A Brief History of an Egyptian Duck
By Adel Murad
A remarkable woman we used to call "Mama Batta" (Mother Duck) died recently in Cairo. This brief biography is dedicated to her life which serves as an example of Egyptian courage in the face of limited means, adversity and lofty ambitions.
Batta was born in 1929 to a middle class Coptic family in northern Cairo. Her father worked for the government, which at the time was the most secure employer in Egypt. Her mother was a housewife who had two earlier sons and another daughter. Two are still alive today. The early years were unremarkable, except for the barbaric trauma of female circumcision. Her second shock came at 16 when she was told that her school days were over, because she was to be married, to a total stranger.
Fortunately, the man she married was young and handsome; he was also an orphan. She did not have to please another family. But, marriage for her was a burden in the early years. She lost her first born, a boy, when she was 17, and another baby daughter before she was 20. Her agony shaped her later years and made her determined not to lose any more.
Four children survived, a daughter, and three sons. She kept her promise not to lose another child. She had to spend two weeks at a "fever hospital' in Cairo with a gravely ill child, in a desperate effort to keep him alive. During these two weeks, her mother was busy preparing for another child's funeral that never was.
For a while, life smiled on Mama Batta. Her children went through Egyptian education with above average grades. She got up at dawn every day to prepare them for school. Her husband, an engineer at the Egyptian railways, worked hard to make ends meet.
Early signs of frustration soon appeared when it became obvious the family needs far exceeded their limited means. Batta advised her husband to seek a private sector job for better pay. But, his attempts failed. Employers said he was too naive; he said he was honest. Mama Batta relished the story of her husband's failed private sector job. He was a brilliant engineer who could fix anything. He once worked with for a company that fixed home appliances, especially washing machines. He was sent on a house call to a terrified housewife, who lived in a luxury apartment block. She told him that her gas cooker almost exploded when she tried to light it up, and would he please check it out. She was too scared to go to the kitchen to show him the cooker.
He went in, examined the cooker, found nothing wrong with it, except that the top ring was misplaced. He tested the cooker and told the customer: "Nothing wrong with your cooker, only a misplaced ring -no charge this time". When he reported back to the company the manager called him in and told him politely that his employment was terminated. "We will all go bankrupt if we worked that way", he said to him. The manager wanted him to 'invent' a problem and charge highly for fixing it! It seems that such honest men do not last long. When he died at 47, he left Mama Batta a young widow with four children, and no decent means of support.
She summoned her children and said: "We either lie down and die, or we fight. It is going to be hard for a few years, but your best weapon is education. Finish your collage education and let no distraction take you away from that.
At 39, she refused to remarry, and dedicated herself to creating four success stories despite the bleak outlook. Unable to raise any significant income, she concentrated on limiting the family's needs. She had to be at home to take care of the routine and supervise the studies. Home for the children was like a work camp and a library: books everywhere and a quiet time to study. Home cooking, cleaning and sewing became regular duties for Mama Batta. She was also known to study some of her children's books, and became conversant in English.
The kids knew from an early age that whatever else they did, they did not cross Mama Batta. One friend of the family tried to, and lived to regret it. He was a guarantor on a loan taken by her husband. When her husband died, the insurance repaid the loan in full, but the 'friend' continued to claim the money from Mama Batta for three whole months after her husband's death. He claimed the money, even though he knew she needed every penny. When she eventually found out, she went straight to his superiors at work and made her case known to a large group of railway workers who were friends of her late husband. The man was hounded everywhere until he came to Mama Batta pleading with her to forgive him and take the money back. She took the money, and then kicked him out.
Other 'hard men' were known to fear Mama Batta. When a new landlord tried to raise her monthly rent, she paid her usual rent in court, and he never got paid by her directly ever again.All four of Mama Batta children graduated with university degrees. When two of them decided to go abroad, she encouraged them to go forth and build their future. She would see them off with a smile, then go home from the airport and cry her heart out.
She rejected her family's advice to remarry. She also rejected an advice to find manual jobs for her kids and cut short their education. And she rejected all invitations to leave Egypt and go abroad: "I was born here, and I will die here", she said.
When she died, on May 27, 2000, she was sitting down in her favorite chair. "She looked asleep.. wouldn't answer me when I spoke to her", said her youngest son, who lived with her. She was later examined by her other son, a medical doctor. He concluded that a massive heart attack ended her life painlessly that morning. He arranged for all documentation and procedures to be completed within a few hours. In hot Cairo, funerals are usually arranged on the day of death. She was buried at 5 pm in a private family tomb, very near to her husband's. In a letter she wrote two days earlier to be posted to her third son abroad , she wrote:
"I hear you are planning to buy me an apartment for my retirement. I do not need another apartment, I am happy here. The years have run out fast. I feel lonely sometimes and long to talk to my husband.. I have a long story to tell him....".
A note from Jimmy Dunn
Mama Batta was the mother of Adel Murad, the author of this column, and this issue is dedicated to her memory. However, this brief memorial to her points out both the dedication to learning that is so prevalent in Egypt, as well as the strength and foundation of Egyptian families.
See Also :
Budget and Independent Travel to Egypt - Part I By Jimmy Dunn
Historical Hotels in Egypt - Part I By Jimmy Dunn
Editor's Commentary By Jimmy Dunn
Ancient Beauty Secrets By Judith Illes
Book Reviews Various Editors
Kid's Corner By Margo Wayman
Cooking with Tour Egypt By Mary K Radnich
Hotel Reviews By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian Exhibitions By deTraci Regula
Nightlife Various Editors
Restaurant Reviews Various Editors
Shopping Around By Juergen Stryjak
Egyptian View-Point By Adel Murad
Medical Advice in Egypt By Dr. Sameh Arab, M.D.
Last Updated: May 18th, 2011