Memories of Marie

By Barbara Ibrahim

I am not sure exactly when Marie became apart of my life, but most likely it was in 1981. Judith Bruce, a colleague during my Ford Foundation years, was visiting Cairo and she could not believe that we had not met.  So off we went to the wonderfulCorniche apartment, reached by rickety wooden elevator, and into Marie’s world.  In that world, every person was good and a potential recruit to one of her social causes until proven otherwise.  Everyone got her full attention as she asked questions and listened intently.  When she knew I would be working on women’s programs at Ford, she dug out a paper she had written on FGM in Egypt and offered me a copy of the introduction. Years passed in which we visited the girls’ projects at the Zabbaleen community in Manshiet Nasr and I worked with Ragui on a grant to provide support for Zabbaleen livelihoods and better household sanitation.  

Marie invited us into the charmed circle that celebrated each December 25th at her famous open house.  Then came the heady years in which she convened the Egyptian FGM Taskforce in her living room. As that group of activists grew, she seemed to be holding a hundred threads at once – connecting religious and medical leaders, encouraging research on community support to decrease the practice, seeding a study of male sexuality when it was unheard of, long before the topic became trendy. Soon she was also using her extraordinary skills to spearhead a policy lobby that, despite setbacks and delays, resulted in the first law banning female circumcision across the country.

When her beloved friend Aziza Hussein turned 80, Saad and I held a birthday party for her in our garden. Both were animated and funny together that night, and Marie made me promise I would hold a similar event when her turn came around in three years.  It is one of my regrets that I was not able to fulfil that wish. In summer of 2000, my life was altered by a terrified late night phone call saying my husband had been ‘taken’ from our home by armed men who threatened anyone who raised an alarm.

Thus began a three year saga of arrests, interrogations, media smear campaigns, state security trials, and ultimate acquittal. But that night I only felt the dread of a terrible unknown danger facing my family. I waited until early morning to call Marie where we were staying at her favorite Red Sea spa, to explain why I was rushing back toCairo.  Her calming words will always be with me. She said that we are never given a burden too heavy to bear and that I would find reserves of strength no matter what happened. In a few sentences she offered clarity about the path I needed to take. Unbelievably, she predicted that I would look back on this time as one of growth and satisfaction. She was sure of this because of her own journey following the unexpected death of her husband while she had two young sons to care for.

Over the ensuing months, whenever my spirit was flagging, I knew that if I sought out Marie she would lift me up. Among her greatest gifts was the ability to draw out the best in others. By her example she made us want to be the kind of person Marie thought we could be.  There were countless others over time who were blessed also to have her mentoring and encouragement.  She was capable of a stern comment, however, if she felt someone was falling into self-pity or laziness. Meanwhile, that smile of hers melted icy bureaucrats and stubborn conservatives alike.  

In the final yearsMarie lived with constant back pain, but it did not keep her from a weekly visit to ‘her girls’ at the Zabbaleen community.  Her door was always open to a young person seeking personal advice, a journalist interested in her life, or a student needing information for a paper. I have often wondered at the toll this must have taken on her, and yet we never once heard her complain. She was stoic and calm in the face of her last days because of rock solid faith -- and her joy in having family members surround her.  Rest in Peace, Marie, after a life so well lived that you live on within the hundreds of souls you have touched.