Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 April 2004
Issue No. 687
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


Fatma Zaki (1921-2004) -- Red rose of Cairo

It is very difficult to write the obituary of a person you have known all your life. For me, Fatma Zaki is Auntie Fatma, my mother's schoolmate and university colleague since the 1930s and her best friend of the past 70 years. I grew up on stories of how Fatma had succeeded in persuading Ali Mustapha Pasha Moushrafa, the renowned Egyptian mathematician and Dean of the Faculty of Science at Fouad I University (renamed Cairo University after 1952), to admit some ten young women to the Faculty of Science in the 1940s, thereby opening new vistas for Egyptian women who at the time rarely pursued higher education, with the few who did either applying to women's colleges or studying arts.

And though the story of how my mother, Auntie Fatma and their friends were encouraged by Moushrafa Pasha to study science, and how science was the future of humanity, was a fixture of my formative years, perhaps in the hope that I would follow suit -- something I did not do to the dismay of both my parents and Auntie Fatma -- there were more things that I grew up loving about Auntie Fatma than her talent in persuading Moushrafa Pasha. For she was also an accomplished sports woman, who started with track and field sports and later became a member of the Egyptian National Fencing Team as well as captain of the Ahli Women's Basket Ball Team.

She was also, as I realised later, a militant communist, who was deft at dodging the Political Police, the pre-1952 State Security apparatus. She used to tell us, laughing as she did so, how in the late 1940s she had been arrested with a printing press belonging to some underground organisation in her possession, but had managed to come out unscathed by persuading the police that she knew nothing about the machine and had arrived in the place where the arrests took place by mistake. Much later, however, when I asked her how the police could possibly have let her go, having caught her red-handed, she laughingly explained that it had not been her skills in persuasion that had got her out of this difficult situation so much as the fact that one of her comrades of the time, who was also risking arrest, was the son of an important Pasha and cabinet minister.

In fact, I later discovered quite a few things of this sort about Auntie Fatma, especially when I began to develop an interest in the history of the Egyptian communist movement and the national liberation struggle in the post World War II period. It turned out that Fatma had also been among the first group of Egyptian women to join the communist movement in the early 1940s, a movement that until then had been the exclusive preserve of men and of a few women from foreign backgrounds.

As with the first women students at the Faculty of Science, Fatma Zaki's is the first name that comes to mind when thinking of the history of Egyptian women in the communist movement, but then the Faculty of Science and communism in the 1940s often seem to be synonymous, as many of the leaders of the communist organisations of the time were either the staff or students of that faculty.

In 1946, while still a university student, Fatma Zaki was elected to the National Committee for Workers and Students, formed after unrest had swept Egypt and demonstrations demanding "evacuation" of British troops had become a daily occurrence. After graduating from university, and while a science teacher at Saniya High School, she continued her underground political activities, as well as her public ones in many associations advocating democracy and women's rights, foremost among them the right to vote, something Egyptian women acquired in 1957. In the same year, Fatma Zaki married Ahmed-Nabil El-Hilali, a lawyer whose principled stands in defence of the disenfranchised and of prisoners of conscience have earned him the respect of all Egyptians, both friends and foes, so much so that today El-Hilali is the one uncontested legend of the Egyptian left.

Both Fatma and Nabil went to Nasser's concentration camps during the famous campaign against the communists in 1958. Upon their release in 1964, they returned to public and political life, Nabil opening his law firm -- part of a prestigious group established by his father, the late Naguib Pasha El-Hilali, prime minister of Egypt on the eve of the 1952 Revolution -- and defending workers and prisoners of conscience free of charge, and Fatma, now banned from teaching because of her background, dedicating her time to political organisation and advocacy for women's rights.

Up to the very last weeks of her life, when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in late January this year, Fatma and Nabil could be found at almost every political gathering or rally of note in this country. Whether speaking from the rostrum or sitting in the auditorium listening, Fatma never missed the chance to talk, with all her characteristic animation of spirit, to the people around her about her abiding passions: national liberation, democracy and social justice. The last time I saw her before she entered hospital was in December 2003 at the Cairo Conference in Solidarity with the Iraqis and the Palestinians, which hosted numerous international anti-war groups and public figures, among them the veteran British Labour politician Tony Benn.

Fatma sat through the entire two-day conference, listening carefully to every word, commenting at intervals on the various speeches, arguing heatedly about what she agreed with and what she disagreed with in what was being said. She was trying to articulate a principled stand that would oppose the foreign occupation of Iraq, while at the same time opposing the fascist regime of Saddam. On the second day of the conference Saddam was arrested, and we both talked about how we would have loved to see him brought to justice at the hands of the Iraqi people and not the American occupation.

Her family, friends and relations will miss Fatma Zaki sorely, but she will also be missed by the thousands and thousands of Egyptians from different generations who grew up and entered political activism seeing this septuagenarian and then octogenarian woman at almost every political event, be it a rally for democracy, for women's rights or in solidarity with peoples oppressed by military dictatorship, colonialism or occupation, from Chile to South Africa to Iraq, and always, always at any event in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Fatma Zaki born in Cairo in Dec. 1921, died at the Nile Badrawi Hospital in Cairo on Wednesday, April 14, 2004. She is survived by her husband Ahmed-Nabil El-Hilali.

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