Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 August 2007
Issue No. 857
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Good old ladies

Columnist Safinaz Kazem -- once a leftist, now an Islamist, always a feminist -- has put together a fascinating miscellany. Rania Khallaf takes a look

Published last month by Dar Al-Ain -- the female- run new house -- San'et Latafa (literally, "an act of pleasantness": "Subtlety" or "Tact") is a collection of 22 essays on female figures from the early feminist Nabawiya Moussa, a contemporary of the better known Hoda Sha'rawi and Seza Nabarawi, to the singer Sherifa Fadel. A strikingly eclectic choice, indeed: these are not necessarily the best known or the most significant women in the history of modern Egypt, but they all mean something to the author beyond the obvious contribution they made to society, whether she regards it as positive or negative. And the author delights in telling their stories in her own unique way, with typical humour and personal insight. Such insight is largely what sets the book apart. Moussa, for example, born in 1886 and perhaps better known as the Mother of the Generation, becomes an excuse for putting forth at length on the Persian Nairouz: the spring festival that happens to correspond with Mother's Day and should -- because of the author's sympathies with contemporary Iran? -- be canonised on the Islamic calendar. The article goes on to identify Moussa with Kazem's own mother, who was among her most ardent supporters, backing her up when "local newspapers kept making fun of this awe-inspiring figure for her serious and perfect attitude"...

Of course, Moussa's attitude to the veil -- a fervent if not fanatical return to which has informed the author's relatively recent Muslim if largely political rebirth -- is especially emphasised: "It was Moussa who established the Banat Al-Ashraaf [Daughters of the Descendants of the Prophet] schools for girls in Alexandria, participated in 1919 Revolution and famously departed, together with Hoda Sharawy and Seza Nabarawy, to the International Woman's Convention held in Rome in 1923. But when she came back, she did not throw away her Islamic dress and step on it the way Hoda and Seza did. She clings to her veil to the last minute of her life." Had she not donned the headscarf and stopped shaking hands with men herself, one wonders, would Kazem have had so much to say about Moussa? Indeed the praise she showers on this most conservative of the Women's Movement founders seems to reflect her view of herself, something she makes no effort to conceal: "Because of her stubborn character and the nationalist positions she took, [Moussa] was fired from her job on 17 March 1926. Thanks God! I too had the honour of forced retirement because of my nationalist positions on February 1973 and in November 1979. And this is how I've come to find myself in close affinity with this pioneering figure." Ah well!

The author goes on to speak of Moussa's dogged stance against the British Occupation and the Nahhas Pasha government, which led to a military order by Nahhas to close down her school and place her under arrest in Alexandria's Foreigners Jail in 1943, where she spent ten months mainly in the company of prostitutes. Moussa was 57 at the time; and quotes from a satirical article she wrote at the time, "If only I were prime minister", make up one of the funniest aspects of Kazem's article. Moussa says she would choose the belly dancer Badia'a Masabni for the post of Minister of Social Affairs, "since she could coordinate party activity perfectly, and call on people to give charity in the name of Casino Badia'a Masabni... And I would choose Um Kolthoum as the Minister of Finance for her unprecedented love of money, since she would save so much for the welfare and advancement of Egypt". In the following chapter, Kazem reviews Moussa's 1920 masterpiece Woman and Labour, a 111-page book believed to be the first declaration of the Egyptian woman's rights to education and employment. But Kazem's approach is more descriptive than critical, especially where she tackles Moussa's insistence on Muslim dress. Seemingly unaware of the dialectic within Moussa's text itself, Kazem doesn't take her reading of the text very far: "I do not think it wise to advise girls to wear any specific Islamic costume as a disciplinary measure. Giving girls the opportunity to undertake higher education is more effective by far, I say, than giving them what it takes to elect for modest clothing of their own will..."

Next comes Gamila Sabri (1887-1962), another pioneer of the national woman's movement whose seven notebooks, a reading of which Kazem proffers under the intriguing title of "A Lavish Life", are important in that they suggest significant revisions of some established facts pertaining to the history of the Egyptian woman's movement. These the author ably registers and expands on, but once again she fails to go beyond description per se. In "Her Hand Still Washing My Face", by contrast, Kazem penetrates into far more enchanting territory. A seven- page self portrait concentrating on her relations with her parents, especially her mother -- whose hand performs that striking function for the child Safinaz in the title -- this is a text that incorporates imagination and analysis, eschewing the often persistent sense of national awareness in favour of the more intimately patriotic face of her mother, an ambitious, cultured, witty, conservative woman who single- handedly brought up six children following the death of Kazem's father -- all of whom managed to graduate from university against the odds. Indeed the next chapter, dedicated to Kazem's big sister Masouma, is a kind of elaboration on the family's -- female -- achievements, from the scholastic viewpoint. Masouma Kazem was the first Egyptian woman to hold an MA in pure mathematics and the only to contribute to the first Arabic book on modern mathematics -- one of a handful of Arab women who excelled in this mostly male field.

Indeed it is to Masouma, together with "all pioneering women of the 20th century", that Kazem has dedicated the whole book. In the second part of which, the descriptive-critical question notwithstanding, Kazem offers so admirable a series of portraits you cannot stop your heart from going out to all those female figures; indeed you feel obliged to raise your hat to them, solemnly bowing your head while you do so. Kazem's portrait of Sherifa Fadel is one such. Written mostly in Colloquial Arabic and combining the author's knowledge of this once very popular singer, her experience of Fadel's performances, with a kind of extended interview, this is a comprehensive account of Fadel's life -- still not critical, but far more than descriptive or indeed narrative. Kazem speaks of Fadel's personal history, her marriage to director Sayed Bedir -- another pioneer in his field, but a much older man afflicted with serious jealousy, a source of much suffering for Fadel -- and the casino she owned, Al-Leil -- now closed down in anticipation of the appropriate investor. Still, Kazem manages to disrupt the flow with bouts of preaching. In the interview, for example, during which Fadel chain smokes continuously, Kazem tries to persuade her against the habit, not only out of concern for her health but from a rather unpleasantly moral standpoint. But in so doing she manages to reveal the crisis of a great performer past her prime: her having been unable to appear on TV for the last 15 years: "The media are against me. They don't even invite me to national celebrations." But why? "Maybe it's because I used to sing at Cairo Casino, but it's been closed down for over ten years now. So what could be their excuse?" Here as elsewhere the religious tone is unceasing. "Have you ever thought of performing Haj," so Kazim asks in conclusion. "Yes, thanks God , I performed Haj and Omra six times after the death of my two sons." The author is very satisfied with this, but will her reader be?

Equally brilliant is the article about Mimi, the daughter of actor Zaki Tulaimat and actress Rose El-Youssef, who founded the eponymous press institution in which her best-known son and Mimi's elder brother, novelist Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, came into his own. Mimi is someone the author has been interested in for a long time: "I met her once at author Ahmed Bahaeddin's house in Cairo, in 1959, and another time in London in 1970, when she invited me to her house along with other friends"... The third time was in 1999, and Kazem decided to interview her. The article contains a detailed description of Mimi's two-tiered house, her intimate possessions, her two "ugly cats". It also contains rarely publicised information about El-Youssef and her husband the businessman Ahmed Youssef El-Guindy, Syrian immigrants who settled into prominence in Egypt, about the life and work of Abdel-Quddous and about the political, social and cultural circumstances of the 1960s, during which time Rose El-Youssef was nationalised, which drove Mimi to spend the period 1964-74 in London.

The shortest and weakest article in the book is the one dedicated to the popular singer Laila Murad, in which Kazem paints her own portrait of Murad: her best songs and movies, her collaboration with musician Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, and the fact that the author and Murad were both raised in the same, predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of Al-Zaher.

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