Updated: Feb 6, 2019
I mentioned Auntie Melia briefly in Looking West. Emelia Badr was a beloved educator who dedicated her entire career to the education of the young women of Egypt. She left the family in Lebanon and traveled to Cairo in 1897 where she spent the first twelve years teaching at the Ezbekia School for Girls. In 1910, when Ms. Ella Kyle founded the American College for Girls in Cairo, Emilia was with her and remained a very powerful presence in the College for the next forty years. Emilia Badr lived in Cairo for over fifty years with portions of each summer spent with the family in Lebanon. She retired in 1954 and moved permanently back to Lebanon to live with her sister in law, my Grandmother, Hana.
Aunt Melia was my favorite great aunt. She died in the summer of 1956 in Dhour Schweir. Our family and all our relatives were summering there, and her funeral was held at Khalo* Fuad’s summerhouse where she was living. I was eleven years old and remember standing next to Ammo Fuad Sabra in the back of the assembly of mourners and asking, “Why are all the women crying?” He whispered, “Women are supposed to cry at funerals.” That was also the first time I had viewed the body of a deceased person. My mother took me to the room to view her body. Her eyes were closed and her mouth was decorated with a flower. She had her signature black dress on and lay comfortably on her back as though sleeping. Her head was covered with a white turban.
For me Auntie Melia’s death was especially sad because I loved everything about her, from the way she dressed to the way she talked. She was a very short woman who always wore a long black dress and a black hat covering her head. Before bedtime, she would put on a white nightgown and cover her head with a white turban.
Whenever in her presence, I could never help gazing at her small and kind face with her attentive blue eyes peering through round eyeglasses. (My mother and Aunt Melia were the only two in our family with blue eyes.)
During her long career as a respected teacher in Cairo, she adopted the Egyptian Arabic dialect and accent, which I had never heard before and immediately fell in love with. Of all the Arabic accents that I had heard in my years of growing up in Lebanon, Auntie Melia’s Egyptian accent was the most appealing. It was melodic and made her sound gentle, friendly, and kind.
More than any other description defining her persona for us, we children thought of Auntie Melia as the “Turkish Delight” Auntie. Whenever we visited her, she would invariably invite us to her room for a treat of “Turkish Delight” sandwiched between two Petite Beurre biscuits. Both Auntie Melia’s black dress and her room were saturated with the yummy smell of this traditional candy.
*In Arabic, if the uncle is the mother’s brother we call him Khalo. An uncle is called Ammo when he is the father’s brother, an adult relative, or a friend of the family.