Al-Mawloudah by Nadia Kamel, Al-Karma Printing House, 2018.
“But maybe one day when you are older and wiser, you will come to realize that a human life is made of so many contradictions; this is not just about me. Maybe if you poke some people around you and you get them to share a bit, they would show the many contradictions that they have live with and have carried throughout their lives."
This is the message that Nayela Kamel, born Mary Elia Rozenthal, wanted to leave her grandson Ali with as she approached the end of a life that unintentionally celebrated diversity and survived many difficult crossings.
The tale of this woman is recounted in the recently published novel Al-Mawloudah. Born ("mawlouda" in Arabic) Mary, she eventually became Nayela Kamel when she met, loved and married Saad Kamel.
The book stands comfortably in the overlap of biography, memoir and novel and is written from Mary/Nayela's own account.
It was Nadia Kamel, the eldest daughter of Nayela, who wrote the book upon the volumes of notes and recordings that she had collected through endless chats with her mother for over 10 years.
Born in the heart of Cairo to a Jewish father of Turkish-Ukranian origin and an Italian mother, neither of whom who bore Egyptian citizenship, Mary grew up in a mixed religious and cultural community of Egyptians with diverse foreign origins.
Like her own grandmother who converted to Judaism to marry a husband with whom she had five sons, one of whom was Elia, Mary's father, Mary herself went through the uneasy path of religion, cultural, and political crossings -- not just for love and marriage but for life in general.
It was very early on in her life that Mary had to struggle to reconcile her contradicting parts. She stood by her angry mother to convince the administration of the Italian school in Cairo to let her enroll, although she carried no documents to prove her Italian nationality. With her mother pressing that her daughter was Italian by birth, Mary had only ever thought of herself as Egyptian until that point. She was "of course, Italian. We speak Italian at home" -- something that was only partially true.
A little over a decade later, Mary went to jail for her Communist affiliations. There too, she had to deal with prisoners and inmates who saw her in so many different lights – even if the original indictment gave her the nametag of "Communist”.
Mary fell in love with Saad Kamel before her imprisonment and, once out, they married, forcing her to leave her familiar lower-middle class life and diverse community in Boulaq to join a Muslim upper-middle class household in Dokki.
She also had to leave her life of politics and play for the more standstill role of pregnant wife and mother. Meanwhile, her mother in law and own mother varyingly disapproved of how she raised her daughter.
And like her grandparents, who chose to be baptized as Christians a few years after their marriage, Mary chose to convert to Islam, most probably for the convenience of social integration to convert into Islam, taking the name Nayela Kamel. She kept this conversion from her parents for the rest of their time in Egypt. Later they went to Italy in the midst of high anti-foreign sentiment that came with the consequent establishment of Israel in 1948 and the 1956 and 1967 wars.
Religion was perhaps the first, biggest and best-hidden contradiction that Mary-Nayela had to live through. Next was her association with the Rosenthal family, some of whom had left for Israel. For a woman whose entire passion was strictly reserved for Egypt, she now would not be fully taken for Egyptian.
As Al-Mawloudah reveals, Mary-Nayela had taken this Israeli association away from the space of alert consciousness. She was busy with life, with politics, with love and with disappointments.
Her father would go on the trip to visit his family and relatives at the Jewish Ally neighbourhood in old Cairo and he would come back and carry greetings but Mary-Nayela would respond with an unintentionally abrupt kind remark. She would do so to in response to greetings sent in the letters of family members living in Israel, including direct cousins whose company she had enjoyed in her younger years.
Only at a later age did she yearn for a hug from her dear cousin with whom she had parted years before. It was perplexing. As Mary-Naeyla says to her grandson Nabil, who was born to the younger daughter of the Kamels, Dina, and the son of a Palestinian couple, Nabil and Safaa Shaath, it almost seemed contradicting.
The story of Mary-Nayela is essentially about her own recollections as shared with her own daughter.
Kamel, speaking at a book signing and discussion that was recently organized by Diwan Book Store, said that what she produced is the outcome of a very rich experience, holds all the stories, but “not necessarily the exact facts because ultimately this what she was recalling and our recollections are inevitably the byproduct of our memory."
The author said that she was not worried about the labeling of her text as memoir, biography or novel. What was of concern for her was to share the story of her own parents and their contribution to public life before it was too late for their story to be told.
It was the story, she said, that her mother wanted to be told.
Kamel told her mother’s story almost but not entirely in her mother’s words and language. “I had to adapt her own style to the requirements of writing,” she said.
Al-Mawloudah is only partially about the life of one woman of Egypt; it is not just that.
It is also the documentation of an oral history of Egypt's foreigners, Jews and Communists; of the inhabitants of Cairo, the consecutive rules of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat and of course of the latter's dramatic visit to Jerusalem and the subsequent peace process.
Above all, it is a story told from the heart with a great deal of passion.