Remembering Saad Zahran: The legendary mentor and godfather

Lina El-Wardani , Monday 2 Jun 2014

To many, Saad Zahran is a communist icon, a great writer and a talented translator; to me, he is the loving grandfather who shaped my ideas and nourished my soul

Saad Zahran

Saad Zahran, the prominent Marxist writer and veteran leading communist who just passed away at the age of 88 was my kind grandfather, my friend and my role model.

I recall the endless stories he used to tell me -- stories from his childhood, from his university years, from the 14 years he spent in a notorious prison, from his battles along with the student movement against British occupation ... He was a gold mine of wonderful stories, ideas and an irreplaceable source of inspiration.

The best years of my life were those I lived with him in his downtown apartment. We would have our juice after waking up then head to the Horreya Café downtown -- which he jokingly called his office -- read the papers and sip our first coffee together. I would proceed to go to work and come back to pick him up. We would head home, eat vegetable soup for lunch and rest for an hour, then spend the entire evening talking.

I shared my first beer with him and felt so grown up.

He was a vegetarian, but when offered meat he would politely accept so as not to embarrass his hosts. He was also a non-smoker, but if someone smoked while sitting with him he would take one cigarette. When I once asked him why, he replied "instead of coughing in their face and making them feel awkward, I just have one cigarette."

He was always reading about everything. I don’t know how he got the latest books and periodicals on culture, politics, history and literature in Arabic, English and French. Whenever I proudly showed him my latest book purchases from London, we would spend hours reading together, analysing and discussing paragraphs of a new introduction to the Communist Manifesto or An Intimate History of Humanity or The Butterfly.

We both shared the belief that Marxist theories must be criticised and reconstructed if they are to fit today's political scenarios because what Marx wrote for Europe in last century cannot apply to today's Egypt. We wanted to come up with our own theories, our own Marxism, our own political agenda, fit for our own conditions.

His legacy is the reason why I have not yet found my place in any of the leftist political parties and movements which continue to apply abstract Marxist notions without adapting them to current developments.

His theories are also the reason why he left the rigid Egyptian Hadetto movement – the most famous Communist structure of 1940s Egypt – and formed the Egyptian Communist Party (also known as Al-Raya) some 60 years ago along with his comrade Shody Attiya, who died of torture years later in prison.

Saad Zahran

The years that my grandfather spent in prison -- some of which in solitary confinement -- the torture that clearly marked his body, and the years he spent in exile teaching at a university in Algeria, all contributed to the creation of a barrier between him and the world.

I walked into his house after he ran some major adjustments following the passing of his lifetime partner and loving wife Samia'a El-Borolosy, godmother to the entire family. During their life together, their home was always open to receive everyone from family members to political activists – actually, it was there that my parents first met.

My mother remembers the brown dress she wore on one of Saad Zahran and Samia'a El-Borolosy's wedding anniversary parties, and how my father couldn’t take his eyes off of her. They never parted after this party.

After her passing away some 15 years ago, my grandfather was left on his own. He asked his best friend, the talented Asaad Nadim, to redesign the interior with new private quarters. Thus, my grandfather had a new bed with dozens of pillows, lamps, en-suite bathroom and library, all separated from the rest of the spacious apartment by a double-glazed sliding door. At the time, it looked to me like a five-star prison cell.

When I turned 21, my mother held a big party for me which all my friends still remember -- not because of the delicious food and cake that my mother baked, or because of the wonderful desert views from our house in 6 October City, but for the intimate tales that Grandpa Saad told us and the precious advice he gave me on that day: "Don’t listen to anyone’s advice."

He was so generous with my friends and I, spending his precious time listening to our then naive stories and small dreams with endless patience and encouragement – and for that, he was cherished by them all.

During his childhood, he had a terrible accident which claimed one of his legs. He would laugh about it and tell us that this made him his mother’s favourite; "I took advantage of it. Once I took a suitcase and said I was heading to Alexandria, but went to Europe for a month instead."

My mother remembers how her uncle was such a family legend during her childhood. “My grandmother used to bake delicious pies and we would all sit and prepare the weekly meal to take to prison for him while singing some traditional sad songs. We were children and he was always in prison. Whenever we asked why, she would tell us because he wants equality for everyone.”

My grandfather and I had plans for writing and translating, but we spent our valuable time together talking and laughing which I do not regret one bit. I just wish I had stayed longer with him to absorb more of his wisdom, his knowledge and his kindness.

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