On Sunday afternoon in Cairo, a group of readers, writers, critics, academics, and friends got together to remember Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour, who died at the end of November:
By Amira Abd El-Khalek
On Sunday Jan. 11, a tribute was held by the Faculty of Arts of Ain Shams University to commemorate the life of Dr. Radwa Ashour: beloved professor, author, critic, activist, wife and mother. It was a day we dreaded and yet looked forward to. I say looked forward to because you might have been to the funeral, expressed your condolences, you may have paid your respects to Mourid and Tamim, read the numerous articles that have been written about her over the past month and tried to find in your friends some sort of solace, and yet the actual fact that Radwa Ashour is no longer with us in flesh and blood is very difficult to grasp. We needed some sort of closure. Not that Sunday would bring any definite closure, that was certain. However, those who loved her — her students, her colleagues, her readers — needed some sort of communal understanding that it was time to let her spiritual presence rather than her physical one embrace us as she always did.
The speakers and attendees who were present on Sunday ranged from professors and colleagues at Ain Shams and Cairo universities and the American University in Cairo, heads of faculties, departments, various committees, her publishers, students, readers, administrative and support staff, family, friends, mostly friends. People who had known Radwa for years and years, some who had only just met her, others who had only read her works. Those who continue to write to her, to talk to her, those whose own dear losses have coincided with the loss of their professor, colleague and mentor. It was a gathering of the people whose lives Radwa Ashour had touched and with Radwa it was never a fleeting encounter, but one that would change the person deeply.
The attention and the love that emanated from Radwa made each and every person present feel that they meant the world to her – and indeed she meant the world to them.
Tributes were sent from near and far: recordings from Lebanon, Palestine, Morocco, the United Kingdom and the United States. There were readings of her works from her students and videos expressing what Radwa Ashour meant in a word or two. She was a symbol of hope, of dedication, of annihilation, of revolution and nation, of resistance and continuity. A musical tribute in her honour was played to the audience, poems read and a beautiful memorial booklet with quotes from her works in English and Arabic, pins and bookmarks were distributed, small details expressing a portion of the love that her colleagues and friends felt.
A musical tribute in her honour was played to the audience, poems read and a beautiful memorial booklet with quotes from her works in English and Arabic, pins and bookmarks were distributed, small details expressing a portion of the love that her colleagues and friends felt.
I could talk about what every speaker said, capture their words and collective sentiments, but it wasn’t so much what they said as how they said it and what it signified. The tiny details of their individual stories and encounters that make up a character, a woman, a person that is a rare gem — a diamond, as was portrayed that evening.
Stories of Radwa Ashour’s graciousness, the respect she gave to her students and colleagues, her ever willingness to learn, her modesty and humaneness as expressed in the meetings and phonecalls and correspondence between colleagues and friends and herself. She was a compass, a support, a harbour. She was arms wide open, but she was also decisive, unfaltering in her ideals, a staunch defender of the truth. She was transparent and steadfast in her understanding of right and wrongdoing. She was straightforward, a constant that practiced what she preached.
Mostly, though, she was a dedicated teacher, researcher, and writer. She loved history, stories, for tales never ended for her as long as they still had the capacity to be told. She understood us. She knew when to speak to us, when to remain silent, and when to give us a single sentence to ponder even if we didn’t fully understand what it meant at the time.
The thing with Radwa Ashour, really, is her dedication to everything she did, and her generosity with her time, her attention and her love. One wonders how one person could have all these qualities and still have the time to write and read and teach and care for a family and a country where every day brings forth a new challenge. One thing is certain: She is an example to those who knew her and, though the evening was emotional, it was filled with hope and love and a determination to carry on the legacy that Radwa instilled in us all: to be better persons, better teachers, better activists, better writers, better readers, and to always look at the positive, to never waver, to never give in to wrongdoing… in short to be better humans.
We talk of death as a mighty being that takes away our loved ones.
We talk of death as a mighty being that takes away our loved ones. Rilke believes that if we stand in opposition to Death we disfigure it. He says, “Death is our friend, our closest friend… precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love.”[*] An acknowledgement of Radwa’s physical death this Sunday brought forth an abundance of passion and love and acceptance, but also a determination to carry on in the footsteps of a woman who stood up to so many adversities in life but who gave of herself boundlessly, constantly, and unstintingly. Her physical absence carries with it a responsibility and a promise from us to pass on the ideals that she stood for and a devotion to everything she was a part of.
How difficult it must have been for him and Tamim to be sitting there in the same conference room that celebrated Radwa Ashour and her works only a few months ago in her presence.
Mourid Barghouti ended the evening with a touching tribute, urging sadness to walk out of the door, out of his life. For sadness would only consume him, preoccupy him, prevent him from thinking of his beloved. How difficult it must have been for him and Tamim to be sitting there in the same conference room that celebrated Radwa Ashour and her works only a few months ago in her presence. And yet, with Radwa, Death shall have no dominion, for on Sunday there was talk of presence, her presence. Sadness was embraced with immense love. It was a celebration of the beauty of Radwa’s soul that lives on in us all.
[*] Letter to Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy. Epiphany 1923.