« | »

Death of a Saint

Ansaf Aziz, a young woman with sparkling eyes and intelligence from Upper Egypt fell in love with her English teacher, married him and moved to Assuit, where she would give birth to three extraordinary children, one boy and two girls.

Madam Ansaf, as we called her, later moved to Cairo and began a program of micro-loans for poor women before Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh (winner of the Nobel Prize) thought of the idea. She had been successfully carrying out this loan program for nearly 20 years when we met her in 1989—the year my husband and I moved to Cairo. She loaned monies to women so that she could earn an income for the family and become independent entrepreneurs. A bean pot, a sewing machine, a small oven, plus skills, and craft bazaars for fund-raising—support wherever needed.

Soon after our arrival in Cairo, where I worked as a State Department envoy working with Egyptians to set up a national curriculum center, we had dinner with Andrea Rugh, a Harvard anthropologist and author of multiple books on the Middle East.  We asked Andrea, who is now with the Middle East Institute, how we might work and learn with the poor people of Cairo without going through the cumbersome bureaucracies. She took us to meet Madam Ansaf, a close friend of hers and the focus of the text she was working on at the time.

From that day forward, Ansaf adopted us and our three children when they visited. We had many dinners at her home in Shoubra and became friends with her family, especially son Hanna and his wife Laurence and daughters. Her joy was contagious as though she knew that her path was blessed.  I had the honor of accompanying her into the back streets of Boulak and meeting with groups of women who gathered to talk about their lives. As a Coptic Christian going into Muslim homes, she annoyed the Brotherhood, but no one dare touch her. For the next two decades, we contributed to her work.

My husband, Morgan, then working as a page editor for The Middle East Times and part-time instructor at American University, Cairo, wrote a tribute to her entitled, “Mother Teresa of Cairo.” Indeed she was.

I remember when she was around 85 (she thought—no one knew for sure) and she had never been to a doctor. Her son told her that as long as she was doing God’s work she would be well. Her grandson, Nader Wahbi, just wrote to us that his grandmother turned her faith into action. Indeed she did.

We last saw Ansaf in May, 2011, when we visited Cairo to learn about the aftermath of the revolution. She was in decline by then, but insisted on staying in her own home, which was leaning significantly as a result of the last earthquake. She would eat very little and told me, “I cannot eat when I know there are so many without food.”

Madam Ansaf, known as the Mother of the Poor of Boulak, was a saint. She passed away peacefully on March 10, 2013.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 22nd, 2013 at 9:35 am and is filed under Articles, Education, Egypt, Family, Leadership, Travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

4 Responses to “Death of a Saint”

  1. Jeff says:

    What a fascinating life you have and what fascinating people you know. Madam Ansaf was, apparently, a remarkable person–woman or otherwise–whose view of her world had both micro and macro levels. Thanks for sharing her with us.

  2. Jeff–how wonderful to hear from you! Thanks for your comment on Madam Ansaf and her life. I’ve been hearing from her family members all day. Hope to see you when we return in October and I should have a full draft of the Taos novel to share. Much affection, Linda

  3. Mary Gardner says:

    I too have a fond memory of Madam Ansaf from my visit to you and Morgan in Cairo. I still enjoy my many pieces of embroidery from women that she supported. I did feel that I was in the presence of an incredible spirit. She was a gift to many. Thank you for sharing some of her story.

  4. Hi Jeff–thank you for commenting with such sensitivity about Madam Ansaf. Her family just sent us a CD of her service, which
    was beautiful. Her granddaughter, who we know well, translated many of the comments into English. See you in a couple months.
    Take care, Linda

Leave a Reply