Characters in “Roots & Branches” and “Making the Cut”

Like in fairy tales, Abdel Aziz’s stepmother was a sinful woman. When she banished him at age 6 from the village, Beni Harem in Upper Egypt and sold him into servitude in Cairo, her expectation was that he would be living on the street off his wits, swallowed up by the masses.  Escaping his master, he joined the Madresa (a religious school) at Al Azhar and educated himself,  outwitting her by becoming a learned scholar as an Arabic schoolteacher.  The meager salary in those days was sufficient to support the entire family, who migrated from the village along the Nile, joining him in Cairo.  He tolerated her living under the same roof in respect for his father, Sheikh Amin.

            Over the next few years, she bore Sheikh Amin three sons and five daughters, and in keeping with cultural norms of the day, all were circumsized.  This genital mutilation of women, was something that he prevented in subsequent generations.  Despite Abdel Aziz’ disregard and anger at his stepmother, he helped educate the boys and insisted that the girls, too, attain a professional standing.      

            Illiterate and envious of her stepson’s success, Nazifa went on the Hajj to Mecca to be absolved for her sins.  She returned to Cairo having acquired the title “Hajjah” Nazifa, indicating that she had completed one of the Five Pillars of Islam.  Abdel Aziz, however, continued to openly describe his stepmother as an “illiterate, sinful woman” and never forgave her for casting him out of his home when he was a toddler. 

            His scholarly accomplishments knew no boundaries, for Abdel Aziz went on to earn a scholarship to attend a teacher’s training school in pre-war 1930 England, at the age of 25.  There he met his future wife, the subject of next week’s blog.