My parents made a trip to Cairo in the September of 2016. I was not able to join them, as the fall semester had started and I was already up to my eyeballs in homework. They brought back something that belonged to my late paternal grandfather, Aly Kheir. It was a special issue of an alumni magazine, in which he was a contributor. My parents had inadvertently brought back a gem— a written account of ancestry, foreign occupation, and personal challenges of a first-generation Aswanite physician in Cairo.
This magazine came at a perfect time— I was just beginning to become interested in the writings of physicians on non-medical topics, hoping to understand physicians as people, rather than as professionals. Little did I know that my own late Gedo (or grandpa) would provide an answer to my quest. I immediately set out to read and translate the entry.
“I am a member of the Muradab tribe native to the southern Nile River Valley extending from [the] Abu Sembel [temples] to the town of Esna, through the governorate of Aswan and [just] south of the governorate of Qena,” the entry begins. He was born in a village near Aswan, an Upper Egyptian city known for itsancient temples and conservative family traditions. I imagine that Aswan at the time was nothing like the Aswan of today. The Aswan High Dam had not yet been built. The dam had not yet displaced thousands of people,submerged antiquity sites underwater, or wreaked havoc on the riverbank’s ecosystem.
My great-grandfather saw potential for him to attend Al-Azhar University—one of the oldest centers of religious learning in the world—after he committed a whopping ten (!) sections of the Quran to memory. For comparison, I memorized barely one section of the Quran as a kid, and still consider it one of the hardest things I have ever done. His father relocated the family to Cairo, like so many families from Upper Egypt at the time, to begin a new life in the metropolis.
The family spent the summer in the south and returned to Cairo for the start of his freshman year high school. He enlisted the help of his older cousin to help him enroll in a high school, but sadly they missed the registration deadline. His solution? He met with the headmaster and convinced him to make an exception—an impressive feat for someone right out of middle school.
At the tail end of the British occupation, my grandfather was a high school student who noticed a need to form a neighborhood watch group. In response to British soldiers drunkenly harassing Egyptian women and girls in his neighborhood, he joined a group of friends who met once a week and patrolled the area, helping to bring piece of mind to many families.
“One evening in the summer of 1941, I was traveling with my friend Foad Hossein Mahmood (may God prolong his life),” Gedo writes. “As we were passing through Queen Nazli Street (now known as Ramses Street)… we saw a drunk foreign [i.e. British] soldier groping an Egyptian girl of about twenty years old [and] forcibly pulling her toward him. The girl was screaming out, and we had to intervene for her,” he continues. His friends agreed to meet every Thursday evening after that incident to patrol parts of the neighborhood that were off-limits to the British military. He writes casually about this patrol group, believing it was a natural and logical response to the events affecting his neighbors.
Gedo Aly was a member of the founding Class of 1953 of the Faculty of Medicine of Ain Shams University. The Faculty of Medicine and its teaching hospital were previously named El-Demerdash Medical College after its major donors, Abdel Rahim El-Demerdash Pasha, his wife and daughter, Sitt Qout El-Qulub El-Demerdashiya, who intended it to be a charity hospital to be administered under a waqf, a religious endowment. Demerdash Pasha was the sheikh, or spiritual guide, of the Demerdashiyya Sufi order, established in 1522 by Mohammed El-Demerdash El Mahmoudi in the wake of the Ottoman invasion of Egypt. Under Abdel Rahim El-Demerdash, the order became one of the most influential orders in the country at the time. I was surprised to learn that the founder of this hospital was a Sufi, and such a prominent social figure at that.
Nowadays, one has to do a lot of digging to find an influential Sufi order in Egypt. In college I was fascinated with the effect of their religious rhetoric on Egyptian politics, but was not able to find a lot of sources about the topic for my senior thesis. This might be due to the decline in popularity of the major Sufi orders in recent decades, and the rise of transnational political-religious movements like Wahabbism, Salafism, and the Muslim Brotherhood. After the 1952 nationalist revolution lead by the Free Officer’s Movement, it is likely that Ain Shams Univesrity was put under the auspices of the state rather than the relatively autonomous religious endowments.
Today, Ain Shams is one of the largest medical schools in Cairo. When I found this alumni journal among the pile of things my parents brought back with them to the States, I was curious to see what the family’s very first Ain Shams graduate was like as a person and physician.
In his third year of medical school, he formed a delegation of students to discuss matters of academic accreditation with the Minister of Education of Egypt. They were concerned that the newly established al-Abassiya campus was not meeting international standards of medical education. “The Minister listened to our complaints,” he writes, “and clarified that the international recognition [of their campus] is not affected. The accreditation is dependent on whether the state of Egypt recognizes the university, and thank God our university had this recognition… We had proven to the world that the scholars of this university were up-and-coming!”
He also describes a sense of unity among his classmates, despite the diversity in social class and family backgrounds that existed. He recounts, “the closeness and unity of this class was displayed when the Dean of the College Dr. Azmy al-Qattan Haramein suspended our colleague Ma’moon Diab… Our third-year cohort held a strike by not attending lectures or laboratories in solidarity with their colleague, indicating that this cohort was a unified student body.”
After their graduation, some of his classmates went on to become professors, military officers, and public servants. He fell into the latter category, stating that he “was the first graduate of [the] Al-Abasiyya [campus]… to become a forensic pathologist” at the Ministry of Health. He later went on to work with the government of Saudi Arabia to establish forensic pathology departments in the Egyptian model, during which time he was asked to be an expert witness in legal trials in the United Kingdom. Gedo retired in January of 1987.
What struck me was how different his submission was from those of his classmates. He chose to write a short autobiography about his path to high school, medicine, and beyond, unlike some of his colleagues who submitted CVs and photos of their children and spouses. His entry was unique in the sense in that his voice was clearly present. He described a series of obstacles on his way to becoming a forensic pathologist, but did not romanticize the idea of going to medical school, like so many of my American counterparts tend to do. What was surprising was that he barely mentioned what he found interesting about medicine, or what he thought of medical school. Instead, he seemed very interested in narrating a biography driven by his personal motivations and challenges.
He elected to tell a deeply personal story of his life starting with his tribal roots in the humble Upper Egyptian region, which marked him as distinct from the rest of his peers. Hailing from a modest family from Upper Egypt, Aly had to carve his own path to university through unfamiliar deadlines and without a lot of familiar or institutional support. Despite these challenges, he remained true to his values by joining an sexual harassment watch group in high school and student council in university.
These stories are incredible, as written accounts of my family members are hard to come by. Not only did I learn that I belong to a tribe (!), I got a glimpse of who my grandfather was, and what his formative years were like. I am curious to learn if he left behind any diaries or published articles in a university newspaper. Until then, family photos and stories will have to do.
FoLlOw mE On