My grandmother, early 1940s
Did I ever tell you about the last time I was in Egypt? It was 2007.
I was with my mom in Alexandria. Hanging out with my grandma – Mama Wagida – in her classical Alexandrian four bedroom apartment, the home in which my mom and her four silblings grew up just blocks from the Mediterranean. This apartment: its history, its high ceilings and a balcony that wrapped around and offered a generous view of the Sea… Nothing felt at once more romantic and sacred. From that balcony, my aunt Suzie who lives there with her daughter Sara, would use the hand-drawn dumb waiter basket and pull up fresh fruit and nuts from wandering street merchants baying below.
I always enjoyed the time I spent with my grandma growing up. My parents were always so busy working that we never went back to Egypt. Instead Mama Wagida and other relatives would come stay with us in Jersey for weeks and months at a time.
“I inherited her laugh- a distinctively high pitched giggle that can quickly escalate to a belly-fueled cackle.”
Connection was easy then. In fact, she was the relative with which I most shared resemblance. I inherited her light brown hair (blonde for Egypt) and hazel eyes. I inherited her laugh- a distinctively high pitched giggle that can quickly escalate to a belly-fueled cackle. Mama Wagida and I would draw and read and cook together. I never remember a language barrier when I look back to those childhood memories.
But soon with her health it became harder and harder for her to visit. Her last time perhaps I was in middle school. And I didn’t visit Egypt for the first time until I was in college.
And now two years out of school and establishing a career in DC doing Middle East work, struggling with my command of Arabic all the while, the connection was harder. The language barrier was much more obvious as an adult.
“Everything was cumin-scented…”
So often she would feed me. Pan seared filets of fish that we purchased from the fishmongers in market that morning. Egyptian stews of veggies and legumes in rich garlicky tomato broths served over fluffy rice with sauteed vermicelli noodles. Lentils simmered in cumin and served with fresh pita, soft feta cheese, and tomato-cucumber salad. Everything was cumin scented: In fact her salt shakers had whole cumin seeds (instead of the more common grains of rice) to absorb the Mediterranean humidity. She proudly offered cooking demonstrations, revealing her culinary secrets, even as she struggled to stand. Her kitchen was the only space in which we transcended language barriers- made imperceptible and irrelevant.
We would sit in front of the TV and watch the state-run news together if we couldn’t find a good soap opera.
“Sssssssssss!!!! Da Buuush! Huwa Wisikh!!!!.” (Read: he’s bad news bears…) she would hiss to me when our 43rd American President came on the TV. “BAD!” She would quickly follow with translation. I would emphatically nod in agreement, perhaps even throw in an “Aiwa” (Egyptian colloquial for ‘yes’).
President Mubarak would come on and she’d approvingly gesture towards him “Huwa Halweh” (Read: he’s good/sweet). I would politely nod. Like many grandmas she didn’t go out much these days.
My grandmother and grandfather, mid 1940s (they married in 1946)
She proudly displayed photographs of my grandfather, Saad El-Din Hafiz, a high ranking Naval Officer, known for his humility and pragmatism, who would ultimately rise to lead Egypt’s Naval Academy in Alexandria. I remember one image of him walking side-by-side on a tarmac with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, father of the modern Egyptian republic and military rule. In her Egypt, the military was a proud institution that was revolutionizing the Arab world.
In one of our last dinners together she was preparing for the arrival of my older brother Ashraf and his growing family. My niece Lily at the time was less than two years old and he and his wife Diane were expecting Kate in just a couple months.
It was finally time to prepare the Macarona Beshamel- a pillar of Egyptian comfort food. Descending from French colonial influence and spreading in Egyptian kitchens like wildfire, this dish is traditionally a casserole with its namesake rich white sauce, baked in a thick layer over pasta in a rich tomato-based meat sauce encased in crispy buttery breadcrumbs. Egyptian indulgence at its finest.
“As she melted the semna (ghee or clarified butter) in the pan, she smiled at me with a particular hint of culinary conspiracy in her eyes. “
She knew how badly I wanted to watch her prepare it… It was a hot summer and she waited for the right company.
I stood in the kitchen as she prepared the roux base (equal parts flour and fat) for the beshamel. As she melted the semna (ghee or clarified butter) in the pan, she smiled at me with a particular hint of culinary conspiracy in her eyes. She knew mom tried her hardest to raise us in a low-fat food household, the influence of being health conscious in 80s (a dietary legacy against which I have spent my life rebelling…)
The beshamel came out beautifully. We prepared the table and opened the Victorian balcony doors, letting in the sounds of the Sea and streets below. She took her seat at the table as matriarch with her growing tribe gathered around her. Her daughters, grandchildren, and her first great-granddaughter.
My mom and I left Egypt a couple days later. Ashraf, Diane & fam continued on to Italy.
When we landed at JFK we received news that Mama Wagida had passed just hours before while we were still in the air. Allah yarhamha (God Bless)…
“…there is always more to learn from the resolve of the human spirit and the power of culinary traditions among its most creative, nourishing mediums.”
As I prepare to go back to Egypt for the first time since 2007, since that last dinner with Mama Wagida and her macarona beshamel, I wonder what it is exactly that I’m seeking. Even with the personal and professional risks – and protestations from loved ones and colleagues.
And perhaps it’s the certainty that there is always more to learn. From my own ancestral traditions. From the resolve of the human spirit. And the power of culinary traditions among its most creative, nourishing mediums.