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by Samir Raafat
Helio Times, January 1, 1998

This is no ordinary Ramadan for Hag Mohammed al-Leithy, for Villa Austria's gardener of fifty years is LE 50,000 richer than he was this time last year. Did he win the sweepstakes or was he lucky at a round of Bingo? Neither, actually, and I doubt Leithy, now in his mid-70s, is knowledgeable of either. On the other hand, Leithy was the favored beneficiary of his late employer's last will which clearly specified that the faithful Hag was to receive the above-mentioned sum once her Maadi villa (in the suburb of Cairo) was sold off by her heirs.

My involvement with Hag Leithy was through his 80-something Austrian employer. Her health deteriorating fast, Annie Gismann called me up one day and shouted -- phones seemed to have this effect on her -- that I was to come as soon as possible. In Annie's lexicon this translated into within the day. I wondered what it was this time.

Bedridden for the last several years, Annie had become highly irritable. This was understandable for someone who had otherwise spent a lifetime in the outdoors trekking Sinai and Egypt's two deserts. Her knowledge of rocks, stones and geological formations was second to none. Raised in Maadi she visited the desert with her father when she was barely two years of age. Later, in her thirties, with or without her Austrian husband, Annie spent months in Sinai where everyone, down to the last Bedouin, knew her. City life meant nothing to Annie except perhaps going to museums, scientific labs and cultural centers. For a while she taught at the Goethe Institute.

Even after her legs started to give way following an incurable disease, Annie continued to work from her bed, translating and editing complicated texts. One of her last endeavors had to do with a hotel brochure on Sinai's birds.

Annie's near fatal bout with bronchitis didn't help much and few, mostly out of fear, liked responding to her imperial summons. Those who did would invariably get a coherent multi-lingual -- French-German-English-Arabic -- dressing down for whatever reason. Although I was one of the few exempted from Annie's harangues, she would pick on any third party who happened to walk into the room: the maid, the gardener (Leithy), the lawyer or a mutual friend. Annie's antics had a sobering effect and I was always at my best behavior.

When her only sister visited from the United Kingdom, Annie would bully her until Leny would be counting the hours to return to the safety of her country cottage. And yet I remember how one day, a choking Annie telephoned. Between loud sobs, she tersely informed me her sister had died as a result of a car crash in England. Ironically, Annie had just completed the difficult task of taking care of all the tedious inheritance paperwork. A woman who abided by Teutonic logic, Annie assumed that since she was ten years older than Leny, she would go out first.

At Annie's request, I had spent long hours with both sisters discussing 'life after Annie.' How Annie's estate was to be divided up and who got what and how much. When the time came, I was to help Annie's sister through the maze of inheritance-related formalities. Unlike Annie who spent her entire life in Maadi, Leny had moved to the United Kingdom in the 1950s and consequently lost touch with some of Egypt's tedious bureaucratic realities.

As it turned out Annie survived her younger sister by just over a year.

The afternoon of one of Annie's last summons found me once again in her untidy book-lined bedroom. It had an 'Everything Must Go' atmosphere. Over the years Annie had turned her room into a makeshift kitchenette, bathroom, living room, TV room and courthouse. Once again, I had the distinct feel of sitting in a witness box. Annie, from her large bed across the room, was judge, jury and prosecutor. I was the miserable defendant.

"When I [Annie] go you must attend to this, that or the other.... you must tell my nieces... you must..." she commanded incessantly.

This visit also had to do with witnessing (along with an Austrian diplomat) her last will which had several codicils. Admittedly, I was surprised at Annie's generosity. Everyone who had served her was remembered with varying amounts appended to each name. Annie knew she was dying and wanted desperately to wrap things up so there would be no confusion after she was gone. Her greatest worry was that no one was forgotten and that the names were correctly transliterated. Her other concern was Villa Austria. Could I find a buyer for her father's 83 year old villa? Preferably someone who would preserve it and look after its assortment of plants and trees!!

Realizing this was going to be one of our last meetings it finally dawned on me that despite the hard exterior this woman was a softie and a very generous one at that.

A year and eight months after Annie died (Spring 1996), Villa Austria was sold off to a neighbor. It was now time to distribute the bequests and gifts. It was also time to prepare Leithy. To date, he was unaware his former employer had left him anything save a few household items. A sudden realization of what was coming his way could invariably provoke a stroke.

Yet when I asked him how much he had expected to receive from 'Madam Geezman' , Leithy's reply was a short "saba'a" meaning seven thousand pounds. The rumors had obviously reached Leithy. Nevertheless, seven times the anticipated amount could bring on a heart attack, I though to myself. Annie will have inadvertently killed Leithy.

In an effort to condition Leithy for what was coming, I asked him to imagine that it was laylat Nos-Sha'ban, the night in the Muslim calendar strongly believed that destinies for the coming year are fixed. What exactly was it he wanted most for himself and his family.

As it turned out his needs were modest. Here was a man free from temporal urges. Unlike his peers, Leithy had not succumbed to television's enticing ads. In so many ways he was not unlike Annie, inherently anti-materialistic.

As I expected, on the day the money was disbursed, Leithy very nearly collapsed. He cried. He laughed. He cried again. He was utterly confused. Wobbly at the knees, he was escorted to a waiting taxi. Staff and clients at the bank congratulated and cheered him on as he was driven away. In a sense all present shared Leithy's exhilaration. Although none had ever seen or heard of Annie, they all evoked the great person she was.

Two weeks later I visited Leithy. He was a happy man clipping the hedge as he would have on any ordinary day in his gardener's life.

"What have you done with the money?" I asked. "I'm saving it for Ramadan" came the dreamy answer. Leithy was still in a trance.

articles posted on were published in the following books by Samir W Raafat: THE EGYPTIAN BOURSE, Zeitouna, Cairo -- CAIRO THE GLORY YEARS, Harpocrates, Alexandria -- HISTORY & SOCIETY IN A CAIRO SUBURB; MAADI 1904-1962, Palm Press, Cairo -- PRIVILEGED FOR THREE CENTURIES, printed digitally and bound by Elias Printing, Egypt

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