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from the July 2017 issue

My Grandfather and Sitt Biba

Mohamed Abdelnabi's narrator revisits his childhood and his grandfather's path from childhood poverty to a love affair that became the stuff of family lore.

My name is Hany Mahfouz. I was a spoiled only child. My mother was the sun and my father was the moon.

The one who doted on me most was my grandfather, Khawaga Mida. At the age of six, I thought I had killed him. I had a dream in which he woke me, kissed me, and stroked my hair, then opened the window and floated upward until all I could see were his feet and the hem of his striped galabeya, before he disappeared completely into the darkness of the street outside. I went to my mother while she was still in bed and told her the dream. Without knowing why, I whispered as I spoke and felt a twinge of fear. She pulled me to her and instructed me to not tell the dream to anyone else, especially not Grandma Sekina. It was a bad omen, she said, Grandma would be upset and throw a fit.

Less than a week later Grandpa died. Then my mother surprised me by revealing our secret herself. She recounted the dream to everyone like it was a source of pride. She said that I was a spiritual, clairvoyant child. I didn’t understand at the time, but I did sense a change in the way they all looked at me. For some time after that, anyway, before the whole thing was eventually forgotten. Well, forgotten by everyone except Grandma Sekina, who continued to bribe me with sweets and money as if I had the ability to dream her dead, so she would fly out of the window and join Grandpa wherever he had gone. This did nothing to assuage my guilt. I was convinced that I really had caused the death of the one I loved most, the only one who had listened to my pleas to put off my matriculation at school for another year, the one who had loved me and pampered me like I was the only star in his night sky.

My grandfather’s real name was Mohamed Mahfouz. He was given the name Mida by the Jewish lady who, when he was twenty, took him under her wing and employed him at her small fashion atelier on the first floor of an old building on Adly Street in downtown Cairo. The story goes that he came to her an ungainly youth who didn’t even know how to thread a needle, and that she taught him everything about the craft of tailoring. “And the craft of gentleness too,” Grandma Sekina would add with a flirty lift of her eyebrow.

I imagine him as a tall and athletic young man, with bright honey-colored eyes, agile of movement and sweet of tongue. His most notable feature though would have been his beautiful, clear voice. In his later years, during the short truces he made with his chronic dry cough and the pain brought on by arthritis, he sang me lullabies, in a rough but sweet voice. I danced as I sang along.

The day has broken
The night has lifted
The bird is singing—tweet tweet!

He had migrated from Mahalla, almost a teenage runaway, in order to enter the world of showbiz—that obsession that almost no one in my family could escape. The large extended family he ran away from was poor and the children were too numerous to count. Most men in the family were workers in Mahalla’s textile factories, their lives decided from birth to death and intimately entwined with threads, fabrics, and the cogs of machines. The only escape was to die of some respiratory disease, or to cut ties like my grandfather did and move away. Perhaps he had always felt different from his siblings and cousins. His voice and good looks would have earned him the constant admiration of those around him, until his ambition boiled over and could no longer be contained. He set off for the capital with no money, no connections, and no plan.

The story goes that he waited outside the theater for the famous actor Naguib Al-Rihany, then threw himself before the man and begged him to let him join his troupe, or to at least hear him sing, even for just one minute. Rihany must have been preoccupied or in a foul mood—maybe his troupe wasn’t doing so well at the time—for this is what he said: “There are enough dead bodies in the morgue. Get out of here, son!” But when he saw the look of defeat on the retreating young man’s pale face, Rihany called him back, pushed a heavy coin into his hand, and said, “Find yourself another job or you’ll starve.”

Between working as an errand boy at a coffeehouse and selling tigernuts in cones outside cinemas and theaters, my grandfather found himself slowly turning into a street dog—sleeping wherever he could, eating whatever he could find—all the while looking at film posters and dreaming. Until he was saved by Biba, dressmaker to high-society women. A box-office clerk had introduced him to her and said she would help him. Biba, or Sitt Biba as everyone called her, taught him everything: how to dress, how to talk, how to treat her distinguished clientele when presenting newly arrived samples, how to smile at people and look them in the eye to make a confident impression. She taught him about fabrics and about the company of society ladies, and he was a good student: within a few months, he was cutting his first dress patterns.

She started calling him Mida, a nickname derived from Mohamed that somewhat rhymed with Biba. Later on, in jest or in mockery, his friends added the title Khawaga, leading clients to often presume that Mida was Jewish, like his employer. He was the only one she seemed to trust. There was no sign in her life of a husband or children, and she treated Mida like the last remaining member of her family.

I imagine him taking the elevator up to her flat in the same building and ringing the bell on evenings after closing the atelier. She opens the door herself, the maid having gone home for the day, and leaves only a small gap for him to walk through, her soft house robe lightly brushing his body as he passed her. There he finds everything that a self-assured young man, living away from home, could want: food, comfort, an attractive woman—even if that woman is almost as old as his mother. Like his mother, she enjoys listening to him sing and laughs at his witticisms. She has bought him an oud and arranged for him to take weekly lessons. Every Friday afternoon, she looks up from her work and says, “Time for your lesson, Mida,” and he smiles, stands up, puts on his jacket and tarboosh, picks up his oud, and walks over to Emadeddin Street. There, in one of the street’s famous coffeehouses, he meets his teacher—an old blind sheikh who doesn't let an opportunity pass to mention “the Sitt”: “How is Sitt Biba? Give her my regards,” sometimes adding sarcastically, “So Mr. Mida, do you plan to go professional or will you remain a private oud player for the Sitt?”

Mida would have swallowed these hints with a quiet smile. That’s how I like to imagine him: shy and reserved, with a smile that subtly belittled everything around him—everything except for music, his patroness, and life’s pleasures.

I don’t think she would have made a move on him immediately. She would have taken it slowly. She would not have been the kind of woman to pick an unripe fruit and eat it hurriedly. She was neither hungry nor needy. No. With her wide dark eyes, she would have watched him come and go, watched as he slowly shed his Mahallawi accent and picked up a few English and French words from her and from clients, gradually learned how to dress, how to pick the right color and size to show off his lean body and sculpted muscles. I imagine the first encounter between the patient body of the older woman and that of the young beau to have happened at least a whole year after she had taken him in. I see him sitting cross-legged on a plush sofa in her flat, playing the oud and singing:

Light of spirit
She flirts with her lashes and her brow

I see her get up and sit down next to him, close enough to be able to stroke his dark curls. He keeps his eyes closed and keeps the smile on his face until he had finished the song. The he turns toward her, pleased that the moment he has long waited for has finally come. He places the oud face-down next to him, gazes at the trembling water in her eyes, then pulls her toward him, gently and with care, as if he fears crushing the bones of her slim figure. At that moment, Mohamed Mahfouz, or Khawaga Mida, understands the secret of his escape from his village and his people. It wasn’t fear of respiratory diseases, the dream of glory and fame, or the search for adventure. He came to Cairo, the center of the world, in order to find his true home, the home he has always been destined for, in Sitt Biba’s body.     

On that tender night she might have said to him, “Don’t do anything you don’t want to do,” and he might have replied, “But this is a dream come true, Sitt Biba.”

* * *


With time, and under the caring patronage of his mistress, my grandfather grew into a commanding figure. His passion for music abated, and his oud playing and singing became nothing more than hobbies relegated to his free time and the hours spent in his lover’s company. Without hesitation he turned down an offer from his old teacher to join a respected band as their oudist. He must have loved Biba, and must have also come to love his new profession—the fabrics turned under his hands into breathing creatures that wrapped themselves around the bodies of women and girls.

He stayed with her as she advanced in years, as every day another petal fell from the flower of her youth, until Mida the lover became Mida the nurse and personal masseur. It was she who eventually encouraged him to marry the embroidery girl Sekina, having noticed how he talked about her and how they constantly bickered. She helped him rent and furnish the flat in Abdeen. Then she received their only child, my father, Ahmad, like any loving grandmother would. My father had vague memories of his holiday visits to the old woman—her moist kisses and the way he quickly wiped their traces off his face. She was nearly ninety and no longer had the strength to leave her flat. The atelier still carried her name, but it was Mida who oversaw it day after day.

When anti-Semitic sentiment rose in Egypt, some angry young men threw petrol bombs through the atelier’s window. There was minimal damage, the fire having been put out as soon at it started, but my grandfather grew worried. He told Biba that she should close her business and leave the country, as many others had. He said she could find any remaining relatives elsewhere and join them. She must have replied bitterly, “What relatives? I have no one but you, Mida. The one niece I have is like a vulture waiting for my death.”

As a cautionary measure, and at her insistence, they changed the name of the shop to Atelier Mida. What my grandfather didn’t know at the time was that in the official documents he was already the actual owner, even before the sign on the shop front was changed, or that is what he later claimed anyway. Biba only lasted a few more months. The night before her death, he would have sat with her and sang her an old taqtuqa that she liked.

O light of my eyes
In your love I lived and died
O moon
When all was said and done
I never lost, I never won

He would have stopped when he heard her light snoring and knew she was asleep. He might have noticed how her lips curved upward on one side in a faint smile and would have planted a light kiss on her smooth forehead before leaving the room.

It came as a surprise to everyone that she left the atelier to Grandpa Mida. He was surprised as well—or pretended to be. Not everyone believed him, least of all Biba’s niece, whose lawyer gave my grandfather an extremely hard time before she accepted the validity of the title deed. Did Grandpa retain a trace of heartache despite the victory, or is that just how I like to think of him?

My father and Grandma Sekina tell a different story. Their version is crude and ordinary: Handsome Hustler Ensnares Rich Cougar. A smile, a wink, followed by a few songs in his beautiful voice, were all it took to open the door to a garden of pleasures. In the center of that garden, the young man found a well, and with his long tongue he licked and licked, until the well trembled and its water overflowed. The mistress of the garden moaned, “Take me, Mida. Everything I own is yours.”

In their version, he charmed and tricked her into transfering possession of the atelier to him. But I can’t think of my grandfather like that. That could be because when I got to know him, time had blunted his claws and the last of his peacock’s feathers had been shed. But it’s also simply because the many disputes he had with my father and grandmother make me doubt their stories about him. And my first-hand memories of him are beyond doubt. 

From In the Spider's Room. © Mohamed Abdelnabi. Translation © 2017 by Nariman Yousseff. All rights reserved.

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