It’s easy to feel nostalgic for the Cairo of yesteryear, playful, peaceful and beautiful in its way, especially compared to the pious, packed and battle-scarred place it has become. The contrast is stark enough to me, having known Cairo in the 1980s, but to some older friends the city must seem quite strange. I visited one a few days ago, Khadrea Foda, now around 94 years old. She grew up in a harem (part of the household dedicated to women and children) in a wealthy Francophile Egyptian family. The eunuch who guarded the place used to buy her cigarettes on the sly. After college, she married and had two children. Her husband died relatively young but although she had suitors, Khadrea never remarried.
I met her in her still-youthful seventies: petite, attractive and charismatic, a ready wit in four languages and a shrewd judge of character. Khadrea was both a presence at the cocktail parties of the well-to-do and one of Cairo’s best loved hostesses, opening her flat on the Nile island of Zamalek to friends and strangers alike. A typical luncheon might last from two in the afternoon until sunset. The house would be filled with roses, often pink, Edith Piaf bleating softly in the background, Khadrea perfectly coiffed and sprightly despite a walking stick.
At around 3pm the cook set out the buffet, typically a gigantic vol au vent au fruits de mer, meats roasted and stewed, piles of raisin- studded rice, spinach salad scat- tered with pomegranate seeds, lychee and strawberries for desert in winter and mango ice cream in the summer. The guests were ladies with nicknames like Zizette, Mimette and Shushu. You’d find bankers but also writers and whatever friend of a friend happened to be passing through. Khadrea loved journalists, especially French ones, ‘They know everything that happens’ she said.
Khadrea’s life has so far encompassed plenty of momentous happenings. She has seen the reign of two kings, Fouad and his ill-fated son Farouk. She lived though the British occupation and two world wars, and well-recalls the second, when the capital was abuzz with allied troops, dashing officers, diplomats and spies. Khadrea’s family survived the Free Officers Revolution of 1952, though they lost most of their Nile Delta farmlands thanks to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s land redistribution policies. Many old families left Egypt back then, having lost so much and despairing of Egypt’s future, but Khadrea’s held on. During the tenures of presidents Sadat and Mubarak, business improved and the stars of some of some of her circle rose again. There was always something to celebrate: a birthday, anniversary, the full moon, and Khadrea and her kind did it grandly.
By 25 January 2011, when Egyptians gathered to force the tenacious Hosni Mubarak from office, Khadrea had had retired to her son-in-law’s villa, nestled in a glorious garden on the edge of the Delta.
Although confined to a wheelchair she’s a fighter, battling will against body, thriving on conversation and the company of friends, following the events of this latest twist in Egypt’s plot.
Her life has been characterised less by decadence than graciousness, self-confidence and acceptance of change. She belongs to a gone world, full of romance and possibilities, although the one Egypt is actually living was surely never imagined.
In Khadrea’s day, the future seemed so promising a destination, no one bothered considered the best path to get there. Nostalgia is a kind of self-indulgence but it also renders service, in keeping memories of other possibilities, those realised and still awaiting realisation, alive.
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