Lives Lost: Generous Egyptian grandma was family ‘jewel’

BAHTIM, Egypt (AP) — Gold and silver streamers fluttered in the breeze, hung from house to house down the alley, a festive sign of the holy month of Ramadan.

Usually, Ghaliya Abdel-Wahab would be giving out food to her neighbors for the holiday — big platters of stuffed cabbage leaves or cakes or buttermilk flatbreads. There wasn’t a family on the street who hadn’t enjoyed her food.

But the alley in Bahtim, just outside Cairo, was silent. Abdel-Wahab, 73, and two of her sons were dead. The novel coronavirus struck her family, infecting 45 relatives. It forced the lockdown of some 2,000 neighbors to their homes for weeks.

Fear of the virus left the beloved grandmother’s relatives scrambling to find a way to bury her — after some in the district she’d lived in all her adult life barred her body from the local cemetery.

“All my memories with her were sweet […] She was always helping us, always looking after the whole street’s people as her children,” said one of her neighbors, Umm Gouda, fighting back her tears.

Umm Gouda was Abdel-Wahab’s best friend for 40 years, ever since Umm Gouda moved in across the alley. From the start, Abdel-Wahab opened her home, letting Umm Gouda’s kids come other to take baths as her friend finished building her house.

For the next four decades, they lived together across a street so narrow one of them could practically lean out her window and arrange the other’s laundry dangling on the line. They watched each other’s children grow up. They cooked and shopped at the nearby street market together.

The daughter of a farming family in the Nile Delta, Abdel-Wahab came to Bahtim in the 1960s with her husband not long after they married. The government was turning the area — a stretch of small towns amid green fields and canals from the Nile just north of Cairo — into an industrial hub. The young couple were among the rural villagers who flowed in to work in the new state-run fabric, metal and ceramics factories.

Her husband found a job as a worker at Industrial Projects and Engineering, a government steel conglomerate. Abdel-Wahab raised chickens at home as a second income. They had eight children — four sons, most of whom also found jobs in the nearby factories, and four daughters who were married off and soon had families of their own.

Over the decades, the factories declined, neglected as the state moved from socialism to privatization. The area became poorer, and more migrants from the impoverished countryside flooded in. Abdel-Wahab found her district transformed into a decrepit sprawl of densely populated, illegally built concrete towers stretching for miles, the sewage systems decaying, the canals paved over or choked with garbage.

The grandmother’s generosity always shined through. When the husband of another neighbor, Zeinab Ismail, was sent to prison a while back, Abdel-Wahab stepped in to help, giving her money to pay school fees for her daughters.

“She helped without being asked,” Ismail said. “Hajja Ghaliya did everything, gave me money, food and anything I needed.”

Her husband died in 2018, but Abdel-Wahab had her family close by — her sons and their families all lived in the same building with her. One of her grandchildren, Sayed Naser, called her “the jewel of the family.”

“My grandma was very kind, unbelievable kindness with all people, relatives or non-relatives,” he said.

The virus first hit her son, Abdel-Raouf, in March. At the hospital, the doctor said his fever was just a common flu and sent him home. Within days, he’d worsened and was rushed to a fever hospital.

But it was too late. The virus was racing through the family.

Abdel-Wahab got a fever and had trouble breathing. On April 4, one of her neighbors, Atif Ghoneim, rushed her to the hospital in his car. The whole way, she prayed and recited the Quran “as if she was aware that this was the end,” he said.

Once her test results came back, the doctors ordered her taken to quarantine. She never made it. In the early hours of April 6, she died in the ambulance on route.

When health workers and two of her grandchildren took her for burial, they found a group of Bahtim residents blocking the entrance to the cemetery.

“They were waiting for us,” Naser said. “They said, ‘You will not bury anyone here. Do you want to get us sick?’”

They took her to her ancestral village, Kafr Kala al-Bab, in the Delta. There, too, residents initially tried to block the burial. Her body waited in the ambulance for more than 15 hours as police got involved and finally allowed her to be buried.

The next day, her son Abdel-Fattah died, followed later by her eldest son, 54-year-old Hisham. They were buried in unmarked graves in a charity cemetery. At least 45 family members were infected. Naser’s 21-year-old sister, Yasmine, was pregnant with her first child when she was infected and gave birth in quarantine. They named the boy Yamen — and nicknamed him “Corona.”

“Our family is at war with the coronavirus,” said Naser. “This is a test, a test from God.”

Back in Abdel-Wahab’s alley, the thought stung that someone blocked the burial of the woman they all knew for her generosity. Once the family is out of quarantine and isolation, the neighbors want to do right by them and give their grandmother the farewell she deserved, said one neighbor, Sally Ahmed.

“We will hold a funeral service and receive them in the best way,” she said.


Image: This undated handout image provided by the family of El-Sayed, shows Ghaliya Abdel-Wahab, who died from COVID-19 on April 6, 2020, poses for a photograph with her grandson, in the Shubra el-Kheima neighborhood, Qalyoubiya governorate, Egypt. The novel coronavirus struck her family with horrific speed, infecting 45 of her relatives. (El-Sayed family via AP)

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