Reminescences and Reflections
by Jehane Ragai (daughter)
As a child I remember our house in Garden City in front of the Nile river, it was a small apartment but with a touch of elegance and sobriety. I remember, the beauty and glamour of my mother which touched me even at a very tender age and the sense of pride and joy I felt towards her when she would come back from work in her usual elegant and impressive demeanor bestowing upon me a great deal of affection and tenderness.
Doria believed that to improve their status in Egypt, it was essential for women in Egypt to have the right to vote and to occupy a good number of seats in parliament thereby ensuring they were not subject to laws introduced by men. She strongly believed that it was an essential priority that women become fully literate without which they could neither become fully aware of their rights nor be able to make a significant contribution to their society.
Mummy was quite friendly with the sisters of King Farouk but criticized Farouk’s excesses and failures. She was initially pleased with General Naguib and the promises of a ruling democracy with greater social justice for the country but then was very disillusioned by Nasser’s rampant dictatorship. Following the abdication of Farouk she continued her activities with the Bent el Nil Union but eventually all her activities were stopped following her second hunger strike.
Aziza my sister and I were raised in a very free way as compared to other children of our age. We felt a great deal of trust on the part of both our parents and therefore without needing close supervision, we made sure to behave in a manner that would be respectable and responsible. Mummy taught us the importance of ethical behavior (as her own standards were very high) and how unimportant it was to pursue material possessions. She also taught us the importance of compassion and what it meant to have dignity. As a mother she certainly believed in absolute love for her children. She would always say that her love for me and Aziza was an absolute and infinite love which never expected anything in return.
I remember once coming home in tears with a school report I wasn’t happy with. Instead of chastising me for my poor performance she was tender, encouraging and comforting, telling me that it was not important and that next time I would certainly do better. Her attitude encouraged me to pull my act together and to do very well the next time around.
Another very memorable day is when I woke up one morning and saw mummy all dressed up and I asked her where she was going and she answered “maybe one day you will understand but what I shall do is to try and save Egypt from a definite dictatorship”. That was when she went on to carry out on her own, her second hunger strike against Nasser’s increasingly dictatorial behavior. I do not know why but I remember rushing to the kitchen and taking biscuits to give her before she stepped into the elevator.
A third memorable moment was when I was visiting her just one day before her death, and she was feeling somewhat depressed.While she was eating a light lunch that I had prepared, she asked me: “I hope all what I did was not useless Jehane, I don’t know why but I wonder what is going to happen to me”. I told her that what she did for Egypt and for Egyptian women would certainly have a lasting effect and would never be forgotten and that as long as I was around I would always make sure that nothing ever happened to her. At that moment I gave her a turquoise ring that I was wearing and told her;“please wear it as a good luck charm” (she always said that I brought her good luck). She then exclaimed: I adore you Jehane because you are my soul!
At home (we had moved to a larger flat in Zamalek), there were two different periods in mummy’s life: Before her house arrest she never indulged in any house work, understandably because of her very busy activities, and the house was run by a European housemaid and a number of servants. On Fridays we generally had a special family meal which was attended by my father, mother, myself and Aziza, as well as by some invited friends. The atmosphere was generally pleasant and cordial.
After her house arrest and divorce she spent a lot of time alone either in her bedroom or in her study. She would spend hours reading or writing and led a very simple and frugal life. She particularly liked to walk on the banks of the river Nile, and would tell me “the Nile keeps me company”.
My mother and father were distant cousins and got to know each other more closely when they met in Paris. My mother working on her PhD thesis at the Sorbonne and my father also doing his doctorate in law at the University of Paris. Because of his excellent academic achievements at Cairo university, my father had received a King Fouad award that enabled him to pursue his studies abroad. They married in Paris and remained married for almost thirty years but then their relationship ended by a divorce. I certainly think that mummy loved my father greatly and recognized that he was an exceptional man. He was generally quite supportive of her and dealt with her political activities as best he could but there were certainly many moments when they disagreed.
It would be hard for me to define mummy’s personality as she was truly multifaceted. Some aspects particularly stand out however: she was defiant and passionate, shy and reserved, dignified, extremely sensitive and poetic, brilliant, courageous with a good sense of humour and an almost obsessive sense of mission.
Her defiance and courage could be related to many moments. A notable one was in her world tour when she apparently publicly chastised the president of Pakistan for having taken a second wife.
Ever since Doria was a child she felt a sense of mission. She wanted to study and to get the highest possible degree to find ways to serve her country. This ambition as well as her intrinsic passionate nature were directed towards her love for her country and her longing to serve it.
Her reserve and shyness were most apparent in her later years when for instance Mrs Morin, the old schoolmistress of the private French school we had attended returned to Egypt after many years of absence and asked to visit mummy. Her shy demeanor and reserve during the visit defined at that moment this aspect of her personality. Mummy behaved likewise when Ken Sing, the British professor who supervised my PhD thesis, also came to Egypt and visited her at home. I attribute the development of this aspect of her personality to her many years of isolation.
She always displayed a great dignity in her attitude to life and more so in her last years. In spite of being abandoned by all her friends and having very little money I don’t recall ever hearing her complain.
She had a great poetic inclination and sensitivity and I recall when she would sit with me and recite some of the favorite poems she had composed and tears would start filling her eyes.
She also never lacked a sense of humor especially when recounting to us some of her adventures one being related to her first driving experience.
Mummy had a great ability to focus, she would sit and write on her desk in her study room for hours on end. I used to buy her paper to encourage her to go on writing as I knew that she found this therapeutic.
Her greatest passion apart from writing was reading and what she most liked to do was to walk along the banks of the Nile, a river which was to her an inspiration and almost a companion.
She was a very intellectually curious person, always wanting to learn more and more about the world around her. Her greatest friends were her books and she had an impressive library with all sorts of topics. Unfortunately we did not give her books to a particular institution in her name as we should have in retrospect.
She read a lot the Koran and I would often ask her to read for me 40 times Sourat Yassin as I believed that protection and fulfillment of one’s wishes would ensue. In some of our conversation she would express her admiration for Jean Jaques Rousseau’s Social contract , especially the point which he makes expressing his belief that if a government exceeds the limits laid by the people, it is the mission of the people to cancel such government, and begin afresh. She also would always refer to Mohamed Hussein Heikal’s book as the best ever written on the life of the prophet Mohamed and would always allude to both the prophets Mohamed and Jesus Christ with awe and admiration. One document that seemed to have influenced her most in her political thoughts is the Magna Carta that she considered as the most extraordinary constitutional document of all times.
Ever since she was put under house arrest I always worried about her as she had been isolated, lonely, abandoned by her friends (some were afraid to have anything to do with her in view of Nasser’s police state and others claimed they were advised not to have contact with her).
However I felt that she was at peace with herself and concentrated on her readings and her writings. She dealt very stoically with her moments of sadness and I never heard her complain.
She was a wonderful grandmother and when she was allowed to go out of the house a couple of years after her house arrest, she would pick up Nazli my daughter from school (The Franciscaines which was close to her house) and would take her to Simmonds to buy her some cakes.They would then go home together where Nazli would be given a light lunch and mummy would read or tell her stories while (according to mummy) Nazli would listen avidly until the moment I would pick her up after I had finished my work at AUC where I taught chemistry.
During the last years of her life (except for possibly the last year where she began to feel depressed) Doria had reached a kind of mystical state and was very much at peace with herself. I do not believe she could hold grudges towards anyone. If others had at that time also opposed the military dictatorship that started with Nasser and lasted so many years, Egypt would not be in the state it is today!.