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Musée des Beaux Arts

by Samaa Ayman

Title inspired by W. H. Auden’s 1938 poem.
“Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment.”
From East Coker (1940) T.S. Eliot

She sat at the edge of the bed and peered at me through her dark and hollow eye sockets and kept her gaze at that, yet I was not frightened by it as you might expect.

I was only puzzled at the stare. My great-grandma Fatma’s frail body was wrapped with a wide black galabeya and matching shawl as she continued to feast her eyes on the young baby girl before her, a girl that looked all too familiar.

“Who is that beautiful baby?” she asked her daughter Shwekar. Shwekar rubbed my tummy as I sat on her lap on the opposite bed facing Fatma and replied in confusion, “Mama, this is Altaf’s daughter, Samaa.” Fatma looked shocked and exclaimed, “Did Altaf get married?”

I remember perfectly the dialogue yet fail to see the faces; I fail to experience yet again the colours of the duvets on those beds, or what Nana Anwar was cooking in the kitchen for dinner whilst her mother Fatma stared at me. I don’t have Fatma’s excuse of Alzheimer’s. The winters very cold in the house and the summers very humid. We experienced no spring or autumn; the tree in the front yard has long been amputated and there are no more hens in the balcony to lay eggs that will hatch into golden-haired beauty. Foul, falafel, and morta[1]Leftover melted margarine, commonly eaten in rural Egypt. will always satiate your mornings come rain or shine. Dinners and suppers here are not customized according to the seasons.

The dining room that is used for many purposes—excluding dining—knocks my memory into play; how many times has that dinner table been rotated horizontally for us to use as a handball net? “I swear the neighbours can all hear you banging around and they will come up and shout, and I will have to apologize and I will not bear the shouting and I will not apologize and insult my age when you can just stop making such noise.” Nana spoke in one breath as she usually did. My cousin Ahmad threw the ball at me and I hit it back just as he felt like being smart and answering his grandmother back; “They can’t come up, Nana, no one lives below us.”

The walls here are higher than anything you have ever seen, because that’s how they built them back then, so I did not see the necessity to scrub each inch of them clean, until they glowed perfect sandy beige.

The Last Supper, 2008
The Last Supper, 2008

“Samaa, baby, run to the car and get my silk shawl, it’s in a brown bag in the trunk,” my aunt Didi shouted. Didi’s feet echoed over the entire house as she ran across the wooden floorboards, sounding off her alarm at being late to the extent that the wool carpets could not muffle the sound of her 80-kilogram body as the weight thudded off her feet and onto the floor. Your typical classic Egyptian proposal and things still caused surprise. Yes, brides-to-be are still not ready when they should be because they woke up late and felt like they had all the time in the world, and grooms are still made to be late because their mothers were side-tracked by a box of tissues on their way out, and had to step back into the bathroom for an extra cry and then reapply their make-up.

Unlike the inhabitants and guests, the house was ready and splendid with flowers in every vase available and rugs washed and restored to their past glory. Each crystal in the giant chandeliers had been separately breathed on by someone’s exhalation, and rubbed with a cloth so that they sparkled against the newly varnished floorboards. Now for the vital part, the essential touch: pungent odours of bokhour along with Sheikh Mahmoud Ibrahim’s recital of Surat al-Falaq to keep away the evil eyes.

I held Nana Awatef’s hand as she leaned the weight of her body on my own, and although she felt herself a burden I could feel no discomfort from her feeble tender body. It took fifteen minutes to reach the bathroom from the bed, and once I sat her on the stool I turned on the hot water for the room to steam, so she wouldn’t catch a cold, and began to undress her. She held the edge of the sink as tightly as her brittle fingers could muster, and once I was done I called Nana Anwar in to help me bathe her.

Closing the Quran that was in her hand and kissing it before placing it in the box, she came to bathe her sister-in-law, who had outlived Nana Anwar’s husband and her own. The bathroom had been renovated a couple of days after Nana Awatef was made to leave her home, where she had resided as a lonely and aging widow, to come and live in the family house with Nana Anwar. The bathtub had a special ladder, seating, and headrest for Nana Awatef’s convenience and use.

Her health deteriorated rapidly, and when she became bed-ridden, her skin developed pressure ulcers that brought her more pain than she had ever experienced before.

I watched the nurses clean them each day to no avail; they were spreading and it was only a matter of time before her blood was poisoned and her heart failed completely.

I lay beside her on the very same bed of my earliest memory and read from the Quran in a low voice so only she would hear me, and so I would hear her fighting breath and know she was still alive. A soft breeze passed through the balcony situated between the two beds, and blew over Nana Awatef’s henna-dyed hair that glowed orange in the sunlight. She took her final breath as the Maghrib prayer was called, and although the doctor said she was gone, I could still feel her pulse beneath my fingers as I held her hand. It slowed gradually until it stopped. When I cried and told them that they were making a mistake and that she was not dead, showing them the throbbing vein in her wrist, the doctor explained, “It is like an electric fan; when you switch off the power the blades keep rotating slower and slower until it stops.”

I held Didi’s baby girl Ola in my arms and smelled her newborn cotton smell, it was very sugary and warm. “Hello,” I welcomed her, “how come you look so ugly? Everyone in your family is beautiful so how come you look so bad, huh?” I asked this in a playful manner to keep away the evil eye. She didn’t care much about what I said, and slept to her heart’s content.

I laid her down in her crib next to Nana Anwar’s bed and she dreamed of a large house, with high walls and vibrant carpets, where her cousins played and talked and laughed and grew old.


All artwork is courtesy of Reda Khalil.


1 Leftover melted margarine, commonly eaten in rural Egypt.
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