The next day Mom was due to arrive. She left explicit instructions that she doesn’t need to be picked up from the airport because she was ‘back in old stomping turf’ she was familiar with. She was sure that there was still an express coach that takes you from the airport to Tahrir square for a pittance. She may have not been to Cairo for the last 35 years, but in a way she never left it. My mother is in love with Egypt. This is hardly a surprise. She came here when she was 13. Without chaperones. She came to get an education. Something her mother, who died illiterate, did not want for her daughter. And as painful as it was for both of them to part, it was a price she was willing to pay for her offspring. There was only 14 years difference between them, and she only managed to visit her in Cairo once before she died suddenly, in her late 30s, of shock. My uncle, her son, was listed on a passenger list of a crashed plane, that he wasn’t even on. She jaundiced and passed away shortly after.
For my mother, Egypt represented her youth. A life that took a departure that didn’t happen to many of her female peers in those days. A life changing experience. Egypt was a surrogate to her in so many ways. A surrogate home. A surrogate mother. A surrogate family. A surrogate nation. She told me many stories of her times there and one sticks out more than most, and here it is:
Having failed the maths and science assessments, the principal at her school decided that she would not be accepted into secondary school. This meant there was a very real risk of her returning to Yemen before she even started her education. So my dear teenage mother sat on a bench outside and had a good cry. As she sat weeping in helpless terror, she described what happened as follows. A shiny black car pulled up to the entrance of the school. A chauffeur popped out to open the door to his passenger. The first thing she saw was a well heeled foot, then an ankle, then bit by bit, an elegant egyptian woman in a black dress and coat emerged. This complete stranger to my mother, noticed her immediately, a child sitting in a bench alone and crying. She sat next to her and asked her what is the matter. My mother told her the whole story. How she’s just arrived from Yemen. How she failed the two exams. How the school would not admit her, and how she might have to go back home to a disappointed mother of her own, who worked herself to the bone to get her to Egypt in the first place.
The woman asked my mother to follow her. It was more of a command as my mother describes it and my mother duly trotted after her back to the principals office. My mother never figured out who this woman is, but all the staff jumped to attention at the sight of this chic woman in black. She disappeared into the principal’s office after telling my mother to wait. When she came out, the principal asked for a member of his staff to get my mother to RESIT her two exams. Not only that, but with ‘assistance’.
Before they took my mother away to ‘resit’ her exam, the woman sat with my mom, who was profusely thankful and even more teary than before.
“Do you know why I did this? It’s because I have a son who is studying abroad and I miss him very much. I think about him every day. What is he doing? Is he eating well? Is he safe? Is he healthy and doing well? Maybe by helping you, God will send somebody somewhere to help my son if he ever needed it.”
With that the mysterious woman in black walked out of my mother’s life forever after playing a short but very memorable role in it. My mother never ever forgot her. Even after 35 years. Needless to say, she passed all of the resits with flying colors. I love that woman for what she did for my mother like she did me a personal favour.
While we waited for my mother to arrive, Dad and I went to a seafood restaurant. This is what Dad and I love to do the most. Eat. We ordered shrimps, some kind of river fish, a selection of pickled stuffed aubergines and courgettes, and salad. The waiter suggested that maybe we ordered too much for two. He was wrong. very wrong. I didn’t care what the GP said about not eating anything cold, and avoiding the salads, and that hepatitis was everywhere… This is isn’t living.. I thought: screw it.
I decided that I was going to meet mother at the airport after all even though my dad said he was sure she was capable of finding her own way there as she requested. However, sometimes when my mom asks you to not do something, what she really is saying is: No. Do it. Make sure you do it. And since I am not a mind reader I opt for assuming that what she’s really saying is: Please pick me up at the airport.
Jumping into a taxi, I head for the airport. Dad had called in a plumber to try to resolve the water problem so he stays behind. As we drive across a golden afternoon lit Cairo, I look at a tall imposing burned down building..
“What happened there?” I wondered.
“That was burned down during the revolution in January..”
I didn’t even recognise the now iconic building.. It was a great opener though for yet another political discourse with another taxi driver.. Only this guy was cheerful and very likeable.
“So which airport are we going to? The old or the new one?”
Now I was in a taxi with no idea where we are going. Dad had changed his mobile number for an egyptian one I forgot to take down. Mother would not have hers on. switching data roaming on and adding another couple of hundred quid onto my bill, I call my brother in Yemen to ask him if he knows which airport my mother is landing in which he doesn’t.. I ask him to get me dad’s egyptian number which he gives me incorrectly a good number of times.. As my bill escalated we were rapidly approaching the airport. When I finally get through to dad, he doesn’t know either. The taxi driver asks an airport security guy about the Yemenia airlines and we figured it out. Not that there was a huge distance between both airports. In fact, they were almost walking distance. Never mind. It’s only money.
Just as I run up to where the passengers come out, I see my mother.. She is peering through the glass looking around but doesn’t see me. My guess was right. This was one of those times when she was saying the opposite of what she wants. She doesn’t see me waving and she disappears again. For about half an hour. I hide in the crowd as I see her coming out. I wait as she passes me before I creep up behind her and grab her handbag.. She’s too old to hit me when I prank her and I give her a cuddle, much to the amusement of her female travelling companions.
If you’re meeting my mother for the first time, the first thing you’ll notice is she talks a lot. She talks to you, she talks to the guy behind you, and she talks to herself with an interchanging fluidity that is bound to confuse and mesmerise you. Add to that her poor hearing and it makes for hilarious results, or draining ones, depending on the day. Without every doing it intentionally, she’s a walking theatre production. While I tend to be restrained and formal with people I don’t know. She is the complete opposite. She charmed that taxi driver all the way to Dokki. In fact she so surprised him that he kept nudging me saying things like: “Not even a lot of Egyptians would know that..” Usually I get a bit embarrassed because I assume people want to be left alone, not dragged into a non ending conversation, but quite often I find myself reproaching myself for judging my mother so harshly, especially after seeing how much she amuses, charms, and warms people to her. She just talks her mind and doesn’t worry about it later.
By the end of the journey home, the driver exchanges numbers, wants to show us around Cairo, and tells me: You have a wonderful mother.
Seeing my parents together, outside of the context of the familiar that is Yemen, was a revelation to me. I saw them in an entirely different light from the first day. They seemed alive. Why wouldn’t they? This is a trip down memory lane for them. They spent the best years of their lives in this city. They met in this city. They fell in love in this city. When they were too concerned about the lack of medical facilities in the newly Republic of Yemen, they delivered me in this city. And even though what we were really doing in Cairo is a medical examination of a critical health situation that my mother was recently diagnosed with.. somehow.. it was the last thing on their minds. And for the first 2 days, it wasn’t mine either. I was just engrossed watching the two people who mean the most to me as they watched Cairo after over three decades.