14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Past presentProfile by Pascale Ghazaleh
Curled up by the window with a good book: then and now, some things stay the same
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For those who know Amina Rashid, it is difficult to imagine her featuring in a film -- Tahani Rached's Four Women of Egypt -- alongside Safynaz Kazem, Widad Mitri and Shahinda Maqlad. They are so outspoken, and she so retiring; they are so forceful, and she so -- well, if not timid, then yes, soft-spoken, always willing to let others have their say. But Amina speaks, and you listen. It is the timbre of her voice, perhaps, or her unwavering gaze; a flash of smile, and the kindness of her eyes when she listens to the others. Her friends. The same, yet very different.
Amina Rashid is comfortably ensconced in a worn armchair. The small flat surrounding her is almost dark. Outside, children are playing football. The hour is not yet late, but it is gloomy enough to turn on the lamp. She is lost in memories, though, and a cloud of cigarette smoke. The fingers that hold the cigarette -- no more than a butt, by now -- are strong and capable, punctuated by a few rings that do not seem to leave their owner. Their purpose does not seem to be adornment: Amina is not a woman one would associate with coquetry, although she has flashes of... inspiration, perhaps. A friend says of her that her appearance, like that of her home, is the result of a complete lack of concern: she could wear her grandmother's solitaire with a string of glass beads from the Khan, not because she wants to convey the impression of insouciance or bohemian chic, but because she really does not care: it simply occurred to her that such a combination would be pleasing. The flat, too, is a jumble of family heirlooms -- the treasures of a fallen aristocracy, though whether or not it fell, and how far, is still subject to debate -- and bric-a-brac accumulated over the years, the flotsam and jetsam of life: a table that pitched up here, a sofa that sags comfortably beneath shelves laden with books.
Let us say it from the outset: Amina Rashid, professor of French literature at Cairo University, is the granddaughter of Ismail Sidqi Pasha. Sidqi may be dead, but she is still his granddaughter -- always will be. It is like a curse, yes. She begins any account of her life -- even the fragments she has begun, at last, to write -- with the episode that seems to have marked it forever. It is set in a schoolyard. The year is 1946, or perhaps 1947 -- she remembers that she was eight or nine. There is a little girl -- Amina. There is another little girl in the yard, and she is pelting Amina with stones. She is shouting: shouting that Amina's family are collaborators, that her grandfather is a traitor. And Amina feels, besides the rage and humiliation and hurt at having been singled out so unfairly -- a sense of guilt, yes, because she knows of the people outside the garden of the palatial family home in Hilmiyyat Al-Zatoun.
In July 1946, according to any standard textbook account of this incident -- not as Amina Rashid lived it, but as political history was to record it -- then Prime Minister Sidqi had hundreds of intellectuals, political and labour activists, students, and professionals rounded up on charges of Communist activity. He ordered the dissolution of 11 political, cultural and labour organisations; he had left-wing and Wafdist publications closed down. Having disposed thus of the opposition, Sidqi flew to London in October to resume withdrawal negotiations.
Amina Rashid does not speak of this aspect of the story in any detail. Perhaps she presumes her listeners know it well -- as well as she must have come to know it, later, trying to sift through the confusion, the hurt, the guilt, too; trying to understand. For now, she speaks of the garden. It is a quiet, tranquil place, where little Amina walks with her grandfather, when he is not busy attending to Anglo-Egyptian treaties and other affairs of state. He tells her the names of different flowers, holds her hand, and talks to her. On Sundays, the family assembles in the Sidqi apartment in Zamalek for lunch. All the children troop into his study, where he is sitting, working, and he gives them chocolates, admonishing them not to tell their grandmother, who will accuse him of spoiling their appetite. They spend quarter of an hour with him -- just enough time to fall under the spell of his charm. "A charming man, with an extraordinary smile" -- that is how Amina describes her grandfather. "A traitor" -- that is what the children at school have heard he is. When it comes time to choose, it seems, Amina chooses to take her childhood and put it away, in a corner, untouched but no longer relevant.
Somewhere, there is a picture of Amina sitting on the terrace of the family house. She is wearing a full skirt, which is spread out on her lap. She looks like a princess. She gave the picture to someone who was writing something about her, and has not yet retrieved it. This lack of attachment to memory made tangible is odd in a woman so single-minded: she will brook distraction graciously, but once the story has started it must be told, and told the way she wants to tell it. Here is something left over, perhaps, from Amina Rashid's past: the exquisite politeness that belongs to her entirely. Her voice is grave, and very low. At one time, it would have been described as well modulated. It is not a façade, not a mask of courtesy she puts on for visitors. She is so discreet as to be almost apologetic. But what is she apologising for?
"I will start at the beginning, by going back to my early childhood. It was a very beautiful house in Hilmiyyat Al-Zatoun, in a popular district. I grew up with the image of this contrast: we had balls, teas, birthdays, dances in the garden, and around us this misery. There was a carpenter and his wife, they lived in the neighbourhood, and I was friends with their daughter. My parents did not approve of this friendship." Despite the surrounding beauty -- the fairy-tale life, the rustling dresses -- Amina grew up with "a sadness" in her heart. She feels sure, today, that this sadness was the fruit of the contrast between her life, behind those high walls, and the world outside. She believed, then, that she had been born elsewhere; that her family did not belong to her, nor she to them. All the children lived together, in one wing of that big house, in quarters overseen by an army of nannies: Austrian or Italian, women who tidied Amina's braids and made sure her dress was ironed before she went, early in the evening, to pay the ritual visit to her parents. Their world was that of grown-ups: for her mother, charity work in the morning ("to which she went every day, as though to a real job"), card games in the afternoon, balls or dinner parties in the evening. As a very small girl, Amina felt her absence sharply, and dreamed of a kind, penniless mother who would darn her children's clothes lovingly by the light of a gas lamp. These dreams were nourished by the stories one of her aunts told her, stories like The Little Match-Girl. "When she told me these stories, I felt that my life was flooded with light. I loved these stories, with the mother mending clothes. I felt that this was real life, that life in that great house was unreal. I lived with the nostalgia of a poor mother..."
Little by little, the blurred edges between these two lives -- the life Amina Rashid could glimpse in stories and the world outside, and the life she lived, as if by mistake -- began to grow sharper. The contrast took a political form, she says. The transition to activism was smooth, both because political discussions had echoed in her ears since earliest childhood, and because her cousins were already members of communist organisations. She was required to sever even the ties of language that had bound her to childhood in the big house, where French was "the language of culture, of books and music", and Arabic "the language used to address the servants, or the language the men spoke when discussing politics".
She plunged into her new life of secret meetings and clandestine pamphlets with relish, and a zeal born of her overwhelming sense of guilt -- "a sense that we were wrong, and the people were right; that there was a struggle going on against the British occupation and that, although I supported this struggle, was like a foreigner in my own country." She learned Arabic by reading political tracts on agrarian reform and the plight of the working class.
During her last year of school, in 1954, she joined a communist party; her clandestine political experience did not last long. In 1959, many of her friends and fellow activists were rounded up and thrown in prison. She was not arrested, but little by little a stagnation beset those who remained; "people were frightened." In 1960, her father was arrested, but on very different charges: accused of spying for the US, he was given 10 years. "When the police came to get him, my parents thought they were coming to arrest me. My brother had discovered pamphlets in my desk..." By 1961, Rashid had obtained a scholarship and left for France, intending to study comparative literature. She stayed for 15 years.
This was not an easy time. "I have said that my family was very well-off, but at this time we had many debts. My father was a very ambitious man -- not calculating, but someone who followed his desires. His family were among those who had emerged in 1919 -- the liberal professions. He was a lawyer, and worked in my grandfather's office." He also seems to have been uneasy with the status of 'Ismail Sidqi's daughter's husband'. Certainly, though, the Sidqi name was impossible to ignore; Amina's mother and aunts dominated, inescapably. "Ultimately, we were brought up in the Sidqi environment." Amina's father may have tried to live up to this impossible challenge, to assert himself. The most obvious way was by making money, and he tried, always failing. "He would play cards with the king, for stakes set by the king, so he lost tremendous amounts of money. My mother would tell him to refuse, but he was weaker -- he gave in more. After the agrarian reform, we fell on hard times: my mother had very few needs, she could wear the same dress all year round, but she did not know how to live on less money than they had had."
In France, therefore, Rashid lived the life of a penniless student. She immersed herself in cinema, theatre, but especially politics: demonstrations, meetings, the formation of an Arab students' organisation, internationalism and Third World solidarity. In 1967, she was involved in a campaign to make known the full story of the war. Amidst such an effervescence of activity, she began at last to "find herself" -- which, for Rashid, means "to feel Egyptian, not that I was aping the French". Why was it so important, this quest for self-definition? Her answer is elliptical: again, she has gone over this again and again, so many times that any explanation is superfluous. "Well, I wanted to define myself, because I rejected my environment, I idealised the people, people who spoke Arabic."
She received her Doctorat d'Etat from the Sorbonne in 1976; the (dauntingly erudite) subject was the Arabs' contribution to mediaeval European thought, literary genres and religious polemic. In Paris, too, she married Rushdi Rashed. She will say little about these years. They had a son, Marwan, who lives in Paris now, having taken the arduous path of the Grandes Ecoles with evident aplomb.
As for Rashid, she returned to Cairo eventually, to teach at Cairo University. She loves teaching, enjoys it immensely. Here, she has found -- well, perhaps not reconciliation, exactly, but some peace of mind. She may have found, at last, the "other life" she chose, aged nine, in the schoolyard, not knowing then quite what it was -- but found it on her own terms.
Returning was no easy, obvious choice, however. It took her two or three years to decide. Her son would remain in France; she had won a plum post at the National Centre of Scientific Research. Here, her ties, her friends, her political work beckoned. Finally, when she made the decision, it was the feeling "of belonging here, and not there" that won out. She has never regretted it, despite the difficulties she faced. Surely not material difficulties? "Oh no. I had no money, but I reveled in that. I didn't mind poverty, I didn't mind taking the bus. But - Egypt had changed, and I had changed. I discovered that what people said and what they did, what they did and what they were: that these were not always one and the same."
She married Sayed El-Bahrawi, a colleague from university, thereby realising her lifelong dream "of belonging to the people". For the first time, she feels, she has a home of her own -- "marked neither by the luxury of my parents' house, nor by an extreme poverty I could not have withstood forever". She feels she has established a new family. But she feels (as she always has, perhaps) that she will always be this way: the same, yet different. Together, yet apart.
So if anguish grips her, if depression is lurking at the door -- she cites Montaigne with a small smile: "I have never had troubles an hour of reading could not make me forget." Even now, when she is distressed, she will turn to one of the books she loves, just for the comfort of knowing it is there: Flaubert, probably, or Dostoevsky. She has her teaching, too. She tries to speak to her students of "things that matter to them." She tries to draw them out, to engage them. Last year, she gave a lecture on the idea of the other for the first time. "It was surprisingly successful. They could relate to this: all of them have family abroad, few of them know exactly why they are here, studying literature in a language they do not necessarily master, for a purpose that is not immediately clear. And many of them idealise this language, but the ideal remains unattainable."
She has been working for years on a book, publishing others along the way: most recently, The Fragmentation of Time in the Modern Novel, a study of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, Marguerite Duras's The Lover and Sonallah Ibrahim's The Smell of It. "I examined the difference between the way European intellectuals experience time -- as agony, as a rigid, compartmentalised series of spaces -- and how we experience it here, our difficult relation to history." Past and present, the same, yet different, together, yet apart: these are not necessarily the poles of impossible choices. Years ago, the sounds of the street outside reached the small girl in the vast, luxuriant garden. Amina Rashid pushed open the gate and stepped out into the world. But she can still hear the wind playing through the leaves.