Tribute to My Beloved Teta:
My Guardian Angel and Mentor
By Christine Assaad
What can I say about my beloved Teta. She meant the world to me. She has been an essential foundational pillar in my life from the day I was born. I have procrastinated about writing this piece for a long time, as I felt unable to put how I feel about my Teta in words. Words seem totally inadequate in expressing what she meant to me and still means to me.
Teta was truly the wind beneath my wings. I loved her so deeply from my early childhood and I always looked up to her. My memories of Teta are abundant and endless, but here a few poignant ones, which have shaped who I am today.
Our relationship began when I was six months old. She would always recount that when she arrived in Mamoura, I threw my arms around her and this was an instant and special connection and closeness between us that lasted until she left us. I still remember vividly when she and Ragui took my mom, my sister and me (in Ragui's Romanian Jeep) to the Zabaleen community of Mokattam for the first time. I was ten years old. It was definitely a 'baptism of fire' as she called it. We were so young and could not understand that such poverty could exist and yet she exposed us to it, so as not to grow up sheltered from the harsh realities of the outside world. This was always an underlying theme in Teta's advice to me. For the six years, when Teta was based in Geneva with the World Council of Churches, we used to see her twice a year, once over Christmas in Cairo and once in the summer in Geneva. I have countless memories of how she had a tremendous capacity to gather people socially to work on a particular cause. In Geneva, she had her 'Community of Love' of friends and relatives and visitors. We celebrated all the August Birthdays together. To teach us independence, she insisted that my sister and I would go to the Boulangerie below her house and buy our own croissants with money she would leave us on the breakfast table. She brought us cards to say ' Partager c'est tout autre chose', as my sister and I were struggling to learn how to share.
When Teta retired from the Council and returned to Cairo, I was so happy that we were living with her in Garden City. She would help me with my Arabic grammar and would always tell me how she had a Sheikh teach her Arabic grammar in the government school she attended prior to the American College for Girls and how that gave her a real push in understanding grammar. She had begun volunteering with APE in the Zabaleen. I learnt from her daily stories the struggles the community was going through and how she was discovering how to help them. This was a live lesson in development happening in front of my eyes. Her house, the family home, was always bustling with people, visitors, family and friends from Egypt and abroad, whether for social events or for development causes. From this exposure, I learnt one of the many important life skills, which is how to be sociable, outgoing, a good hostess, a good communicator, and to know how to mingle with everyone and how to mobilise people for a cause. Teta taught me all of that. She taught me a valuable lesson she had learnt from a French teacher at the American College for Girls ' you should treat each person according to his or her environment and the particularities of his or her personality.' This taught me not to impose my own values on others, to find harmony and to truly and deeply understand people and their behavior.
In the summer after I completed secondary school, in 1994, the ICPD Population conference took place in Cairo. Teta, who had been heavily involved in the steering committee, insisted that I join the conference as a 'Friend of the Forum'. This experience was pivotal in helping me forge and shape my career path and passion for development. I was exposed to discussions about birth control, family planning, women's rights, the population explosion, FGM, and so many other issues. It was an eye- opening event, which was truly a turning point in my life. I went from being a young person who just finished secondary school, to someone who was passionate about a cause and a subject and wanted to study it further.
I truly enjoyed my AUC undergraduate days. Teta encouraged me to always enjoy them fully: 'Work hard and play hard' and 'don't burn the candle at both ends' she would say. I studied Political Science and Economics and whatever Development courses were on offer at the time. My choices were deeply influenced by Teta and the exposure she gave me. I started to forge my own identity within this path. I used to love spending the night at Teta' s on the weekend and even on weekdays sometimes and we would chat and she would give me pearls of wisdom about my studies, social life, and life in general. I would walk to AUC from her house. We had the tradition of going together to St. Marie de la Paix church for Palm Sunday. The eve of Palm Sunday she would gather the family and friends and she would teach us all how to weave donkeys out of palms. I spent a great deal of time with Teta and I enjoyed and cherished every moment of it. We had lots of family time, but also tete a tete times. We read 'God Calling' in the early morning to start our day. Looking back, I am truly lucky to have had all that special quality time with Teta throughout my 41 years. I consider myself one of the most blessed people alive having had her as a Teta and mentor.
Teta's Christmas party was iconic. Even when I lived in Holland and Dubai, I always came back for Christmas and looked forward to this very special event. All my friends knew about it and many attended over the years. It became such a beautiful tradition that we all loved and enjoyed. This Christmas party truly represented the spirit of Teta and the Assaads. In Teta's generosity and openness of spirit, she welcomed all to her house. From the important to the humble. I was lucky enough to meet Soeur Emmanuelle and Philip Potter and many other influential figures. I witnessed Teta making herself available to everyone who needed her advice on any of the topics and causes she was passionate about, but also on personal and spiritual matters. She did have her 'Morning Clinic" where she would be available to speak on the phone and would give advice when requested. She was always an amazing listener, but she could be very direct at times, literally telling people what to do, but it was done with a lot of caring and love and with the intention to help. I always admired Teta's patience to listen to all these people stories and grievances and still give each of them the time needed for solid genuine advice. I was deeply influenced by Teta's feminist stances in life and in development. She introduced me to a world I did not know anything about. She encouraged me to read about it and we spoke a lot about western feminism vs. oriental feminism and how to reconcile both.
As a true Assaad, my first job was at EQI. I worked there for two years. It was one of the highest learning curves I have ever faced. I learned so much. I did fieldwork across Egypt. I travelled to areas of Egypt I had never known. At times, it was very difficult for me but Teta would tell me 'be patient, this is a great learning opportunity'. And she sure was right, as this experience has stayed with me throughout the years. The connections I made then, of which many survive until today. During these years, I attended some of the FGM task Force's meetings and I was exposed to all the debates and discussions of how to address this sensitive topic and how to mobilize communities against this harmful tradition. I was lucky to have been able to witness the beginning of this much needed movement against FGM.
Teta was also a great connector. She connected my sister and me to the Presbyterian Church USA. I attended two major church conferences in the US, representing Egypt. It was a truly special experience. And on a visit to the HQ of the Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, I met several people who knew my grandmother and called me; 'Little Marie', a name I carried with pride. They showed me the photos of all the critical women influencers in all churches and I saw many pictures of my grandmother during her WCC days hanging on many walls of the HQ. I was beyond proud to be her grand-daughter.
By the time, I went for my Masters degree in Holland, I was clearly passionate about development, but specifically about women and girls and what to do to better their plight. I applied to the US, UK and Holland. I chose the Institute of Social Studies in Holland and I was extremely pleased with that choice, as it was a very international context, with a strong focus on development especially Gender and Women's Studies. This one year and a half was filled with learning. When I was searching for a topic for my thesis, I already knew that I wanted to focus on the women and girls of the Mokattam zabbaleen settlement. Teta encouraged me to focus specifically on the empowerment framework, which I found fascinating. I did a lot of field research and I had so much data, that I could have written two theses out of it. Teta encouraged me throughout and was very proud when I finished. Upon my return, I began working at the Sawiris Foundation. I was blessed to work with an amazing team, whom I consider family and whom I cherish until today. This is where I became a true professional. I learnt wonderful professional and interpersonal skills. In these formative years of the foundation, Teta was part of a group of wise consultants to the Foundation. I always felt very special when Teta would attend an event or come to the Foundation for a meeting. Whenever I would discuss with her issues, concerns or problems on my desire to make things happen faster, Teta would urge me to 'slow down' and 'be patient' to wait and see how things develop and, when I struggled to make a decision, she advised me to 'sleep over it'. I entered the world of development from the training and employment door, with a wide focus on all aspects of youth development. So I went from the specific focus on Gender and women studies to the wider development perspective, which was again very useful. I truly learnt to network at the Foundation and Teta encouraged me a lot.
When I decided to go to Dubai, although, she did not clearly fight it, she was not convinced by that city and its lack of a link to my chosen career path. She did not stop me from going, as I consulted her as my mentor. She wanted me to experience independence and to learn to live on my own as a professional and not as a student, which I certainly did learn. This was another huge milestone in my life professionally and personal growth wise. I reconnected with academia and writing and to the topic of gender and Women Studies, which I really wanted to.
When I returned and Nader and I got married, Teta could not have been happier, as she loved Nader and she knew his family well and had been a very close friend of his grandmother. We have a beautiful picture of her beaming at our wedding. She was truly and genuinely happy for us and with us. She even belly danced with us. Teta knew how to be serious, but she also knew how to have fun. She was so efficient that way. She was very organized and this allowed her to accomplish so much and yet enjoy life. She had a great 'joie de vivre'. She encouraged me yet again when I entered the field of education and worked at AUC. She was highly supportive of my starting my Doctorate in Education and to balance it with having a family. When Emile was born, she was overjoyed. And I am blessed (and so is Emile) that he had many many special moments with Teta sitting on her bed in the last few years of her life. Emile loved Teta dearly and would sit behind her head and caress her hair gently. He also loved kissing her and taking her place on the bed when she would get up. He played with her and teased her with the tassles on her socks. Teta was amused and enchanted by Emile. He gave her, along with Ragui and Hany and the whole family's visits, a 'raison de vivre' and a 'joie de vivre'. It was truly magical to see how Teta and Emile connected. These are such special moments, which I relive in my head all the time.
Emile and Nader and I were with Teta in her last moments. I am grateful that Teta waited for me to return from my trip to France to say goodbye. It has been difficult to accept, although I know she is in a much better place and she is where she wanted to be. This moment of death and separation is one I feared and relived in my head many times throughout my adult life. I always struggled and argued with Teta, that I did not like nor accept death, as a definitive thing. But she always worked on changing my mind and on expanding my horizons, telling me ' death if part of life’; words that are of course very true. And believing in after life, I believe Teta lives on in me, in my family and in everyone whose life she has touched . I feel her close to me at all times, when I am studying, when I am thinking what would Teta do in such a situation and when I read the multitude of testimonials and tributes that people have written about her. It is so touching to see how 'My Teta' who represented so much to me, was larger than life and could touch so many people's lives so deeply and spiritually. She was truly gifted and generous of herself, her time, her mind, her love, her energy and her wisdom, rooted in her immense unshakable faith. Her legacy and many famous captions and words she devised live on in all of us and I will surely teach them to Emile. I was once called 'little Marie', I hope I will always be worthy of this name and I hope that all that I am and all that I would do, would be to honour her wonderful legacy.