I will never forget Madam Angel. Months might pass without my having any thought of her—but suddenly, while I sit at the dinner table or perhaps walk out of my office, I see her rawboned face in my mind. She had a dry, feeble body, like a thin metal skewer. In my fantasies I remember her vivid eyes, her hard, sweaty hands, and the light hair barely visible above her lips and scattered on her chin, even covering her arms. The constant frown on her lips reflected her permanent state of resentment. She spoke Arabic with a Greek accent.
When I was a child, Madam Angel would come to our house and spend the entire day knitting clothes for my mother. My mother delighted in her coming and prepared different types of food, especially the long macaroni she called “spaghetti” that she served with roasted meat and fino bread. Whenever I saw macaroni in the kitchen, I knew that Madam Angel would dine with us. Although Madam Angel was indeed one of the most skillful seamstresses in the neighborhood, I think my mother’s interest in her mainly arose from her belief that Madam Angel was a Westerner or foreigner. And so my mother prepared foreign foods for her and adopted foreign behaviors, trying to act like Madam Angel. I watched my mother deliberately using foreign words when she talked to her—silly words that had nothing to do with the conversation such as bonjour, merci, corset, and papillon.
When Madam Angel spoke, my mother listened breathlessly, as if she were hearing Platonic wisdom, as if she were standing before a new city whose closed gates would open into a new life for her. Madam Angel was quite aware of her influence on my mother, and took advantage of it by cultivating a sort of intimate friendship with her. Madam Angel would visit us regularly, spending the whole day with us but with no intention of knitting clothes. She controlled us, and my kind-hearted mother surrendered to her, fascinated by her foreign accent. My quiet father often smiled sarcastically, leaving Madam Angel to treat my mother however she wanted.
Madam Angel was pompous, making it clear that she abhorred how we lived. She constantly gave commands and advice, supposedly trying to elevate us to the beau monde in which she claimed to live.
Once she entered my room while I was sleeping and found the window closed; she yelled in her Greek accent, ordering my mother, “Madam, this is wrong! This window should remain open to let the fresh air come in for the boy. When my daughter Maria sleeps, she always leaves her window open!” My mother loved Ms. Angel’s addressing her as “Madam.” The title made her feel “khawaja”—high class—like Madam Angel herself. My mother immediately opened the window, and, although I shivered from the cold, I dared not object.
Once, Madam Angel saw me eating mulukhiyahby dipping bread into the bowland then placing it in my mouth. She shouted, “Not this way, darling! We also cook mulukhiyahin our house, but we eat it with spoons like soup. My daughter Maria eats it with a spoon, so you should be like Maria!” My mother and I therefore ate mulukhiyahwith a spoon.
On another occasion, Madam Angel looked at me with keen eyes and said,
“You don’t look very healthy; you should drink some cinchona juice. My daughter Maria drinks one cup of cinchona juice every day, and her cheeks are as red as blood.” My mother then forced me to drink it despite my objection and my crying.
Neither my mother nor I ever saw Maria, Madam Angel’s daughter. She never visited our house despite my mother’s many requests; nor did we visit hers. Perhaps my mother thought that meeting Maria was an honor we didn’t deserve. I spent hours fantasizing what Maria was like. I imagined her with long blonde hair, with red cheeks and a white, rounded, healthy face. Whenever I saw a picture of a little girl in a magazine, I thought Maria must be like that. I imagined her to be such a very, very strong girl that I became frightened of her. I imagined her not getting pertussis, measles, flu, or any other disease I had experienced. I always thought of her as a very clean girl who didn’t play our games, or eat the way we did, or talk the way we talked. I imagined her as an angel who didn’t live on earth.
Maria became the center of my life, because Madam Angel always advised me to do whatever Maria did. My mother would beat me and tell me that Maria was younger than me, yet she still did everything better than me. Embittered, I hated and feared her, yet I still wished to see her.
Then came a seemingly long series of days during which Madam Angel never visited our house. After two weeks, she showed up again—dressed in black, her formerly hard body withered, her previously strong voice weak and fallen.
“What happened, Madam Angel?” my mother asked.
Crying, she replied, “My daughter Maria!”
“What’s wrong with her?” my mother asked, slapping her chest.
While tears poured out of her eyes, Madam Angel said, “Finished … morto!”
My mother began to cry. “Died … how did she die?”
Madam Angel said, “She had anemia!”
My mother looked at me and hugged me, as if she was protecting me from death. I looked at Madam Angel, not believing what she said. She kept crying and talking to us about Maria. Then, she took Maria’s photo from her bag and handed it to us. My mother and I anxiously looked at the photo. We were surprised to see a weak, thin, and yellow face.
My life changed completely after Maria’s death. My mother closed the windows when I slept, and would tell me to eat mulukhiyah with bread to gain weight. She stopped giving me cinchona juice. My mother was finally liberated from Madam Angel’s domination, and forgot about her.
But I still remembered.
Ihsan Abdel Quddous is an Egyptian writer, novelist, and journalist. He is known to have written many novels that have been adapted in films.
Dr. Nabeel M Yaseen holds a PhD in English Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a Master of English literature and composition from the University of Akron-Ohio. He taught at various universities in the US and the Middle East. Dr. Yaseen taught at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Pennsylvania State University. Now, he is an assistant professor at Qassim University where he teaches English literature and translation. He is interested in the 19th and 20th century American literature and literary translation; especially, the literary works of Ihsan Abdel Quddous and other Arab writers.