For years I tried to put together a picture of my grandfather. He was an Egyptian Romantic poet of some notoriety. All around me were his books and photographs from my mother’s childhood. His portrait, painted at the turn of the century, hung framed in the hallway along with a portrait of my grandmother by the same artist. Legend has it they met on a London bus when he was a medical student. The paintings were moody, dark and textured. Ten years later, they married and left England to live in Cairo.
My poet grandfather was also a physician and a scientist. He published scientific journals in tandem with his poetry journals, and launched societies devoted to a range of subjects and activities. Almost everything he did went against the grain, and yet he succeeded in his grandest schemes. When my mother and aunt talked about him, they put him on a pedestal. They echoed his disappointments and railed against his enemies. Over time, I put the fragments together. He was thin-skinned but prone to self-promotion. His influence on Arabic poetry was considered by some to be too modern. He was kind. He was an idealist. He was narcissistic. He was politically naive. He was ahead of his time.
Immediately after the war, my grandfather moved his family to America. He promised they would find a cure for mama. But my grandmother died on the eve of their departure. They buried her in a borrowed grave and set sail for New York a month later than planned.
When the Lebanese and Syrian poets of New York City refused to embrace my grandfather, he became disconsolate. He didn’t publish another diwan for almost a decade. But he wrote literature and drama for Arabic radio. He couldn’t practice medicine and had to scramble for other kinds of work. So he became a news correspondent for a Cairo-based newspaper. He was let go over the harsh nature of the news he delivered, undiluted, from America. He remarried an American woman—a serial divorcee with a two-year-old son—and left New York for Washington. He didn’t tell his children until after the ceremony. Naturally, his new wife became the family villain. I looked forward to those occasions when my mother and aunt pulled her apart. Their stories became more strident with each telling. The kitchen turned into a war room. They described their stepmother as cold and calculating. She stole from them. She neglected to give their father his medication. She had an affair. He died of a stroke. She killed him.
In college, I studied classical Arabic. I wasn’t very good at it, but neither was anyone else. Each semester, the class got smaller and smaller as people dropped out. I stuck with it to the end. I found books on my grandfather’s poetry. Literary criticism, much of it in English. I absorbed what I could but it was hard to follow. A whole new world of literary backbiting. I found diwans of his poetry in the university library but I couldn’t read them. Later, I realized my aunt had donated them. I found several of his other books as well, collections of essays about women’s suffrage and liberal humanism.
I spent a summer in Cairo studying colloquial Arabic. Also, “newspaper Arabic.” I got college credit for it. I was looking for something, my grandfather, I thought, but maybe it was something else. I returned to Egypt with my mother a few years later. She hadn’t been back since she left as a teenager. She was jealous of my solo trip. It wasn’t my problem, I told myself. But it was. I said let’s go together, and we did. My aunt went back every year and kept in touch with everyone. When I traveled alone to Cairo, she made arrangements for me, placed phone calls. She did this again for my mother, but with an added sense of urgency. There were so many people she believed we must see.
We changed planes in Amsterdam with a few hours to spare. We ate rollmops and drank beer on a little bridge over a canal. I let my mother have the window seat on the flight to Cairo. She stared out at the expanse of desert that stretched below and seemed gleeful. Our cousins were waiting for us. They swept us from the tarmac and dusted us off. Zeineb cooked family dinners and Magdi told jokes. We went for rides in his little yellow and black sedan. After a few days, my mother’s Arabic returned.
We visited an old poet who had been a close friend of my grandfather’s, one of the shining lights of his poetry society. He wore reading glasses and was wrapped in a black and gold smoking jacket. I was both excited and uncomfortable. His wife served us tea. She was tall and bent over, and her long gray hair hung loose. We smiled at each other in silence while my mother and the poet spoke to each other in Arabic. I don’t know what they talked about. He inscribed a book of his poems and gave it to her.
We traveled back and forth between Cairo and Alexandria. We took buses and trains and sometimes the more expensive Peugeot “servees.” We stayed in different places. One hotel had windows and a balcony that curled around the edge of the building and faced the sea. It was my favorite place. We sat there in the morning and ate hard-boiled eggs and hot bread and yogurt and marmalade.
We searched for my mother’s old house in Rond-Point, where she grew up. We set out on foot. She always described it as too large, ornate, with tall shuttered windows and a garden where they kept beehives and chickens and peacocks. Many years later I found a snapshot of the house. She was right, I thought, it was overly large. We searched and searched, but it was gone. It had been demolished to make way for an apartment building. My aunt warned us but we had to see for ourselves. We stood on the traffic circle. I carried the heavy camera bag while my mother took pictures of men loitering and women carrying groceries. I was hot and impatient. She shot a few pictures of the low brick building with the water tower, Wabour al-Maya. She remembered it from childhood and it was still there.
We searched for my grandmother’s grave in the Coptic cemetery, but we never found it. The gatekeeper lived in a detached room near the cemetery’s main gate. I thought it was more like a cell. The door was open and I could see a child sitting on the floor watching television. The gatekeeper led us into the cemetery and down a narrow path. He told us where to go to find the grave, and left us. We walked past mausoleums and tombs that were sunken and half visible underfoot. Some graves were stacked on top of each other. We saw headstones with tiny photographs held in place behind glass. Portraits of the dead. I wondered if we would find my grandmother by her portrait. We got lost. It was dusty and hot and we ran out of water. Eventually we worked our way back to the main gate. “Ma’alesh,” said the gatekeeper.
It was late. We found a restaurant on the Corniche. We walked to the back and pointed to a fish that lay on a mound of ice. “Meshwi,” my mother said. A man cleaned it and grilled it for us with cumin and za’atar. I wanted to go back to the hotel and sleep but my mother kept talking. We ordered salads and drank a lot of beer.
We contacted my mother’s girlhood friend Awatef by telephone. She invited us to visit her in Alexandria. I didn’t want to go but my mother said we had to. I had stayed with her and her family when I was traveling on my own. She seemed decades older than my mother. Her husband and children treated her badly. They took us to their summer “villa,” a small house in a new development of small houses near the beach, not far from Alexandria. It must have been in Agami. She and her daughter wore headscarves when they went out. The girl enlisted my help to get out of the house. She referred to me as her chaperone. She was tall and heavy, twice my size. We did things she was never allowed to do. Late one evening, we went to a party at a club by the sea. I wanted to leave and counted the minutes. There was dancing with boys, and alcohol. The night breeze blew in from a great distance and whipped across the dance floor. I worried that the brother might be spying on us, but he had leaflets to print and his own secret meetings to attend. My mother hung out with Awatef. I don’t know where the father was.
Cousin Zahia booked us a Nile cruise. She said it was a gift from Uncle Hosni, who had been dead for decades. We flew to Aswan. The desert air was hotter and drier than anything I had ever known. We poured bottled water over our bandanas. It evaporated in an instant. They took us by coach to Abu Simbel where groups of tourists roasted in the sun. They looked like raw meat under their straw hats. We boarded a medium-sized riverboat. It had a canteen and an upper deck with a tiny swimming pool. I thought it was strange, the turquoise rectangle floating on the brown river with lush vegetation and the desert just beyond. The boat chugged across Lake Nasser and onwards down the Nile. It stopped at all the ancient places. Women from nearby villages watched us from the riverbank. My mother took pictures. I tried to write in my journal but I was distracted by everything.
The boat was named Hoda, my mother’s name. She stole everything she could that had the logo on it: napkins, menus, a small ceramic bowl. I still have the bowl. The tourists on the boat were mainly Italian and French. The Italians were chatty. We didn’t speak to the Germans. For meals we sat at a long table with a couple from Yemen, and a mother and son from Paris. The Yemenite woman was a stewardess. I remember her eyes, a startling green, and her teeth, so straight and white. The mother and son from Paris spoke French with the Yemeni couple and English with everyone else. My French was bad but it was better than my Arabic. The son, who was my age, complained bitterly. I tried to ignore him.
We closed in on the Valley of the Kings. Everyone left the boat to visit the ancient monuments. I had succumbed to something called Pharaoh’s Curse and stayed on the boat. My mother took her camera to photograph the colossi and left me to read Doris Lessing by the pool. I thought the deck hand was shady and wrapped myself in towels.
We booked a servees from Alexandria to Marsah Matrouh, a resort town near the Libyan border. Everyone goes there. I brought my mother to the same quaint whitewashed hotel where I stayed with a classmate a few summers before. They served us foul for breakfast under a canopy. We traveled around by bicycle. The sea was a clear turquoise. Rock formations jutted up from the water. The sand was blinding white. My mother took pictures. We woke up with fleas. On the way back to Alexandria, the driver said ma’alesh, it’s the way things are with beach towns. He turned the music up loud—Werda and Asmahan. We sped along the desert road.
We had a few days left in Cairo. Zahia took my mother shopping and I tagged along. Zahia’s daughter Jehan came. She had an affinity for gold. They bought bangles. It was hot and I was annoyed by everything. We visited a jeweler in the covered market who insisted on serving us tea. I sat with my journal but I wasn’t able to write. I thought about my grandparents in the thirties. I thought about their overly large house with the garden. I thought about the peacocks, which my mother said were nasty, and the chickens they let run through the house. I thought about my grandparents’ succession of pet dogs. Fahmy and Bingo and Spotty. I thought about their beehives. My mother said the bees were gentle and never stung.
Much later, I learned that my grandfather’s beekeeping was more than just a pastime. He kept bees all his life. In his prime, he founded a succession of experimental apiaries and funded them through co-op memberships. His members numbered in the tens of thousands. I tried to imagine so many beekeepers.
My grandfather taught bacteriology at the university and worked on treatments for bee pathologies in the lab. He devised beekeeping contraptions and held four patents for beehive improvements, such as an artificial incubator for queen rearing and a removable aluminum honeycomb foundation. He dreamed of opening a bee library and made his overly large house in Alexandria the headquarters for the Bee Kingdom League. He convened meetings with beekeepers and scientists and gave beekeeping classes to schoolchildren. He organized the first international honey fair in Cairo. The minister of agriculture attended. The King appointed him to establish his royal apiary. They gave him money.
But the money ran out. I asked my aunt how they were able to afford to come to New York after the war. She said they sold honey from their bees, but I didn’t believe her. She said that her father had inherited a parcel of land in the Delta, and that he planted flowering trees and started an apiary. Recently, I found a snapshot of women in white working in an overgrown field among beehives. A tool shed sports a sign that says “The Bee Kingdom” in block letters. One of the women looks back at the camera and smiles. There is nothing but greenery for miles.
In New York, I took a series of beekeeping classes. I didn’t want to become a beekeeper, but I hoped to be seduced by bees and not just the idea of them. I learned that to become a beekeeper is to give yourself, unconditionally, to the cause. I learned that beekeepers must wage an endless war against predators, parasites, and disease. Beekeeping is animal husbandry turned spiritual. Beekeeping is unceasing ecological activism. But beekeeping is also poetry. Beekeeping is flowering plants and unkempt fields and botany. To keep bees is to embrace the unending cycle of life and birth and death. It is to accept the unknown. To keep bees is to fly in the face of near-certain destruction. My grandfather knew this. It took me a while to figure it out.
Excerpt of a memoir in progress, May 2019.