Recipes for relating
Gedo, mama and aunt Neamat, blurred
Step out onto the Planet
Draw a circle a hundred feet round.
Inside the circle are
300 things nobody understands, and, maybe
nobody’s ever really seen
How many can you find?
I begin with (possibly) an end. My mother and I are leaving the governorate of Giza, on the outskirts of Northern Egypt, after a short and heartfelt visit to the site of the old villa where mama and my maternal aunts lived their entire lives. Waiting for the cab to arrive and pick us up, mama breaks the silence: “This is where I lived for the first 25 years of my life, then left. Nasr City is where I lived for the second thirty years of my life, and here we are, getting ready to leave again.” I stare at her in awe, uncertainty and empathy. I do not know how to answer. Our pains overlap: I have known the villa for perhaps ten years, and shared a sudden and abrupt move out of the middle-class neighbourhood of Nasr City to one of the recently mushrooming gated compounds in the deserts of eastern Cairo. Yet the pains are also different. She relates differently, to old homes, to new ones, and to memories that for me might seem tragic. She remembers and forgets differently, more comfortably I assume (hope), through her body, her ways of inhabiting the world while peacefully weaving her pasts, presents and futures into an unsettling permeability.
I. The Trees
Gedo leaning against a tree in Libya.
The “bending” tree in Giza.
Give me a land of boughs in leaf,
A land of trees that stand;
Where trees are fallen, there is grief;
I love no leafless land.
I took mama to Safwat Street in Giza, where the villa used to be, as a brief rekindling of memory on a day off from school. We took the underground metro, and were off to Giza. We spent around an hour wandering up and down each street around the villa. After my grandparents left the villa that they had rented for more than thirty years, it was taken down to be replaced by an ugly skyrocketing building, one more fitting to a vision of a city with taller buildings carrying tens of people on the same plot of land. My grandparents, my teta and gedo, left Giza after my maternal grandmother, Teta Toto, was diagnosed with leukaemia. They moved together to a small apartment in a military-owned building complex in North East Cairo where my aunt also lives. The move was strategic, to help shorten the journey time to Teta and Gedo, with unfolding illness and the vagaries of aging to come.
Can we so confidently say that everything had so drastically changed in Safwat Street, decades later? According to mama, not really. All the old villas were brought down and replaced with huge towers. The street looked somewhat odd to her. She walked as she recalled people; Tante Mary who lived right next to their villa, Magdy il-Housseiny who used to be part of the legendary Egyptian singer Um-Kulthoum’s orchestra (and whose villa is still there, uninhabited), and countless others. My last visit to the old villa was more than fifteen years ago, when I was a young child roaming around in shorts and devouring roasted sweet potatoes. Mama kept reminding me of those everyday details of inhabiting the villa and our weekly visits: where my father’s car used to be parked, waiting for us to come down and return to Nasr City, and where Teta used to rush out of the porch with sizzling French fries to keep us full on our way home.
As we walked to the street corner, she stopped and stared. “It is only the trees that remain untouched. Don’t you remember this bending tree? It has been there ever since we came here as children.” I didn’t remember the bending tree so well, but the trees did look old and somehow familiar. Once voluminous, according to mama, they now looked emaciated, weak, almost leafless. But they stood there, still. Another tree appeared as we walked back towards the villa and the school right next to it. Mama remembered bells, honks and screaming teachers, while I remembered none. A huge tree, so brightly blocking the entrance of the school. She confidently told me that it was a mango tree that had also always been there: a standing tree alive with memories, of annoying/annoyed students throwing stones, begging/bullying for a midday snack. The trees were mama’s geography of the place, the remnant of buildings, livelihoods and everyday practices that no longer held. They bore witness to a life that seemed distant, too fleeting, cast away too far.
But this first silence isn’t yet silence. Let us wait, for the leaves of the trees will still settle themselves more comfortably, and some belated footsteps on the stairs may awaken hope.
II: The Rooftop: Teta Khadra, Geese and Suicidal Chicken
Teta Khadra with geese.
Great-grandfather with mama and aunt Nora on the Giza villa’s rooftop.
Teta Khadra, Teta Toto, uncle Hafez, mama, aunt Nora, and two house helpers on the Giza villa’s rooftop.
We run so quickly up to the rooftop and the geese so violently run towards us. They open their mouths, with their sharp teeth showing so brightly. They start shouting at us. We begin waving them away with our hands and move slowly to check all the animals.
My fieldnotes, November 2017
After the visit to Giza, I went to my aunt Neamat’s apartment for a quick chat about the villa. She began with the above scene, with mama nostalgically nodding in agreement. The recurrent voice of the shouting geese transported them to their otherworld, to the villa’s rooftop. In Egypt as in other parts of the Arab world is the widespread practice of raising animals on the rooftop of the family home. These animals could include goats, rabbits and sheep, as well as ducks, geese, turkeys and chickens, raised and nurtured to be later slaughtered and eaten. Keeping the rooftop community intact was, then, very demanding: caring for and feeding the creatures, disciplining them, documenting their sizes, and preparing them as meals.
Mama and my aunts, young children back then, never knew why the geese shouted whenever they set foot on the rooftop. Was it out of fear, to protect their baby geese, eggs, and companion animals? Or was it to protect Teta Khadra? Teta Khadra, my great-grandmother, lived in the villa with mama, Gedo and Teta Toto for years, after the death of her own husband. She spent the entirety of her days up on the rooftop, coming down only to sleep. She did that to contribute to the labour of the household, but also to respect the privacy of my gedo’s nuclear family. But she also very much loved the rooftop and passionately cared for all its beings. And perhaps this also has to do with the fact that the rooftop was closer in nature to the rooftop of her old house, in the governorate of Daqahliyya, in the eastern Delta of the River Nile. Khadra, in Arabic, means the colour green, and is the best manifestation of Teta Khadra’s existence on the rooftop and her multispecies-imbued self.
Mama and aunt Neamat’s laughter continued, recalling an incident that frequently occurred on that bizarre rooftop. The rooftop was fenceless. In their wandering roundabouts, some chickens would frequently jump – or fall – off and into the garden or the street. A state of emergency was immediately in order: Teta Toto and Gedo would run over to the suicidal chicken to slaughter her before it was too late. In Islamic law, only a religiously slaughtered animal can be eaten. “Dead” meat cannot be consumed. In a moment, a chicken that they loved and cared for had to pass away, be slaughtered, and immediately move to its other site of relationality – gastronomically, in the bellies of my maternal family.
After Teta Khadra passed away, all the burdens of feeding and loving these animals were transferred to Teta Toto and her three daughters. Gedo, however, was never out of the picture. The regularity of his countless trips to the Ministry of Agriculture to buy medications and fertilizer, to local markets to buy corn and grains to feed the sheep, to bakeries to buy ends of bread for the animals, weaved yet another layer of the archive of the villa and my maternal family’s history. For mama and my aunt, the villa was also the rooftop, with all its proliferating, flowing modes of life.
Gedo’s inventory of the rooftop animals.
III: The Body Right There
After her second child (who is mama), Teta Toto finally conceived a boy. Awaiting this triumphant moment was so difficult, since Teta’s lack of male children was seen as a weakness –who would carry Gedo’s name onwards? Unfortunately, the baby was born dead after five months. Though a medical practitioner, Gedo did not know how to dispose of the baby. They both agreed to bury him in the villa’s garden. And it happened, right next to the window overlooking Teta’s kitchen. Aunt Neamat recalls seeing Teta tearing up a couple of times, as she approached this window or wandered in the garden.
I asked mama about this painful incident, and she calmly explained to me that there was no other way of disposing of their little brother. Would Gedo have opened their family graves for this premature baby who was not even perceived as a human yet? Would they have thrown him away? The boy, for them, was not fully dead, and thus had to be safely kept in a way that would allow his life to ecologically pulsate. Teta cried often upon approaching the window, but the safety of his proximity, they say, made it easier for her to make peace with death.
In turn, the garden stood there as fleshy biography and a living witness, hosting a number of animals along with the deceased boy. Some rabbits and chickens were also kept in the garden, in addition to the ones on the rooftop. The animals ate the garden’s produce, in all its multispecies and microbial collaboration, and were later eaten by my maternal family, ingested into my maternal bloodline. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the premature death of the male child, the bloodline continued: the fleshy memories were carried on, in photographs, in rooftop narratives, in animal inventories and ever-present memories.
reminder hits me; this world is still alive;
it stretches out there shivering toward its own
creation, and I’m part of it. Even my breathing
enters into this elaborate give-and-take,
this bowing to sun and moon, day or night,
winter, summer, storm, still—this tranquil
chaos that seems to be going somewhere.
This wilderness with a great peacefulness in it.
This motionless turmoil, this everything dance.
Gedo with mama and aunt Neamat in the Giza villa.
IV: The Rivulet
Gedo and Teta Toto with their three daughters and a house helper walking by the Giza rivulet.
A place will have been half riverbed, it will have been scratched and plowed by ice. And then it will be cultivated, paved, sprayed, dammed, graded, built up. But each is only for a while, and that will be just another set of lines on the palimpsest. The whole earth is a great tablet holding the multiple overlaid new and ancient traces of the swirl of forces.
On our way to and from Giza, mama and my aunts always talk about the little rivulet near the villa. It used to be their Thursday getaway. A familial weekly ritual at its best: my mother takes her sisters and they go to relax by the rivulet, and buy some snacks on their way back home. The rivulet has been there ever since they were born. Their uncle rented a little shop right next to it, which became an added benefit to their weekly ritual. Uncle Hafez was a food guru and so his shop specialized in pickles of all kinds, aromas, tastes and techniques. The stories of the rivulet that mama and Aunt Neamat narrated were entangled with Uncle Hafez’s green and black olives, pickled carrots, and pickled hot pepper pasta recipe. The three girls would always fight over who would taste it first, and fought even more fiercely with their mother whenever she warned them that Uncle Hafez’s food was too spicy for their still-developing intestines.
The rivulet’s tentacles extended even more with the stories of their cousin Diaa. For me, the image of a rivulet is of dirty, unmoving, green water with smelly algae all around. Why and how could an unmoving body of murky water be of any benefit? But Diaa, upon arriving from his rural hometown to visit every few months, always took the three girls for a fishing adventure in the rivulet. The three girls would head out with Diaa and learn the wonders of generative waiting, deliciously fantasizing about the meal to come. Diaa provided loving guidance and company, but so did the rivulet. There were always plenty of fish, according to mama, and the three girls with their uncle always returned triumphantly with a fresh catch. They would go home and immediately clean, cut and prepare the fish into a delicious banquet, with spicy and salty pickles of Uncle Hafez’s making.
Time elapsed and the rivulet, after the family left the villa, became waterless. The government considered it as being of no benefit, in fact as rather obstructing its mega-plan to develop Giza. The narrow street, watering and watered, witness to family picnics and fishing expeditions, took only a few years to unfold into a huge road with supermarket chains and restaurants on either side.
Yet this waterless, overcrowded street also brought those multispecies memories of the rivulet back ever more persistently. Even though I can’t clearly recall the rivulet, it still flows there, animated by mama’s stories and memories, a repository of feelings, tastes, sentiments and collaborations. Overflowing with stories of fish, and recipes for relating, belonging and remembering.
Coda: Where am I?
Gedo and Teta Toto with author (in blue pyjamas) and the other five grandchildren.
The facts were told not to speak
And were taken away.
The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent.
Now it was only the rivers
That spoke of the rivers,
And only the wind that spoke of its bees,
While the unpausing factual buds of the fruit trees
Continued to move toward their fruit.
The silence spoke loudly of silence,
And the rivers kept speaking,
Of rivers, of boulders and air
Mama talks of their villa’s garden as a garden of Eden. She talks of its mangos, grapes, pomegranates and guava trees. She says it was a world of its own. I cannot even remember that there was a garden in the villa; I cannot recall where it stood, how it looked, how I felt towards it, or what kinds of creatures lived there. It powerfully evades my memory. The inside of the villa is likewise absent from my memory, except upon holding a family photograph taken there, or recalling a story that mama narrates so religiously. I can vaguely remember the bedrooms, the chocolate-coloured salon, some corners of the kitchen and its associated storeroom, and the bathroom where a huge spider once walked over my legs as I screamed and ran for help. But I cannot remember details, as those mama narrates. After all, she had lived there for a significant chunk of her life, while I never felt the importance of the villa that viscerally or intimately. But it surprises me that I cannot even recall that there was a garden.
Throughout these conversations with mama and my aunt, mama is never surprised at the details that her sister recalls but that she cannot. Some events, stories, colours of walls and memories are not part of mama’s narrative, but are evidently – and significantly – part of my aunt’s. Mama does not regret or blame her “weak” memory, or feel any tinge of guilt. Yet my fears still escalate; what about the things that I cannot remember? What do I do with a failure to remember the details of a geography that I know is not mapped anywhere else? What do I do with those undocumented geographies, dried-up and damped rivulets, and lively, un-remembered gardens?
If you don’t have courage, then don’t enter. Then wait for the rest of darkness, beyond silence, with only your feet wet from the foam of something that overflows from within us.
Nothing stays put. The world is a wheel.
All that we know, that we’re
made of, is motion.
Noha is a PhD student in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Toronto. Among other things, Noha finds inspiration in food and the voluminous handwritten recipe books that her mother passionately fed her, as food for bodies and food for thought.