Min alkhawf ila alhorriyah – rehlet imra’h massriyah min alsaaid ila mawara’ almohit (From fear to freedom – the journey of an Egyptian woman from Upper Egypt across to the Atlantic) – A memoir of Afaf Mahfouz by Khaled Mansour, Al-Kotobkhan, pp261
This is perhaps one of the most ‘real’ and inspiring memoirs that an Egyptian woman has dared to share. In less than 200 pages of totally unpresumptuous prose that firmly steers clear of self-aggrandizement, Khaled Mansour accompanies an exceptional woman, Afaf Mahfouz, on a journey in which she recollects a life that has been as much challenging as fulfilling.
Mahfouz is not just a world-renowned psychoanalyst who started off as a lawyer and professor of law before switching paths; she is also a staunch advocate of human rights, including women’s rights, and a leading figure of non-governmental activism. Mahfouz chaired both the International psychoanalytic association committee of the UN and the Conference of Non-Governmental Organisations in Consultative Relationship with the UN.
For his part, Mansour is also a human rights advocate, a former member of several UN missions at various conflict zones around the world and a published author of six books that include literature and social history.
The book emerged from conversations between Mahfouz and Mansour whereby she narrated and he wrote, edited and revised. The result was a first-person narrated biography.
It is very clear that neither the narrator nor the writer is trying to portray Mahfouz's life simply as a journey of a woman's remarkable academic and professional achievements. After all, Mahfouz did receive graduate and postgraduate degrees in law from universities in both Egypt and France. Furthermore, she had a distinguished career as both a lawyer and a professor of law before deciding to study and practice psychoanalysis. She has most recently turned to civil society activism.
For Mahfouz, however, these academic and professional merits have only been part of a bigger soul-searching journey that she embarked on since her early years at a French nuns’ school in her ‘first hometown’ of Al-Minya. In this journey, Mahfouz first moved from Upper Egypt to Alexandria where she studied law, after having had to go on a hunger-strike to compel her firmly conservative father to succumb to her wish of getting a university degree. In Alexandria, Mahfouz was exposed to both secularly inspired and religiously inspired political ideas. She leaned more towards the latter but never got fully engaged in them. The first phase of her soul searching journey begins when she chooses to wear the veil – at a time when hardly any woman of her background did so.
Then came her disagreeable marriage in Cairo. She had agreed to such a marriage as a way to become independent of her father's dominant influence and so as to be able to circumvent his opposition to her pursuit of postgraduate studies in Paris. In Cairo, and later in Paris, Mahfouz was exposed to her failure – or rather that of her husband, as she later decides – to celebrate her body and her femininity. However, as she recalls in her memoir, despite the frustration and affinity deprivation, she was unwilling to follow the progressive advice of the conservative father to get a divorce. She was still unable to divorce her fear of a stigma that the society would attach to a woman who would choose to liberate herself from a painful relationship.
In the midst of this trauma, there came a second phase of the soul-searching process, as she decided it was alright for her to divorce both the veil and the traditional perception of religion.
Following the decision of her uncompassionate husband to divorce her for his own chauvinistic reasons, Mahfouz finally overcomes one of the biggest inhibitions of her life. She decides to become the woman she has been denying and live up to the legacy of her maternal family where gender equality is often contemplated. After all, it was from her mother and her grandmother that Mahfouz said she got most of the support during her younger years – even though the support lacked compassion.
Eventually, Mahouz decides that she deserves more than compassion; that she is entitled to love and to be loved. She keeps getting rid of her inhibitions one after the other until she finally finds love and lands in a rewarding partnership with a husband that she grants for changing her views about what marriage could be about.
One of the most illuminating things about this memoir is that it makes it perfectly clear that without finding freedom from one’s own inhibitions it would be almost impossible for one to reconcile with one’s real self or for that matter to really find love. However, as the memoir shows, it does take a lot of resilience and sobriety for a woman to live through the thick and thin of social coercion, to shrug harassment and discrimination and to be able to confront and reject hypocrisy.
During her journey, Mahfouz rubbed shoulders with some people who ended up as high-profile figures of academia and politics in Egypt. In her memoir, she straightforwardly shares what she really thinks of them. She also shares her views about life in Egypt; a country that she left to join her husband on a work trip to the US. Mahfouz thought she was going to stay in the US for only one year, but ended up staying for good.
In the US she lived with her husband between Washington, where she first practiced psychotherapy, and New York where she later settled as she moved on to civil society activism. Today, Mahfouz has settled with her husband under the warm sun of Florida, where she can escape a fast deterioration of a pulmonology illness that her doctor had told her a few years back that it would not have spared her for long, and where she can look at the palms of her current ‘hometown’ and recall those palms that were distinct of Al-Minya.
Mahfouz and Mansour met shortly after the latter narrowly escaped a horrific death that came with a devastating bomb attack against the UN mission in Baghdad that killed some of his closest co-workers. In pursuit of psychological help, he met with Mahfouz who has later to become a dear friend with whom he worked closely on telling a story worth reading.