Ragaa El-Rifaei was enrolled to French nuns’ school, as per her father's wish so that she could learn discipline. Little did he know about the future of his young daughter, who would marry one of Egypt’s most renowned novelists, Yusuf Idris.
“I learned in the nuns’ school strict order and self-confidence, and how one can be bold and frank. I began to fed up with myself. I was so disciplined that I was called Big Ben,” Ragaa spoke of her early years.
“I remained at that school until the age of 18, when I got to know Yusuf Idris," she said. "I broke my engagement to a rich young man, and we got married."
As for how Ragaa met Idris is a story that only occur in exceptional situations.
The beautiful girl had agreed to be engaged to a young doctor just to relieve her mother who was upset due to her daughter's repeated rejections of many suitors.
In a bid to push forward the marriage, her finance acted as a matchmaker to help her elder sister marry first. A younger daughter mustn't marry before the elder as per obsolete Egyptian traditions.
However, fate had another say. Idris was on a visit to a friend living in an apartment opposite to that of Ragaa's sister.
Falling in love at the first sight, Idris began to ask about her. He went to her brother-in-law, late journalist Ismail El-Habrouk, and expressed his wish to marry that girl. However, a shock was there. "She is engaged," El-Habrouk told Idris.
Idris said with a confidence “Well, tell her then.”
Later on, the girl paid another visit to her sister and met Yusuf Idris in the same place on the stairs. But this time he approached her: "How are you?"
“I felt that he was the man I have been searching for and upon my return to my home, I immediately took off the engagement ring without knowing whether Idris would be proposing to me," she recalls that day.
"After three days, I was surprised when he came knocking at our door, met my mother and proposed to me." she said. "I agreed right away and the wedding jewelry was just a golden bracelet."
Since the very beginning, life wasn’t rosy between the two legends, who were poles apart. Unlike Yusuf, 14 years older, who was a moody artist whose life was epitome of chaos, Ragaa was disciplined.
After just six months of marriage they decided to get divorced only to find Yusuf after six hours coming to her family’s house to propose once again. When the Maazoun (Legal Registrar of Marriages) saw them, he laughed on saying, “Both of you make the craziest couple.”
Ragaa began to realize her role and that she was created for Yusuf Idris, a big creator. Consequently, she began to read literature while pursuing her academic studies and got her BA and studied literary criticism so as to live up to his intellect. From that moment onwards, she devoted her life, mind and heart to her husband.
Ragaa used to prepare coffee and sit beside him until he began to write then listened to him reading what he had written.
He used to write only in the evening, and no matter how much she was exhausted during the day, she had to stay up until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. Eventually, he moved his desk to their bedroom.
“After I began to contain his mind and his mood swings, he could only write in my presence over the 35 years we’ve lived together," she said. "Sometimes we would talk from 9 pm until 9 in the morning."
“I knew he had female fans and I forgave him for that, because he couldn’t be creative without having supporters.” she commented.
The mission of taming the character of a wild creator like Idris in order to be similar to that of ordinary people was a burdensome one, in which Ragaa succeeded few times and failed some others.
She recalled she tried to change him to lead a normal life; for instance, how to be a father and visit his children’s school.
"As an artist, he was chaotic and didn’t like to play the father’s role. He was like a child and in order to play this role, he should be given lots of love and care. Many a time, I felt that he was my son and he needs a mother more than a wife,” she said.
Talking about the most difficult time in their life, Ragaa said it was when he was suffering from depression. "Depression was seasonal, he suffered from it in spring or on his birthdays."
"This mood used to last for two or three months, which were the worst times in our life," she said.
"I used to show that our life was not affected by that mood so that I would not hurt his feeling," she said. "He was a sensitive and delicate person and his feelings were extremely tender even if it appeared not to be so to others."
She recalled a surprise visit by former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and then Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad who knocked at their doors in Alexandria's Marina.
"Idris opened wearing an undershirt and shorts and remained barefoot during the entire meeting, which lasted for more than an hour,” she said
For the most difficult situation in Ragaa’s life, it was when her husband suddenly fell ill. She said she resorted to President Mubarak. “Yusuf Idris is ill and his case is serious," she told Mubarak over phone.
Mubarak sent him on a private plane to London. Although Idris was in a coma, the British doctor asked Ragaa to make him listen to things he used to love to hear. She played Mohammed Abdel-Wahab’s and Umm Kulthum’s songs and the Holy Qur’an recited by Sheikh Mohammed Refaat. He, then, regained his consciousness and went to a village in the British countryside for recovery.
Idris was present shaping the moment of death creatively as he was always throughout his life. The man, who lived his life creating short stories, novels and plays, had to die also in a creative way and the Lady, who was an example of discipline, had to witness the presence and absence with the same degree of discipline.
The man, who entered her life coincidentally and moved her from the life of monotony and boredom to the life of creativity and blaze, is leaving her in the cold countries. He was the glow and warmth. Life will be cold countries after him.
In order to face this coldness, Ragaa began to recall the artist’s legend and make beautiful ornaments while sinking in long times of meditation that didn’t stop since his death.
Meditation and art with their offsprings, Sameh and Nesma, are what provided her with warmth.
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