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from the March 2020 issue

Communism in Style

In this memoir/biography hybrid, writer and filmmaker Nadia Kamel describes her mother’s experience as a member of an Egyptian communist cell in the 1940s.

As the French communists left the country, they handed me over to an Egyptian cell. The guy in charge of this Egyptian cell—and by extension, me—was someone called Abdelssetar Ettawila. He was a member of the organization’s central committee, not by election and not because he’d earned it, but by rising through the ranks. When the central committee members were arrested, those next in line took over the leadership. But then this second group was arrested too, and guys like Ettawila ended up in charge. Ettawila was responsible for the “technical arm,” basically the printing press. The leaders in prison wanted the technical arm in particular to keep going. The pamphlets had to, absolutely had to, continue getting printed and distributed, so as to give the impression to the police that there were loads more communists out there other than the ones who’d already been arrested. That’s how I officially became a member of a pamphlet-distribution cell.  

Supposedly, looking like a foreigner would avoid raising suspicion. I’m fairly white and my hair was in style, just like Dominique Blanchar’s, the French actress. I liked bangs because I had an issue with my forehead being too small; I was convinced that a large forehead signified intelligence and a small forehead was a sign of stupidity. At the peak of my involvement with the Italians—lectures, culture, struggle, communism, national liberation, cholera—I was also into fashion. So, I took a monthlong tailoring class at Profili and started sewing my own clothes à la mode. The communist guys took one look at me and said: “This one here would be perfect. No one would suspect her.”

I’m starting to remember how it all worked. Most of the members were still high school students and needed language lessons. I’d go to their homes and give them French lessons and leave pamphlets with them. I’d get paid for the lessons and Ettawila would take the money from me. It was volunteer work for the political cause. All of this—my parents knew none of it.

I got to know the members of this first cell. There was Aida Essehimi and Aleyya, the daughter of Mahmoud Pasha, who lived in a chic house in Garden City. Her French governess called her Aliette to make her sound French. She would take her to France in the summer and bring her back to Egypt speaking French flawlessly.

Aleyya invited me for lunch, an interesting experience. They had me sit next to “Aliette,” and the cook would prepare all the food, except for the meat. Then, while we were all sitting at the table, eating, the governess would get up in the middle of the meal to make the filet or entrecôteà la minute—with her own hands while the butler and the cook stood by. The meat would come out hot, straight from the fire, and we’d eat it up right then.

Aleyya came over for lunch at our place, too. And she brought her dada, the French governess, who wanted to make sure everything was OK. We were still living on Naim Street at the time, a very humble part of town, but the governess liked the atmosphere of our home anyway.

I needed Arabic lessons, because as a khawaga, a foreigner, I didn’t speak much Arabic. The same for Aleyya: she practically didn’t know any Arabic at all. So Ettawila would come to Aleyya’s at around three, after lunch, to pose as our Arabic teacher, wearing his suit and tarboush. He took long strides, and the tassel of his tarboush bounced as he crossed the house—and it was a big house—until we reached the study. But he really did give us Arabic lessons and some homework. Since we were fighting alongside Egyptian communists, we did, after all, need better Arabic.

Aleyya and I went on these adventures as if we were on vacation—having lunches together, giving and receiving language lessons, going to the cinema, and secretly distributing pamphlets. What I’m trying to say is that we didn’t have a sense of how dangerous it all was.

Ettawila’s code name was Fathi, and he was one of what they called “professional revolutionaries.” This meant that the organization used its membership dues to pay for his expenses so he could be a full-time revolutionary. He left his house and lived at an unknown location to protect the printing press and organize us. Communication took place via the telephone of the company I worked for, John Dickenson Stationery. After a few Arabic lessons, Ettawila and his tarboush disappeared for a few days, and then he called me on the company’s phone: “I’m on the run. They came to arrest me. Let’s change the meeting place: next time we’ll meet on Qasr El Nile Avenue.”

“Yes, of course,” I replied.

So I went. You had to go up the elevator to the top floor, and then you’d take the service stairs to the roof. It was a plain room. And that’s where we continued our Arabic lessons. He gave me a code name, and I wrote my new name on the Arabic textbook: Fadila. I kept on giving French lessons, but to a new student. Guess where! The Citadel, a poor area where for someone who looks pretty khawaga like me to pass through there—of course, that caught people’s attention. I would go left on Muhammad Ali Street, where the wedding belly dancers live, and this new student’s house was on one of the side streets. His family was respectful; they didn’t make me feel uncomfortable at all.

Another time, Ettawila called me at work: “Don’t come to the room. Meet me at the Bab Ellouq tram station and walk behind me like you don’t know me. I’ll be wearing a white gallabeya.

There was still a tram in those days. And sure enough, I found him walking, looking left and right, pretty shifty. He made sure that I’d seen him and was following him. I didn’t know where we were going. He told me that the police had raided the room on the roof. “And I fled down the service stairs wearing this white gallabeya; they thought I was one of the servants.”

He fled the room, leaving behind everything that was in it, including my Arabic textbook. But thank God, the name on the textbook was my code name, Fadila. That’s the whole point of code names.

Ettawila started staying with a new comrade who lived with his mother. Of course, they were hiding the printing press there. All I know about that comrade is that his code name was Abdennaby. I don’t remember his real name. We were a cell: Ettawila, comrade Abdennaby, and me.

I remember the Sayyida Zaynab house because it was the last one.

This is what political work was all about: evading the secret police, raising money through the French lessons I gave, and distributing pamphlets.

That whole year, the police were looking for the technical arm, you know, the printing press—how come I never saw it, that printing press! The print was ridiculous, by the way. In those days, I only knew a bit of Arabic, and the pamphlets were written in Arabic, of course—lots of crowded text. They didn’t print in bold, for example, with slogans and clear ideas, oh no! It was two or three pages of tiny text, stapled here and there. Yalla, whatever, but it was so primitive, the process of spreading communist thought throughout Egyptian society. I’m sure very few people actually sat down and read that publication.

Abdennaby’s house was behind the Sayyida Zaynab mosque. You entered a little alley on the right, then took a left, and it was a poor house in that little alley. There was no way you’d pass through these alleyways unless you lived there. Of course, from the moment I stepped foot in there, people noticed there was a “stranger.”

Anyway, the issue they proposed to me, two other comrades, Ahmed Errifaey and Anwar Abdelmalek, was that they wanted to rent a house to store the printing press. But a regular married couple had to live there so the police wouldn’t notice, and the couple had to agree that their house would become the “technical arm.” They didn’t find any volunteers. And supposedly that’s the reason why the marriage between Ettawila and me took place. They asked me: “Are you prepared to get married?”

I was prepared for anything. I was hypnotized by the atmosphere of adventure, of secrecy and conspiracy and struggle against the police. I wasn’t thinking things through.

“Does the person you marry have to be a Christian?”

I found the question a little strange. My understanding was that I was going to go undercover and become a professional. I’d leave public life, I’d leave my parents’ house, I’d run away from my father and mother. So how—under those circumstances—could they ask me “Christian or Muslim?” What did it matter?

I told them: “No, he doesn’t.”

The truth is, I hadn’t really noticed that Egyptians were Christians and Muslims. Egyptians were Egyptians—Arabs—and the khawagas were the ones who were Christians and Jews. It was all a mess in my mind.

They thought about it for a while, and I guess, in the end, they couldn’t find another way to hide that printing press.

Clearly, I was incredibly stupid. Ettawila was twenty-two years old, and I would turn eighteen in a month. He said to me, “But we need a marriage contract.”

“OK, no problem.”

“Let’s do an unofficial marriage contract with witnesses, because we can’t register an official marriage without papers.”

Now I’m wondering whose papers were missing: his or mine?

One day, we did the unofficial marriage contract at Ahmed Errifaey’s, in a small alleyway in Mounira: another wrong place. I shouldn’t have gone to those places because if there were any secret police surveilling them, they’d have noticed me right away. That whole marriage thing was immaturity and a form of exploitation, too. Because a foreign girl walking through Sayyida Zaynab really catches the eye. Marriage didn’t change that. In any case, we did the contract with Ahmed Errifaey present as a witness, and Anwar Abdelmalek as the second witness—he was the only one uncomfortable with this whole operation.

After a week or ten days, Ettawila told me that Abdennaby and his mother were poor, so I ought to be bringing a kilo of rice or sugar every time I came over. I didn’t have any money—I was working as a secretary and was still new at the job. I only made six pounds a month and gave it all to my parents. At home, we had a little cupboard, a kind of pantry, so I took some tea and sugar. And my mother started asking me, my father, and Berto, who was thirteen years old, “Did you take the sugar?” I said no. We all said no. It remained a mystery at home—how could sugar disappear? Wallahi, I don’t know what came over me, but I only did it once. It didn’t feel right to do that to my parents. It felt like stealing.

This period didn’t last long. On March 30, 1949—my eighteenth birthday—I was supposed to go home at the end of the day and celebrate with my parents, but just as I was about to leave work, I got a call from Ettawila saying that we had a cell meeting in Sayyida Zaynab. I arrived at Abdennaby’s house, and there were some foul and falafel sandwiches on the desk for lunch. It was a cell meeting, so maybe there were papers on the table along with the sandwiches. I had just sat down at the desk when the door swung open and four or five men entered the house. They spread out everywhere, and one of them grabbed me by the arms. I don’t remember if Abdennaby’s mother opened the door or if they broke in. Ettawila got up, and they grabbed him too. Then they started searching the house. It took me a good while to realize that they were the police—they were wearing civilian clothes. I was in shock, emotionally and mentally paralyzed. And I discovered that when I’m in shock, I stop thinking or feeling anything. I just stood there as if I were watching a movie, not events that were actually happening to me, events that I was a part of. They arrested Abdennaby, and I learned later that the poor guy was just a novice communist. He was really upset at Ettawila for ruining his life. They took Ettawila, too, of course, and I didn’t see him again, except in court at our trial.

From Born. © Nadia Kamel. Published by Al Karma Publishers. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Brady Ryan and Essayed Taha. All rights reserved.

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