Gulperie Efflatoun Abdalla: Till death do us part and beyond
A little sparrow of a woman, she saunters through life undaunted. Gulperie Efflatoun is a writer and a poet and her talent is all her own although her emotions have been wrapped for over half a century around the great love of her life, her husband the world renowned economist Ismail Sabri Abdalla who died last month
By Fayza Hassan
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Bouli with her mother (centre) and her sister painter Inji Efflatoun; Bouli as a young woman in Paris and next to a late 1960s portrait of herself by Inji; Bouli with her husband Ismail Sabri Abdalla in the 1970s (far left); Bouli and Ismail while visiting Morocco in the 1980s
My beloved has left
To pay a courtesy call
And the light has died in our house,
wrote Gulperie Efflatoun alias "Bouli" or "Bambouli" in June 1955 after the Egyptian Intelligence Services arrested her husband Ismail Sabri Abdalla ("Isma" for Bouli) on suspicion that he belonged to the Communist Party. Hardly recovered from the shock of this brutal separation and having given thus expression to her deep anxiety, she decided that this was really not a time for melancholy and poetry writing. The delicate, pampered society young woman that she had been until her husband was detained transformed herself overnight into a ruthless fighter, launched onto a long and lonely road that led her from government institution to government institution, from jail to jail in the often frustrated hope of news of a release, permission for a visit or at least a fleeting glimpse of Isma, as the wrath of the regime descended upon hundreds of politically savvy Egyptians who had chosen not to bow to the constraints of their government.
The various episodes of Bouli's struggle to accompany Ismail Sabri Abdalla in his turbulent career which led him several times from the highest official positions to the status of political prisoner fill two of the three volumes of her memoirs. Her whole being was intimately tied to the fate of the man she loved more than life. To attempt to define her rich personality through her forced forays inside the Egyptian political and justice systems would, however, not do her justice.
Today in her 80s, she is a delightful lady, elegant, entertaining and possessed with a caustic sense of humour and a contagious laughter. She embodies the archetype of a disappearing breed, the accomplished, culturally sophisticated, and gently iconoclastic upper class Egyptian woman of last century who had succeeded in spanning gracefully the gulf between East and West. To have withstood the suffering of the many years of separation, not only from her husband but from her sister as well (Inji, a political activist in her own right was imprisoned on similar charges) only shows her exceptional mettle. The other sides of her personality, her joie de vivre, her literary talent, her extensive culture, her gift to capture the ironies of life, her amused and amusing perception of others, her love of family and friends often remain in the shadows playing second fiddle to her courage when the dark years of Ismail's confinement are mentioned.
As she mourns and remembers her beloved husband, there is an irresistible temptation to look at her as the unique human being she is: to do this one must go back to her happy childhood in the Shubra House as the adoring daughter of a glamorous couple, her exciting years in Paris, her attempts and final success at poetry writing, her intellectual insatiable curiosity and only then can one turn to the turbulent, happy, moments that she shared with her husband Ismail, together or apart, but never divided
From early on, young Bouli's compass pointed her towards France. French was the language spoken at home by her family and her nannies; it was the language she learned thoroughly at the nuns' school and the one she spoke during the two-year stint in Paris with her mother and her sister Inji. Bouli's very independent mother Salha Efflatoun had decided after a painful divorce to raise her two daughters alone and to do so needed an autonomous -- and substantial -- personal income. Instead of expecting her family to help like all well to do women of her class, she took matters in her own hand and moved to Paris to learn Haute Couture. Back in Egypt, her career took off meteorically as her Maison Salha became the centre of all of Cairo's feminine Who's Who.
Bouli and Inji benefited from their mother's unerring taste as well as her no nonsense approach to life: their status of best dressed young girls on the circuit did not go to their head. Inji embraced Marxism at an early age and her frequent incarcerations did not stop her from becoming an internationally recognised painter; Bouli on the other hand, not really a political animal and only mildly interested in her friends and relations' activism, immersed herself in poetry and literature instead. Since she was not good at math and a disaster in Arabic, she concentrated all her efforts in the field she loved best: writing short stories and novella and reading all the famous authors that came her way.
Her maternal aunt Taty (Inji) was then married to the famous Egyptian poet Ahmed Rassem who, having seen some of Bouli's writings, urged her to begin writing poetry. It was 1935 and she was then only 14. By the time she was 18 she had published her poems in several Egyptian magazines. But of course more than enlightened encouragement was needed to guide her on her chosen path and where else but in Paris could her budding talent have flourished? But this had not yet come to pass and Bouli was leading the life of a daughter of the Egyptian elite centred on fashionable Soliman Pasha Square, the clubs and various regal palaces in the suburbs.
The young girl was sorely disappointed by her milieu: her forays in the celebrations and merrymaking of Egyptian high society to which she had been officially introduced when she turned 18 had brought her no great joy. The king and his entourage made her skin crawl and her social conscience had been jolted by the sight of the poor and destitute who appeared regularly at the gates of the palaces to scramble for the few coins negligently thrown to them by the arriving or departing revellers.
Bouli did not only frequent Cairo's Beau Monde. She was introduced to a few communists by Inji but found them uninteresting. She had friends among the surrealists and adored George Henein. But somehow these experiences did not satisfy her entirely. There always seemed to be something missing. She was troubled by questions to which she had no answers. To alleviate her restlessness she had accepted an ill-paid job at the prestigious French language daily Le Journal d'Egypte, but there again she found little fulfilment. Despite her social, cultural and professional intense activity, she had wondered where her life was going: she had no clear vision of a desirable future. She vaguely dreamed of a writer's career, a great love that would sweep her off her feet... but there were no impending signs of anything remotely close materialising.
Meanwhile, Taty, by now divorced from the philandering Rassem, had taken refuge in Paris, refusing to return home even after the war broke out. She had a lovely apartment on Victor Hugo Avenue and the war over, had asked Bouli to come keep her company for a while. Taty's invitation could not have been extended at a better time. Suddenly Bouli saw a new life beckoning.
In Paris, Bouli had her own room, a stone throw from the noisy apartment of Taty. There, in peace, she was able to read, write and imagine that she was a French young author who came to Paris in search of fame. But was she really yearning for fame? It would have been nice of course but she was more interested in imbibing the intellectual climate, meeting friends at the Flore and Les Deux Magots and being introduced to the people whose names she had so often read on the covers of cherished books.
Bouli may have certainly been enthralled by the French writers and poets, the conferences, the ballet and the avant garde films, but she did not disdain an occasional descent from her ivory tower to check the ordinary boys who crossed her path. Actually she never missed to notice anyone good looking; boy or girl, and the beauty of Juliette Greco (then in her pre-fame days) thrilled her almost as much as the verses of Elsa Triolet, Aragon, and Paul Eluard.
During that first year in Paris Bouli enjoyed everything Paris in particular and Europe in general had to offer: she was travelling, visiting cities she had only heard of before. She was writing, maturing intellectually and was in the process of sorting out her political leanings. Not absolutely convinced by the discourse of her communist new acquaintances, she found herself approving them nevertheless when she listened to her aunt and her conservative friends discussing ideas that she considered awfully old fashioned and belonging to the pre-war era. Her life was about to take a new turn however, and a momentous one this time: she was about to lay eyes for the first time on Ismail and after this meeting life would never be the same again.
In her memoirs, Bouli dwells meticulously on every detail of this first encounter and today, less than a month after Ismail's death, as we sit in her cosy salon surrounded by the books and paintings the couple loved together, her face lightens up as she recounts once again the magic moment: a group of her friends were having a political gathering in someone's flat and Bouli went along with the star-to-be Juliette Greco. As they were ready to begin the discussion the door bell rang. A tall, dark young man whose black hair was very wet from the rain entered the room. "How handsome," Juliette whispered. The young man sat down looking around, his eyes stopping a tad longer on Bouli. Someone introduced him. His name was Ismail Sabri Abdalla and had just arrived in Paris to study on a scholarship. Ismail had fresh news and there were many questions. Urged to talk about the situation in Egypt, he launched into a thorough and clear analysis of the political scene. Meanwhile Bouli was discovering that he looked like Lawrence Olivier. Juliette who had noticed Ismail's interest in Bouli whispered: "My dear, I think you scored."
Meanwhile, destiny was on the move: Bouli had been looking for an Arabic teacher since she felt it was time that she learned her own language. Her friend Moustafa Safwan who was attending the meeting surprised her by recommending the newcomer, "but he refuses to take any money," he had added. The agreement was sealed, but, chuckles Bouli as she replaces her empty coffee cup on the table next to her, "as you can see I never learned any more Arabic than I knew already." Apparently, walking the streets of Paris together, going to the movies, concerts and ballet and sitting on the footpath in small cafés, he sipping red wine, she, a tame infusion, was much more fun.
Had Bouli finally found the right companion? As she was enjoying her relation with Ismail she never wondered about his age and was shattered when learning that he was four years younger than her! It was imperative to break up with him, she immediately decided, and now, before her feelings became deeper. Once Ismail had reassured her however that for him age was definitely not of the essence, Bouli was able to relax and enjoy, maybe for the first time in her life, total emotional fulfilment.
Exhilarating as a "true" love may have been, there was even more going on in Bouli's life: she has sent some of her best poems to the famous poets Paul Eluard and Elsa Triolet for their opinion. A few weeks later she read in one of her favourite literary magazines that there was a reunion attended by Louis Aragon, Elsa Triolet, Eluard, Tristan Tzara, Raymond Queneau and others during which they would present and comment on the poems they had received from "young" poets. It was during a second reunion of the group that Bouli was told that her poems would be published under a more exotic nom de plume, reminding her readers that she was Egyptian. The name Safeya was chosen by Ismail. Bouli seemed satisfied by this first success but somehow it never went to her head maybe because a more important project that overshadowed her literary success was being planned for: Ismail had asked her to marry him and there was a great deal to do in order to celebrate in style such a joyful event.
Bouli had proved herself a legitimate poet and she had found her hero all at the same time. Over the following years, she may have sometimes forgotten about literature but at no point, through thick and thin did her love for Ismail wane or stop to fill her with pride and joy.
And now Ismail is gone. For five years he refused to let Bouli know how serious his condition was. She was told at the last possible minute and for this she is grateful because it allowed her to enjoy every minute of their time together.
Bouli sits in one of her exquisite fauteuil and reminisces: she talks about the good times and the bad. She recalls Ismail's brilliance, his resilience in jail, and his projects for a better Egypt. Behind her his desk is laden with books and papers, untouched. Bouli is speaking about the love of her life in the present tense. She has started archiving all the newspaper articles that were ever written about him. He had never had time to do it. As we take our leave we feel that Isma may have died but he is not gone; he is here in the apartment with her. Maybe later at some point, she will stop collating the articles and listen for his voice. The light may have gone out of their house but it is there shimmering in Bouli's heart for as long as she lives.