dark sweet, olive-sized berries that are incredibly delicious. Picking bambozia was my favourite mission, much to the dismay of Mum, who dreaded seeing her daughter climbing the huge trees like a little monkey. Meanwhile, Zapota was my Mum’s favourite because it was ideal for making exquisite jam. Sadly, both trees have practically vanished from Egypt today.
My mother endured two phases of relative financial constraint following the death of her father and then later the sudden death of my dad. Unlike her peers, she did not seek a wealthy husband to overcome these financial challenges. Instead, she became determined to finish her education while working extra hours to earn the necessary income. She, a Muslim, used her piano skills to teach music in a private Christian school. During this time, she also developed a special interest in Buddhism, the life of Buddha, and his passage into Nirvana, a name she became so fond of that she eventually chose it as the name of her only daughter (although my father misspelled it on the birth certificate). She eventually graduated from University and had a law degree.
My father’s sudden death left my mother with a young baby to raise on her own, dramatically changing her life. Despite the discouraging attitudes of her family and in-laws, she stood firm and took decisions that shaped her life and mine. She decided not to remarry and declined offers to work in the Gulf to earn a comfortable income. She chose to raise her daughter alone, despite the sharp decline of her income. She would eat just one meal a day to ensure that she could feed me three. She wore black for seven years following Dad’s passing, saying, “It is much cheaper and elegant.” It didn’t take long for me to understand that it not only saved money, but also enabled her to repel marriage proposals.
During childhood, I had more than my fair share of health issues. The worst was when I temporarily lost my vision after a failed eye surgery. During those “dark” days, my mother did not despair; she diligently read many storybooks to me and made me focus on the day when I would read them with my own eyes. She reassured me that I would remember those days as “happy days.” She was absolutely right.
Moreover, she created a cultural refuge for me at home, in the once leafy suburb of Cairo, Heliopolis. An in-home summer camp, taught me piano, introduced me to opera and classic music, and got me a membership in the almost deserted culture centre and public library. She introduced me to the world of Charles Dickens, Jane Austin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, the Bronte sisters, Naguib Mahfouz, and a long, long list of others.
Both my mother and I were feminists by necessity. With her hard work and creative improvisations, while also embracing endless DIY jobs to save money, we eventually overcame numerous hardships and challenges. However, her quest to survive single-motherhood while maintaining her beliefs and way of life had its hidden costs. She could not afford to mingle with the rich and decadent elite; she could also not integrate with the increasingly conservative middle and working class.
Yet she remained undeterred, as always. She embraced unorthodoxy and resisted any attempt to mould herself or her daughter into the traditional Egyptian life. At the same time, however, she built and maintained strong relationships with colleagues and neighbours, who admired her discipline, hard work, straight talk, and impeccable time management.
I used to think the tenacious lady who raised me against all the odds would defy death as well. After all, she had witnessed most of Egypt’s modern turbulent events, from the collapse of the monarchy to the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s president Morsi, and adapted to all of them with astounding resilience. Not even Alzheimer’s could take away her determination. Her tears were precious; she shed few tears following the dismantling of Heliopolis tram.
However, in the end, it was Covid that brought her remarkable life to an end. Such an exceptional woman would never have left this life in an ordinary year.