Crisp paper, velvet and her low, gentle voice ...
by Nazli Islam (granddaughter)

Crisp paper, velvet and her low, gentle voice: those are the things I remember of the many afternoons I spent with my grandmother when she’d pick me up from the kindergarten I went to in Zamalek and holding my hand the entire way, take me to her home.

I would rush through the lunch she had prepared for me so I could move from the small square table in her living room to the dark velvet couch where I’d breathlessly wait as she reached up for an enormous volume from her bookshelf. Its green cover had letters embossed in gold and to this day I think of it as the largest book I’ve ever seen.

Simply dressed in black trousers and a black or white blouse, she would sit delicately on the couch, her light frame barely making a dent. I would curl up next to her as, unhurried, her mesmerizing voice would transform the small black type I couldn’t decipher into the travels of brilliant children crossing oceans in big ships full adventure. Sometimes she taught me card games, and we played chess. I don’t remember her ever reprimanding me for any of the many mistakes I must have made.

I remember too, the white cake with pigeons that I once shyly pointed out to her in Simmonds the pastry shop. Magically she understood. From then on she made sure I had it on every birthday along with the eyeglass-shaped pastry lunettes that I still love only because they remind me of Anna Doria.  

As we were growing up, it was mostly the anecdotes and tender moments of their youth my mother and my aunt shared with us her four grandchildren. Sitting around the lunch table, we loved listening to these grandma stories: Anna Doria’s first time driving, her quirky pronunciation of this or that word, and her persistently disastrous choice of grapes, “I handpicked them myself,” Anna Doria would always say, oblivious to her daughters’ giggling.

There was the time too, when as little children, my mother and aunt had baked a cake, and faced with the awful results, decided to pull a prank on their mother. “She was taking a shower, and we knocked on her door, Mummy Mummy…She put her head out, we told her to close her eyes and open her mouth…”

Though we were certainly aware of my grandmother’s special dream for Egypt, how hard she worked for it and what she accomplished, led by the inspiring example of her empathetic, strong and achieving daughters, we were encouraged to make our own choices and find our own ways, just as my grandmother did with her two daughters and as I suspect she would have liked for her grandchildren.

Decades after she turned those crisp white pages bursting with the joys of travel, I too ended up crossing an ocean and settling in a distant land. As is common for many immigrants, it is here that I found Egypt. It is here too that I understand how my grandmother’s own love for her country grew at a distance, as she wrote in a letter to her spiritual guide and mentor Hoda Sha’arawi from aboard the ship that first took her from Alexandria to Marseilles.

Faced with the challenges an adult woman encounters, I am always looking for my dear grandmother, wondering what she would have thought, how she would have advised me. She is always there when I need her, in a line of her poetry or in something I serendipitously find out she had said. Today I can fully appreciate the extent of her clarity, courage and strength. My awe grows as does my gratitude, not least for having brought to life my two mothers Jehane and Aziza.

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