Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 March - 5 April 2000
Issue No. 475
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Martha Roy
A woman of substance who knows exactly what she wants, she had decided a long time ago, and made up her mind to stay... and she did
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Martha Roy:

A hymn on the Nile

Profile by Moushira Abdel-Malek

"Egypt is home! I know no other home!" says Dr Roy, or Martha, as I call her, whenever asked the ever posed question by everybody, if she had ever thought of leaving Egypt to America. She declares it with a deep sense of belonging to the Egyptian soil and to the country she loved most, and where she spent all her life. Asking her this question myself, anticipating her answer, she replies with a very quick, definite and sharp "NO!" that surprised me at its swiftness. She knows what she wants and she is quite comfortable with the modest life arrangement she got used to years and years ago.

Martha RoyBorn in Tanta, Egypt, of an American father and mother, Martha Roy has lived here in Egypt for the past 87 years, totally rejecting even the thought of going back to America, her native country.

In her tiny one-bedroom apartment in Zamalek, I went to visit Martha, known among our family as such. Ever since my childhood, I knew her as one of my father's most intimate and dear friends, and the closest to my aunts. They were friends when my family lived in Damanhour back in the '30s, and where Martha was teaching in a missionary school over there, and along the banks of the River Nile, she used to go out with my aunts for picnics on Saturdays, where they used to spread their picnic table-cloth and their sandwich basket, at the edge of the canal, and my father, the youngest of all, would hop around them having fun. Sometimes they would all go for a walk in the fields, among the crops and greenery. "I'll never forget those good old days," says Martha reminiscing. She then fetches some old photos which she cherishes, and shows them to me, pointing at the people who were then so young and lively, giving that 'see how cruel the wheel of time is' look!

In her 2 x 2 metre reception area, crammed to the ceiling with books; with piles and piles filling every nook and corner; mainly musical, and under a long lampshade, there was good old Martha, sitting on her comfortable rocking chair, with her immaculate white short hair, round her tiny face, like a halo of a saint. She stood up gracefully to fetch me a chair, refusing to offer me hers, showing her slim tall figure, which I had often admired, since I was a little girl.

An American, living in Egypt all her life, honoured by Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the '60s, and donated the Decoration of Excellence, second degree, by Anwar El-Sadat, then vice-president, and who lived for 20 years in Luxor, teaching young children about their heritage, then 15 years teaching girls at the American College for Girls, in Cairo, now known as Ramses College, adamantly insists to stay here without any hesitation. "In America, when I go there to visit, I do not know my way around. I do not know how to use telephones, send telegrams or even move around. Here I can get all my things done. Egypt is home."

It all started when Martha's parents came to Egypt. Her father had graduated from a college in the United States, and was sent by the American missionaries then that were envoys to Egypt and to the Sudan at that time. He came to teach at the Ezbekiya Boys' School in Cairo, for three years, then he went back to America, to join the Presbyterian Theological Institute, in Ohio, where he had graduated. He then married her mother and came back to Egypt. They lived in Alexandria at that time, and on 27 March 1913, Martha was delivered in the American Hospital at Tanta -- which is still there up till now -- because there was no American hospital in Alexandria at that time. Martha had her primary and preparatory education in Alexandria, at the Lycée Français, in Al-Attarin. Later on, an American School at Schutz was inaugurated, where her father taught, and where she had finished her high school studies: "I loved the French language ever since, and acquired a special interest in it. The paradox was that I had failed the English exam at that time, because I had a British lady teaching me English, who did not like Americans, and had insisted that I'd read with an English accent, which I couldn't do. So she had me fail the exam."

Music to Martha was an inborn talent. She took piano lessons at the Schutz School for Girls, Alexandria, and was sent to America as a little girl, for a scholarship to study piano academically. Consequently, she began to major in music among her many other studies.

After finishing her school education, Martha went for four years to America for her undergraduate studies. She had her BA in music and French at Muskingam University in Ohio. She then had her Master's degree, also in music and French, from Columbia University, after which she immediately returned to Egypt, to teach in Luxor for 20 years. She taught little girls music, English and French. She taught them Egyptian folkloric music, including songs of the Egyptian heritage, she had collected herself, like Bafta Hindi, and many others. "Music is very elusive," says Martha. "Once it is gone, it is gone forever." Asking her about Pharaonic music which she had come to know much about, living such a long period of time in Luxor, she comments: "Pharaonic music, as transcribed, was only dancing or clapping, or just an expression of singing. It was also instrumental, but no form of ritual music was ever portrayed. You can tell this by the throats drawn on their paintings and engravings. But the tunes are lost. We have never heard and will never hear Pharaonic tunes. There are no scores except in Upper Egyptian funerals, where you hear women singing the lamentation or the Ta'did, lamenting the deceased, and they sang it in a language that I did not know. It wasn't Arabic; it was some syllables and words that came from the past. What past? We don't know. That was the heritage coming from ancient Egyptian and which has not died. I have some recordings of it." Intrigued by her explanation, I concluded then that if lamenting or Ta'did was the theme of Pharaonic tunes, then the Pharaohs must have been always sad! Martha explained knowledgeably: "No, not sad, because to them music was neither sad nor glad. It was not an expression of the emotions. It was an expression of their appreciation of the deceased. They did not think anything about the music; whether happy or not. It was what the music said that was important. Death in itself did not have to be a sad event. The loss and separation only caused sadness, but death in itself was not; they believed in incarnation."

I asked her to tell me more about the 20 years she had dedicated to teaching in Luxor. "Luxor is a very rich place, full of so many artefacts, so many engravings and paintings of the ancient Egyptian daily life," she recalls passionately. "The tombs of the kings and queens often describe the religious life of the people, but the tombs of the nobility really aim at the pictures of how the people used to live, what they did, what their houses were like, what they planted and what they did during their social life. The whole issue was very interesting and we used to take the students from the girls' school, class by class, to visit the temples of the west, and the Karnak Temple."

During that period of her life, many of her students had neither running water in their homes, nor electricity. They lived in huts or eshash , as Martha so Arabically pronounced the letter ain. She could be the only American who, amazingly, when stuck with a word, is saved by her Arabic faster than by her English! Martha Roy's 20 years in Luxor were only interrupted for one year she spent at Columbia University, in the US, to sit for her Master's degree, which she had obtained in music education. When she came back to Egypt, this degree qualified her to teach music at the Helwan University's Faculty of Music. During that period, she translated a French book into English on Debussy, the French composer, making use of her two majors: French and music. Unfortunately, the book was never published. Martha then spent a whole year doing her doctorate studies in Coptic music.

Martha Roy
'Coptic music can express praise and worship to God. I find it restful and it gives me the sense of the presence of God: His grandeur and His assurance of His Existence'
After the 20 years in Luxor, Martha Roy was appointed deputy principal at the American College for Girls, now called Ramses College. For 15 years she worked hand in hand with Helen J Martin, then Sarah Maloy, and finally with the renowned educationalist Reda Salama. "It was then that I was studying Arabic as a language. I went to different churches in Egypt to learn Arabic and hear Arabic. Having many Egyptian friends around was of great help. I accompanied your father, Samuel Abdel-Malek, on the piano, when he conducted his choir several times at the American University in Cairo's Ewart Memorial Hall, at the All Saints' Cathedral, and at Saint Andrew's Church in Cairo, on Good Friday," she recalled.

Martha Roy taught at the American College for Girls, besides her administrative post. "I taught ethics," she stated, a topic that exists no more, in our days! She was loved and respected by all her students, her colleagues and supervisors. "She was always there for everybody, holding up her serene manner of speech and her assuring smile, yet her firm attitude well exerted. We never allowed ourselves to upset her," reflects my mother, one of her former students. Youssriya Loza Sawiris, the renowned MP, and one of the pioneers in the zabbalin project, a good friend of Martha and one of her students, believes that "Dr Roy is a constitution in herself. She has the spirit of diligence, truth and commitment to whatever endeavour she takes upon herself. To us students of the American College for Girls, she represented discipline through respect. Dr Roy contributed to bringing up generations of successful women. She is a knowledgeable, effective and active person. There's much to learn from her. In short she is a gem!"

Mona Guindy, manager of hotel services at Al-Salam Hospital in Mohandessin, remembers Martha with love and admiration: "As her students, we all loved her, respected her, and dared not annoy her. She had this peculiar combination of kindness and firmness which put us all in our right place." Mary Massoud, professor of English and comparative literature, former head of the English department at Ain Shams University's Faculty of Arts, and also a close friend of Martha, thinks that "she is a unique lady, gifted in many ways, and yet very modest. I am fortunate to have known her and worked with her closely. Martha is a walking encyclopedia about Egypt. I love and appreciate her tremendously."

As for philanthropist Buthayna Farid, former assistant dean at the Faculty of Music Education, Helwan University, professor of musicology, and Martha's companion for years, as well as her former student, declares that "Martha never says no. She extends her help to anybody in need. She is loved most in the faculty by the students, who always consult her in their post-graduate studies. She always helps them with their theses and never lets any of them down. She is always there for all of them. I appreciate her love for them and for me. Martha has done, and still does a lot for me personally, and I shall be ever grateful to her."

The link between Martha and most of her students has never been discontinued. Her various and numerous philanthropic, social and religious activities keep her constantly in touch with them; cooperating, participating and giving a hand, in all they do for Egypt, regardless of the effort that can be hectic for people of even half her age.

Martha visited other places than Luxor in Upper Egypt: Assiut and Qena, for instance; and she made close friends with the Ebeid family, one of the famous and well reputed families of Egypt. Her relationship with the Coptic mass, 'Guddas' , as Martha pronounces it, goes back to the '50s. "The old Guddas in the small villages of the south of Egypt had tunes and melodies different from those of the churches of the north. At that time in Luxor, there was a church on top of a big hill in front of the Temple of Luxor. When they tore the hill down, to pave the way for the Rams' Path -- Sikkat Al-Kebash -- the church was ruined and the priest was gone; where? I don't know. There they held the southern performance of the Guddas, but now it's gone. President Nasser came and visited our school at that time, when I acquired this interest in collecting songs of Egyptian Coptic Guddas; and thus I visited many Coptic churches through the help of Bishop Samuel," reminisces Martha.

In 1967, before she left for her master's studies to America, Martha had asked Bishop Samuel if she could study some Coptic hymns, to which he had agreed. So she took along with her to the United States a few records that she had transcribed. She began to study the transcription, and that was the beginning. She then had to know what those songs had meant, what their message conveyed, and thus she began to study the Coptic language and Coptic history with the renowned Coptic historian, Shaker Bassilios, at the High Institute for Coptic Studies. Soon, Martha had mastered her Coptic language, and then she extended her studies to liturgy; which included the basic elements of what the Coptic Guddas meant, what the readings meant and what the prayers meant. In other words, she studied the fundamentals of Coptic prayers and rituals. This enabled the renowned Martha Roy to teach liturgy at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo, ever since and up till now.

Honoured by a doctorate degree from Muskingam University in Ohio, Martha Roy was unable to spend more than six years of her life in the United States, and away from Egypt: four during her undergraduate studies, one for her master's degree and one year of doctorate studies, then back again to the land she calls "home" and back to stay.

After her 15 years with the American College for Girls, Roy worked for 10 years under the Middle East Council of Churches. During that period she had studied Middle Eastern music: Coptic, Syriac, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Catholic, Armenian and Jewish music. She studied the body of liturgy and of church music; what they had in common, their purpose, and the differences between them. "For 10 years I worked in the field of general elements and contents of worship: what the worshipers say, do, think, and how we can help leaders of churches to know and comprehend such elements. Singing is not just opening the mouth and saying things. In Protestant churches, hymns are Western melodies that do not mean anything to Egyptians. For instance, American missionary teachers teach Western music to schoolchildren, who need to learn about their own heritage rather than that of the West. They eventually turn with no appreciation to their roots of the Egyptian music."

In 1967, after fulfilling her studies in Coptic hymns, in the United States, Martha Roy returned to Egypt, adamantly heading to none other than Ragheb Muftah, director of the department of music and hymns at the Coptic Institute of Higher Studies in Cairo, to teach her Coptic music. Mastering both the Coptic music and language, Martha collaborated with Muftah and Margit Toth, a Hungarian musicologist, and compiled the Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of Saint Basil (with complete musical transcription), published by the American University in Cairo Press in 1998. This book was a 10-year project for the three of them. Muftah compiled it, Margit Toth transcribed the music, and Martha Roy edited the text into English and Arabic. This unique publication contains all Coptic liturgies ever sung melodies. Tunes which have been only orally passed from one generation to another, with no instrumental accompaniment, except for the naquus (small hand cymbals), and the metal triangle, the trianto. The entire Coptic musical heritage, for the first time in the Coptic Church's history, has been compiled, transcribed, translated and edited into English and Arabic. Such a rich heritage, 20 centuries old, has finally been salvaged by those unique three; an event blessed and welcomed by Pope Shenouda III.

Martha Roy's contribution to the Coptic musical heritage extends to other wide realms of success. She has collected and recorded the music of the Holy Passion Week of Christ in different Coptic churches in Egypt; the Cathedral, Saint Peter's Church, and many others. These recordings, thanks to her, are now in the Archives of Records at the University of Indiana in the US, one of the greatest religious music archives in the world. "Coptic music," states Martha, "is second to no other religious music. It is unique. Its melodies are within only a five-tone range; all melodiously manipulated to give this wide range of melodies. I think it is miraculous, having so little melodic matter to deal with, and still Coptic music can express praise and worship to God. I find it restful and it gives me the sense of the presence of God: His grandeur and His assurance of His existence."

I left Martha alone -- but not lonely -- in her rich world of books and music.

Photos: Sherif Sonbol

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