Cheers to our "talented" literature prize awardee. Your pain his gain !!!
EGY.COM - MAADI
The Simona family in "Les Platanes" Ollioules, South of France:
Henri, Gaby, Pierre, Jean-Louis, Francois, Bernard, Jean-Claude, Alain, Anne
above photo courtesy Pierre Simona
les eleves de Madame Simona: L-R
International Tribunal judge Amin Al Mahdi
Shahnaz Al Mahdi (with Boutros Ghali, Francophonie sec-gen during Mitterand era)
Sherif W Raafat former Egyptian Bourse chairman
prize student Ambassador Aziz Seifelnasr and his mother
"Madame Soad" (Foda) Seifelnasr helped Madame Simona obtain a pension from Egyptian government
two photos courtesy Dina Alhassani
To her students she was referred to as "Madame Simona". Born in Alexandria, Egypt on 15 December 1887, yet no one knew her past and very little of her present. Madame Simona was not into small talk. But as she approached her twilight years she would ramble on about her only son Henri "Riri" and of her favorite Cairo-born grandson Pierre who at the time was a struggling artist in Paris.
Occasionally Madame Simona mentioned her other six grandchildren reducing their bucolic life in "Les Platanes", the given name of their bastide in Quartier Quiez, Ollioules (VAR region), to that of one big struggle. One got the impression France was going through hard times, which was somewhat true given the ongoing war of independence in Algeria.
"No wonder Madame Simona preferred Egypt to her native France," we often told ourselves.
From WW2 up until the early '60s Louise Simona lived mostly by herself. She occupied a quaint rented apartment on Road 13 situated above the liliputian fire brigade station right next to Maadi's tiny Qism or police station. The top floor of this rudimentary two-story stone building boasted two apartments. The larger one was occupied by Madame Simona who rented it for LE 2 (two) pounds. It came with a large terrace overlooking Khashaab Canal and its giant Eucalyptus trees. The smaller apartment was allocated to the Maadi Police commissioner. Hence Madame Simona's students invariably came face to face with Commissioner Sayed Makram and later his replacement "Monsieur" Labib.
The enemy next door!
Both police commissioners respected and watched over Madame Simona. In fact, when French nationals were abruptly evicted from Egypt following the 1956 Suez War, Madame Simona became the exception. She remained in Egypt under pseudo-house arrest or "residence forcée" as she would say. Commissioner Labib allowed Madame Simona to do her Maadi rounds unimpeded. In return she would teach the congenial Madame Labib French! It was one happy family at No. 66 Road 13. (see below Madame Simona's petition to remain in Egypt date 24 November 1956)
Unable to travel to France in 1957 and 1958 because of exit visa restrictions, Madame Simona summered in Alexandria accompanying the family of one of her students. Each day she would go with them by car to their beach cabin in plage Semiramis located inside Montazah Palace. There, with the help of a walking stick, she shuffled over to the nearby Cherif cabin later to be picked up by her hosts for the return journey home.
Summer home during these two years were tiny quarters in her host's apartment, which was on the fourth floor of the posh Coutarrelli building overlooking the smart Saba Pasha district. Compared to Madame Simona's Spartan Maadi apartment, her tiny room and bathroom in Alexandria were un grand luxe.
Having been one of Madame Simona's Maadi students I regularly visited her apartment. It smelt of an odd combination of mothballs and cat urine. The emasciated feline was called Tip-tap. It sat on Madame Simona's desk purring away while the no-nonsense teacher had me recite Moliere and Racine. Everything in the room reeked of old. The only thing linking Madame Simona's past to her future was a framed sepia photo of her son in army uniform for "Riri" had enlisted in de Gaule's Free French during WW2.
Henri had been an architect with the Egyptian Survey Authority. Born and raised in Cairo in the early years of the 20th century at at time when French influence in Egypt was at its greatest: French schools, French opera, French banks, French shops and boutiques, French judges, French Egyptologists, French hospitals, French medics, French architects and French understandably the lingua franca, especially among highborn Egyptian society. The then privileged Simonas felt so at home in Egypt they never considered re-settling in France where they would have joined the ranks of Monsieur et Madame Tout le Monde. In Cairo they had considerable khawaga status unmatched in their country of origin. And since all the people they frequented spoke French they never bothered to learn Arabic.
How ironic that after a lifetime in Egypt my teacher only spoke French whereas all her students were trilingual!
But if the Simonas lived high on the hog in Egypt, life as a couple was devoid of amour if one believed Madame Simona's rare snippets of her conjugal life. Life in the family's Zamalek apartment on King Fouad (renamed 26th of July) Avenue was not always happy. Papa Simona, which is how Madame Simona referred to her husband, seemed totally indifferent to his mate's carnal needs. He preferred to find tendresse and maitresse elsewhere. And as though to express his marital feelings he hung his wife's only portrait on the back of the water closet door. This way, whenever one sat on the john, Madame Simona would be watching.
Papa Simona equated his wife with a purge!
During her widowhood Madame Simona claimed and received a monthly pension from the Egyptian government. This timely stipend was the welcome legacy left by her late husband who had spent a lifetime at the Mixed Courts where he had been an administrative official known to everyone of importance within the legal profession. Thus Papa Simona had redeemed himself in the eyes of his disdained wife.
Not the stay-at-home type Madame Simona taught piano to Egypt's society damsels. As a widow she taught French as well but not at the Lycee Francais where her daughter in law was a tenured teacher. The two French women did not get along.
Madame Simona did not fancy her in-laws.
Henri had married Gabrielle "Gaby" the daughter of Monsieur et Madame Ferdinand Auby who lived at No. 88 Kasr el-Eini Street. Monsieur Auby worked for the compagnie de gaz et electricité. Although still in my preteens I quickly learned that if I wanted to distract my diligent French professor from her teaching chores I need only ask "Et quelle nouvelle de Gaby?" A seemingly innocent question that prompted immediate humphs, haws and grumbles. Utterings typical of an exasperated belle-mere. Most definitely Madame Simona n'aimait pas sa bru!
During her widowhood Madame Simona was a private tutor to a selection of Egyptian families already known to her from her piano-teaching days. Topping her list was the Zeinab Abdelhamid Cherif-Abbas AlMahdi families whom she knew well along with their Maadi cousins the Ali Gherianis: Djedah and Medhat.
Four generations of devoted service.
In her tender years Madame Simona had been Mlle de compagnie to Fatma Kamal Hanem (Madame Abdelhamid Cherif "bey"). Thereafter she taught French and piano to Fatma Hanem’s daughters including Zeinab "Zizi" Cherif Hanem (Madame Abbas El-Mahdy Pasha). Later, Madame Simona would teach French to Zizi's children and grandchildren. This she would do over the weekend at the palatial Cherif Nile-front mansion on Manial al-Roda Island. Therein the French teacher had her own living quarters. Each week a car would fetch her from her Maadi dwelling bringing her back two days later, always with a basket full of food. The frugal Madame Simona was highly estimated by the Cherif-AlMahdi family.
Of her Manial Island students one, Amin al-Mahdi, would much later head the prestigious Conseil d'Etat, or Chief Justice of the Egyptian Council of State. Later, he would become minister of social justice. Meanwhile, his youngest sister, Shahnaz (Mrs. Ali Maher Al-Sayed), would become Egypt's first lady in Paris as wife of the Egyptian Ambassador to France in the 1990s. Her French hosts whether at Hotel Matignon, Elysees or Quai d'Orsay, were forever amazed at her proficiency of la langue de Moliere. The answer was always the same: Madame Simona!
Another prize student was Aa-ziz who would later become Egypt's ambassador to Lisbon and Mexico City. His son (Hatem Aziz Seifelnasr) was in turn ambassador to France in the new millennium. Madame Simona would gush with pride whenever she mentioned Aziz's mother Madame Soad Seifelnasr Bey.
Madame Simona would never live to see her prize students at their peak. She left Egypt an octogenarian in the mid 1960s. The upside to this final voyage was that she would reunite with her beloved Riri. But an unpleasant surprise awaited her in the south of France.
Although old age had taken Madame Simona to "Les Platanes" it would be an uncomfortable stay since she was obliged to share the facilities with her aging rival--Henri's mother in law. Madame Auby Mere had already moved in and established precedence.
We knew we would never see Madame Simona again when Henri suddenly arrived in Maadi for a brief stay. He had come to collect his mother's personal belongings.
Years later came a sadder message from France: Mother and son were companions in the same Maison de Vieillesse or retirement home where they were expected to spend their remaining years.
Madame Simona expired shortly thereafter. Henri survived his mother by many years.
In Egypt, her abandoned apartment was eventually taken over by the expanding Maadi precinct. But by then the Egypt of Madame Simona had already disappeared.
the famous Platane tree which lent its name to Henri's home in Ollioules
Maadi 1938: Monsieur and Madame Auby admiring their first-born grandson Pierre with Edmond "Papa" Simona standing
Maadi 1938: Henri ("Riri") standing behind a happy Gaby with baby Pierre in the arms of his maternal grandmother Madame Auby
Maadi three years later with Madame Simona standing (red circle) and young Pierre on table
photos courtesy Pierre Simona
pre-WW1 Maadi building No 66 Road 13 owned by EDLICO (Egyptian Delta Land Company)
Top floor consisted of two apartments separated by a large terrace. Incorporated into the Maadi Police Station in 1978
Ground floor originally divided into EDLICO warehouses and the Maadi Fire Brigade. Now divided between a Cairo Electric Authority warehouse and the Maadi Police Sation
Madame Sinona's 24 November 1956 petition to the Ministry of Interior requesting permission to remain in Egypt for compassionate reasons
entries in a 1934 and 1937 Egyptian Commercial Directory
father and son listed in directory
cover of The 1934 Egyptian Commercial Directory
Pierre Simona's Paris vernissage in 2011