Fayza Hassan, 1938-2009: Life interrupted
pays homage to Fayza Hassan, a founding member of Al-Ahram Weekly
, who died last week
It's hard to believe that Fayza Hassan is gone. She was so full of life. It is also hard to write about the passing of a colleague and friend in a dispassionate manner.
From the first day I saw her in the early 1990s, I could not but fall for her engaging personality, joie de vivre and acute sense of irony and self-irony. Together, we were recruited to the then nascent Al-Ahram Weekly in spite of the handicap of not really being professional journalists.
Fayza had spent two decades in Australia, but had returned to settle in her native country with her husband and two daughters. Not long after their return, her husband died, leaving her the only breadwinner of the family. I myself had recently arrived from London with my Egyptian bride and was bent on making Egypt my home.
It was to the credit of Hosny Guindy, founding editor of the paper, and to his small band of advisers, that he was able to see in Fayza and others like her the potential core of what was to be a pioneering venture of English-language journalism in the Arab world. Between 1990 and 2002, the year she left the Weekly, Fayza went on to don many hats -- and colourful ones at that.
She edited the life-style section of the paper (today's Living and Features sections) and various fashion specials. And, following the departure of the paper's first managing editor, Mohamed Salmawy, she took over the paper's society column, cheerfully assuming the identity of Madame Sesostris, the clairvoyant whose pack of cards graced the back page.
What I know of Fayza's life comes from what I have been able to piece together from our many conversations over the years. Being both given to gossip, we used to talk about all and sundry, from male nighttime wardrobe to politics and religion. Men, she said, had no sense of sleepwear. Spirituality and spirit possession was yet another of our pet subjects. She always spoke with expressive clarity, and that is the way she wrote, too.
Egyptians use a curious expression to talk about people having thin, as opposed to thick, blood. Fayza had that damm khafif. Her columns were always witty and winning. She was never self-important, and she was never content to follow a simple storyline. Her writing was always well- crafted, having its own unorthodox sense of time. Sometimes she would be celebrating -- never berating -- the ushering in of her seventh decade in life, while at other times she would remember childhood vacations in Europe. Even when her columns oozed nostalgia, they were free of any simple message and never devoid of self-irony.
Besides her regular weekly column, which appeared in the paper for many years under the heading of "Pot Pourri", Fayza also wrote on issues of great historical importance, such as the 1956 Suez War and the 1952 Cairo Fire, which she did in her own lively and unpredictable way.
Fayza had a gregarious, feline quality about her. She loved her cats, and she used to feed them a luxurious and expensive diet. She came, after all, from an ancient land where cats were once deified and mummified by the population. She herself was a strict vegetarian, though after being diagnosed with colon cancer in October 2007 she consumed considerable quantities of steak. Her favourite dish, she told me once, was osso buco as prepared by her son-in- law, Cornelius O'donnell.
A sense of distinctiveness always marked her columns. This import of uniqueness sealed her writings, and she in turn basked in the praise heaped on her by those who enjoyed a cheesy fantasia on a weekly paper of marvellous depth and dimension.
Sidekicks ably supported her and she made the most of them in conjunction with her daughter, Pascale Ghazeleh, perhaps the Weekly 's most accomplished copy editor. Now a professor of history at the American University in Cairo, Pascale was her mother's most trusted editor.
All these memories meant that when I bumped into Mona Anis, the Weekly 's deputy editor-in-chief, I was confused when she told me that Fayza had died. It is hard to say goodbye to a woman that you love and respect.
Towards the end, Fayza's physical condition was affected by her debilitating illness, but her mental state never slipped. Yet, slowly she gave up writing, aside from the odd book review, and it was painful to see that she sometimes had difficulty putting long sentences together.
When Fayza started working for the Weekly, the paper was notably dynamic, attracting contributions from writers like Edward Said, Samir Amin, Eqbal Ahmed, Eric Rouleau and Noam Chomsky. At that time, she used to proofread a lot of the paper, and, as wars closed in on us -- the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein's Iraq, then the invasion of Iraq and then 9/11 and then Afghanistan and then the invasion of Iraq again -- Fayza was always equal to the task of getting the paper finished on time, even as deadlines shortened and the circulation soared.
When the Internet came along in the late 1990s, and the Weekly started its pioneering Website, Fayza must have sometimes felt that she could not cope with it all. However, she proved herself more than up to the task, as she always did, helped, as always, by her beloved daughter Pascale.
Western in looks -- Fayza's mother was Austrian -- and French in education and tastes, Fayza sometimes stood out as not being "typically Egyptian". Her cosmopolitanism could sometimes land her in odd situations. One of the funniest I heard concerned her getting lost in Bulaq in the vicinity of Al-Ahram during the holy month of Ramadan. Coffee cup in hand, and leaving a trail of cigarette ends behind her, she seemed oblivious to the way she was being stared at by residents as she asked for directions to Al-Ahram's offices in Galaa Street.
Late summer is high season for reminiscing about the past, and Fayza often wrote in her columns about holidays spent in Europe when she was young. Often autobiographical in what she wrote about, her family was always the most important thing in her life, above all her daughters, Manuela and Pascale.
Indeed, family relationships were so important to Fayza that they were often the subject of her conversation. Relationships were dissected, deciphered and scrutinised. We talked about mothers and fathers and sons and daughters. I had issues with mine, and she had some with hers. We both tried hard to be good parents.
What if living well and dying well are really one and the same thing? It was a question that came up in conversation once during the seemingly endless hours we spent at work. That conversation seems a long time ago now.
Fayza had married a man who was many years her senior, and, being a Muslim, she sometimes found herself ostracised for having married a Christian and a Levantine. I once asked her what marriage had taught her.
Dark circles under her eyes, and with characteristically heavy-lidded eyes, she replied, "everything".
Then she added, "and nothing".