Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Focus Travel Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Pack of Cards Letters
Stories from the heartProfile by Rania Khallaf
The list of her accomplishments is impressive: books on English, particularly the novel, Arabic and comparative literature; many articles and research papers; the translation into Arabic of King Lear and Henry IV, into English of Naguib Mahfouz's Miramar. From 1972 to 1978, she was head of the English department at Cairo University. Last June, she received the coveted State Merit Award for arts and literature.
Although her life proves her strong, resilient character, she does not like to be described as rebellious. "I am not an old-fashioned woman. I do not easily fit the pattern; I simply do not conform with what I regard as unreasonable."
From the start, indeed, Moussa did not conform at all. She loved reading, but had little love for 'women's work'. "Of course my mother was a housewife, but she was not brought up to particularly feminine training. My grandmother died when my mother was very young; my mother was raised by her father and brothers. She was a very straightforward woman. I was the eldest child, and my parents treated me as a responsible, reasonable, important member of the family. There was no discrimination in our family. My mother did not have set ideas of what women should and should not do, except for morality and not showing off. As the eldest daughter, I learned to do the cooking very early -- actually, at the age of 11 -- and stood in for my mother when she was sick or had to go to hospital, which was quite often. But I did not like housework."
At school, Moussa discovered the love of her life. "I was a voracious reader. It was the only available means of entertainment. We did not go to the cinema or the theatre much. I first went to the opera with my mother, when I received opera tickets as a prize for my high marks at school. Going to the cinema meant that my father would take the whole family, and he was too busy." Moussa's father was a merchant; his shop still stands off Ataba Square. "I went to a very good secondary school, Princess Fawziya; its English library had over 6,000 books. My mother was keen on our getting an education. My father did not object as long as we did not cost him much money, and I always had merit scholarships," Moussa says proudly. So she devoured books from the English library, finding great pleasure free from any sort of censorship at home. No one in the family could read English, "except for my uncle, who lived in Alexandria." A burst of laughter again.
Had Moussa's parents discovered that she was reading novels most of the time, they would have punished her severely, believing as they did that such literature was "a waste of time that spoilt girls", she says. She did not like to go out much. Outings were mainly family visits. She read English, French and Russian novels, travel books, histories -- anything she could lay her hands on.
photos: Randa Shaath
"My mother came from Alexandria, my father from Upper Egypt. We did not live in an extended family, so they did not have the attitudes and traditions of a typical middle-class family." Moussa was therefore allowed to choose her career. She received top marks in her final exams in English and mathematics, and gained a scholarship, but had difficulty choosing between them. When she plumped for the Faculty of Arts, having decided to become a writer, a friend of her father, who worked in the Ministry of Education, exclaimed: "This is a career for men, not women! Are you going to be an effendi, Fatma?"
Although she graduated with first class honours, the English head of the department, when questioned on the prospect of her joining the staff, said the Egyptian University did not favour the appointment of women to teaching jobs. When the British teachers were told to stay at home for fear for their lives during the uprising of October 1951, with the trouble in the Canal Zone, Dr Rashad Rushdi ran the department. "I was appointed in January 1952, as the first woman demonstrator in the English department. Although I was married and had a daughter, I worked like mad. We all worked hard to prove that we, the Egyptian staff, could do the job. Many new appointments followed, men and women," she remembers.
Mustafa Soueif, whom she was to marry, was a graduate of the philosophy department, and was working on his MA in psychology. Her choice of husband was in line with Moussa's other decisions: "My parents were shocked that we were proposing to get married on very little money. We both knew what we wanted to do with our lives, and I did not care much about a bridal gift or jewellery. My family came round to see my point. They got to appreciate the seriousness of his character, and treated him with affectionate respect. We had a very small flat, with very little furniture and few electrical appliances. We worked hard, and read a great deal. It was certainly not a conventional marriage; when we were newly married, Dr Soueif's supervisor came to our flat for some reason, and found us each sitting in a corner, working. He asked in surprise: 'Do you spend all your evenings in this way?' Like many of our friends, we were trying to establish marital relationships between equals, based on respect, understanding, cooperation and love."
Egypt in the '50s was open to overwhelming changes. Moussa is disappointed, one senses, that this is no longer the case. "Now I see girls insisting on embarking on extravagant marriage plans at tremendous cost, often disregarding the importance of character, education and culture. All this is due to the consumerism and reactionary ideas rampant in society since the '70s. Young people are not prepared to do without any of the comforts they enjoyed in their parents' home."
The couple went to Britain on study leave. Moussa obtained a PhD in English literature from London University in 1957, and Soueif did post-doctoral work, obtaining a diploma in clinical psychology. It was pretty tough, particularly for her, with a small child and another on the way. "But I did it," she says proudly, "and in minimum regulation time, and came home with flying colours, a PhD, a new baby and another on the way."
When questioned about her children, Moussa says they did not necessarily all follow her example. "They have always had the freedom to choose, but they tend to be more sophisticated. My eldest daughter Ahdaf [author of the acclaimed In the Eye of the Sun], would not have started with modest furniture or anything of that sort. She is an artist, and will accept nothing but the best. She would rather go without than buy anything cheap or ugly," she explains. It is the same with her son Alaa, the youngest and "probably the brightest" of her children. "He has a mind of his own, and would not in any circumstances tread the beaten track."
Last June, Moussa became one of the very few women who have received the State Merit Award. Better late than never? "I understand why it has taken so long," she remarks. "I have been away for a long time, working in Saudi Arabia. Besides, in order to receive the award you have to be nominated by an official institution. In my case, it was Cairo University. Usually committee members do not remember their female colleagues. Certainly they would never remember a woman who is officially out of the country. So many women deserve the award, in medicine, literature, science, art... How come a distinguished painter like Gazbiya Sirry has not yet received it? I understand she has been nominated this year. It will be a good thing if she gets it. Lucky for her, it will probably be LE50,000, rather than five."
Moussa suggests that more vigorous campaigning would break those hidden barriers which seem to hold back the nomination of women. Women's organisations, she believes, have shown no interest in this respect. She deplores the lack of solidarity among these organisations. "One would expect that, after almost a century of women's education and repeated calls for their liberation, they would present a more united front."
Her generally outspoken opinions and liberated attitudes, one would imagine, cannot have gone down well in Saudi Arabia, where she was first seconded to teach in 1972, the year Saudi women were admitted to institutions of higher education. "I really had no problems there, but the experience was instructive. I chose not to renew my contract after the first year. But I am proud of the fact that I helped launch higher education for women in Saudi Arabia."
She did return, however, 10 years later, when she took up the post of professor of English in the Women's College of King Saud University in Riyadh. "I really enjoyed the time I spent there. My youngest son had graduated, my daughters were married, and I had the luxury of a little flat in an ultra-modern building all to myself, for the first time in my life. I never lost contact with my university here, and I came home regularly every two or three months for family or cultural events. I could afford to attend international conferences in Europe or the US, and finance any of my children's career or family projects. I would spend the summer vacations in London with Ahdaf and her family."
Ahdaf, her eldest daughter, is Moussa's "close friend"; like her mother, she studied English literature at Cairo University. She was one of Moussa's students, in fact, and would often complain that it was impossible for her to skip classes. She resembles her mother in many respects: "Just before her final secondary school exams, I used to see her reading. Then I discovered that she was reading novels from my library." Another daughter, Laila, teaches mathematics at Cairo University, and shares many of her mother's attitudes and ways of thinking: "She is a strong, outspoken woman, just like her mother." She, too, is a great reader of novels.
Fatma Moussa's numerous projects have not left her satisfied, at any rate. She would like to complete an important work she started during her PhD research, on the influence of Oriental tales on English literature. "I have so much material, it would be a shame not to publish it. But I have been fully occupied with work at the university and at the Higher Council for Culture. Everyone says I should write my autobiography, and I really would like to do so. I promised Ahdaf I would get started on that, after I finish the fifth and last volume of the encyclopedia of the theatre on which I have been working for years."
Books, then, are still her favourite companions. The walls are covered with them, and they seem to creep into all the rooms. There are many, she says, still stored in boxes she brought back from Riyadh. So have they helped her find herself? She looks up in surprise. "I have not been looking for myself. I have been too busy."