Book review: Mohamed Sid-Ahmed: Glimpses from a rich life

Mahmoud El-Wardany, Wednesday 15 Dec 2010

In a testament at times moving and always inspiring, Mona Anis has evoked the subtle greatness of one of Egypt’s intellectual heavyweights

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed: Lamahat mn Hayat Ghaneya (Mohamed Sid-Ahmed: Glimpses from a Rich Life), Edited by Mona Anis, Cairo: Dar el Shorouk, 2010. pp228

The general consensus of the late Mohamed Sid-Ahmed is no surprise - not only to his friends and colleagues in the Egyptian left-wing movement, but to many people from all walks of life. They found him to be a unique man, even a saint, able to look beyond what is seen by the majority. 

His rich life is revealed in the book Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, compiled by the prominent editor, Mona Anis and published by Dar El-Shorouk. This collection of well-prepared and well-written accounts provides a deep insight into the many facets of his impressive and influential personality. 

The book is divided into three sections covering different elements of his life. The section entitled, “Family Memories” is filled with moving testimonials from his wife, children, sister and lifelong friend. It is followed by “Years of Struggle”, where his friends and comrades in the socialist movement pay their tributes. “A Greeting” includes accounts from his intellectual contemporaries, with a wide array of political opinions. Finally, “In His Own Words” we find his personal testament, which he presented to the “Committee for the Recording of the Egyptian Socialist Movement” during the 1990s. 

Rooted in the highest traditions

Born in 1928 to an aristocratic family, rooted in the highest traditions, Sid-Ahmed’s life resembled many of those who joined the second wave of the socialist movement between the 1940s and 1960s. They repudiated their noble upbringing and social surroundings and preferred to explore the socialist order, standing up for their thoughts and convictions and spending many years of imprisonment, during the time of the monarchy and later under Nasser. They had to endure torture and humiliation in the prisons of Abu-Zaabal (a famous prison north of Cairo) and Mahariq (a prison in the Kharga Oasis) and faced financial ruin. But most importantly, they had to experience detachment from their social class, with all its privileges, moving down to a much lower rank. 

Ahmed’s father was the governor of Suez, then Fayoum and Port Said, and his aunt was the wife of the prime minister, so he had a privileged upbringing, “born with a golden spoon in his mouth”. His first introduction to socialism was on a visit to a family friend, married to a Russian lady, where he found a book about Lenin (the leader of the Russian Bolshevik revolution) which opened his eyes to a whole new world. Later on, during his schooling at the Lycee Francais, his Marxist teacher, Rene Granier had a great influence on him, along with others such as Shohdy Attia (communist rebel and writer) and Anwar Abdel-Malek (journalist and intellectual). 

From the Lycee, Sid-Ahmed supported the creation of the leftist movement, through lectures and debates. Finally, he joined Eskra (Russian for flame), a left-wing secret organisation, cutting the last thread with his social class and tying himself to one of the most radical organisations known. 

Policemen in disguise

This decision drove him to return from France to Egypt, where he had travelled upon his father’s request to join the organisation’s training camp for two years. The movement’s extreme radicalism stood out most during the imprisonment of its members; they would never talk to anyone believing that all were “policemen in disguise”. When a friend, Kareem El-Kharady, serving a five-year sentence, found a solution to a mathematical problem, which had been mistakenly taught for 20 years, he sent word to the prison warden who told him, “Do you think you’re so important that the regime would set up a special prison and fill it with informers just for you?” 

Sid-Ahmed then studied engineering, law and fine arts. Following his first two-year prison sentence he established the New Democracy publishing house. After his second imprisonment, from 1959-1964, he joined Al-Ahram as a writer until 2006, where he fought for his political beliefs, earning the respect of those who had opposed him. 

Loyal and senstitive

Anis has ensured the book includes Ahmed’s humane side, as his wife Maysa Talaat says she saw, “a very sensitive man who was willing to give up everything for what he believed in. He had a strong sense of who he was, yet was never selfish - dignified yet never arrogant. He held firmly to his beliefs, but was forgiving and non-judgmental towards others.” 

His sister Hedayet Sid-Ahmed says, “Whether in love or politics, private or public life, he was loyal and sensitive, able to think carefully before making any decisions. When he was sick and suffered from memory loss, he struggled to maintain his dignity and the love for his wife, sons and daughter who stood by him, and also towards his many friends.” 

Nayra Egga his stepdaughter confirms that, “I’ve been lucky to be part of his life and he part of mine. I wonder what my life would have been like had my father survived, and had my mother never married Ahmed. I don’t know! But what I do know is that I would have been deprived of knowing this tender, rich and rare person.” 

His twin sons, Tarek and Omar, both mathematicians recall: “Our father had an incredible talent to connect with individuals from all social backgrounds. Our mother remembers that after his second imprisonment, a milkman knocked at the door, and our father opened it and hugged him! It turned out they shared the same cell! We remember during his last, long illness and despite restricted visits, my mother was receiving Mohamed Abdel-Koddous and Mohamed Aly Amer every day for a whole month. It showed how open he was to all viewpoints”. 

Enduring memories

Ahmed could foretell the future with great sensitivity. His famous book, When the Guns Fall Silent, about the struggles after October 1973 (Egypt successfully crossed the Suez Canal after battling with Israel),  and bear witness to his extended vision, especially the problems with water, long before anyone else and are proof of his rare talent. 

It is true that this great man needs no memorial service and his departure should not be an occasion for weeping. In this book Anis presents her respects and ensures that the book carries the enduring memories of his unique accomplishments. 

The writer is an author and journalist






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