The typhus epidemic and Ragheb Moftah
By Laurence Moftah
Ragheb Moftah was stricken with typhus when he was an infant (sometime between 1899-1900, so he was either about 18 months or two years old.) His wet-nurse Za'faran, made the mistake of taking him out for a stroll in his pram near an infected neighborhood in Faggala, Cairo, exposing him to typhus that was epidemic in Egypt from 1896 to 1900.
It was common practice during those days that children of well-to-do families were raised by wet nurses and nannies, often completely outside of the family circle. Mothers were not the principal caretakers of their children, and almost never nursed their infants. In fact, it was considered a sign of a household with insufficient staff if parents had to raise their children themselves! At that time parents were unaware of the emotional and psychological significances of the child-mother relationship while their children were growing up.
However, there were other reasons as well for parents to employ nannies or wet nurses to take over child-rearing chores. During those times, mothers typically had numerous children, often one after the other resulting in a nursery full of infants and small children. Naturally taking care of such a brood was a major task and additional household help was desirable if not essential for the well-being of both parents and children. So parents who could afford to hire caretakers did so to help raise their children. This was the case for my grandmother Labiba who had nine children. Moreover, my grandfather was the guardian of twenty-one orphaned children, who were raised at his home, and my grandmother Labiba willingly took care of them, too. For this reason my grandfather Habashi Moftah hired various nannies with different child-care styles to take care of his own children, as well as those in his custody.
Even though my grandmother entrusted much of the daily care of her children to nannies or wet nurses, she was undoubtedly very much involved in their upbringing. According to my Uncle Ragheb's account, his mother Labiba bonded lovingly with her children, and they simply adored her. In fact, she was more involved in her children's upbringing than was my grandfather. Habashi Moftah was gentle and compassionate, but evidently, unlike modern times, fathers did not play any particular significant role in their children's upbringing while they were still infants. Often fathers had no real interaction with their children before they were school age or about seven years old.
Incidentally, I would like to mention as a side note that Za'faran, Ragheb's wet nurse, was a Sudanese Muslim freed slave. According to Eve M. Troutt Powell in her book entitled: A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan, (2003), while Egypt was under the British Empire and attempted to colonize the Sudan, it was described as a "colonized-colonizer." Powell goes on to describe the 'role of slavery in Egypt' and how it was significant in the "construction of ideologies of race and formation of Egypt's cultural and national identity." Despite the fact that slavery had been abolished in 1877 and Khedive Ismail signed the Anglo-Egyptian Slave Trade Convention in 1880 which provided for the termination of the sale and purchase of slaves in Sudan (General Gordon attended to the terms of the Treaty), blacks still faced discrimination throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries Many continued to be treated no better than slaves.
My Uncle Ragheb, however, regarded his wet nurse Za'faran with great fondness and respect. When he as a young man moved into his own house, she followed to take charge of running the household. She had an even temperament, and did her best to create a comfortable atmosphere for him with no worries about taking care of the cooking and cleaning. This allowed him to devote his time to other responsibilities and interests like his growing passion to preserve the Coptic music heritage. Za'faran remained a trusted servant and devoted friend for the rest of her life. She passed away in Ragheb's home in 1962 after serving him faithfully for over seventy years.
In a videotaped biographical interview conducted by Raymond Stock as part of the Library of Congress' oral history World Heritage Series (1996-1997), my Uncle Ragheb gives an account of his relationship with his mother Labiba, his wet nurse Za'faran, and speaks of his having typhus. My Uncle also mentions that he had a breathing tube 'tracheotomy' when he was infected with typhus. I was not aware that he was almost fatally ill when he was an infant, for I was under the impression that his only serious bout with illness was a nephrectomy in the 1940s.
Raymond Stock and I were entertained by my Uncle's interesting account about his childhood experiences, and his fond memories of his mother. During the interview, I noticed that his face lit up with a grateful and radiant boyish smile, as though implying that he was destined to defy all odds, and to live until a very old age. He was miraculously spared the fate of the thousands who died during the typhus epidemic in Egypt between 1896-1900. Clearly he must have been spared by the Almighty in order to accomplish a sacred mission. My conviction was even stronger after reading in the Book of Psalms, that he was protected from the 'plague that destroys at midday.'
He [the Almighty] will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday. (Psalms 91: 4-6).
My Uncle Ragheb chatted pleasantly while weaving into his narrative the details of his illness, and the typhus epidemic in Egypt. He spoke also of his loving mother Labiba (d.1926) who stayed at my Uncle's bed side for six months when he was critically ill with the typhus infection. She was always very close to his heart, remembering her as serene, kind, and beautiful. He simply adored her.
In researching this typhus outbreak that plagued Cairo between 1896-1900 I found no record of epidemic typhus, perhaps because cases were misidentified as "plague". Typhus is mentioned in the chapter entitled "Typhus in Egypt," in The Practitioner, (1904), written by F.M. Sandwith, MD, F.R.C.P., who was a Consulting Physician to al-Kasr el-Ainy Hospital in Cairo. Sandwith also includes in his list of references on page 524, an article written by Engel Bey, which is entitled: "Relève des Maladies Infectieuses de 1896 à 1900. Cairo." Therefore, based on the information mentioned by Sandwith in the list of references, the epidemic started in 1896. That is, before Ragheb Moftah was born in 1898.
It is worth noting that some of the orphans who were in Habashi Moftah's custody were close relatives to him, as in the case of his nephew Dr. Naguib Moftah, son of his brother Morcos Bey Moftah, or his two minor cousins Sophie and Marie, daughters of his Uncle Iryan Moftah. But there were also other orphans who were poor and needy, and had nowhere to stay, as there were few orphanages in existence during the 1880s and for some time thereafter. It was only in 1912 that the first Coptic orphanage for girls was founded by Farida Moftah. It was called Jam'iyyah al-Sayyidat al-Kibtiyyah al-Khayriyyah, [The Coptic Women's Philanthropic Society], in al-Dhaher, Cairo. Farida was Habashi's daughter, spouse of Dr. Ibrahim Bey Fahmy, and Ragheb Moftah's elder sister. He had two others: Victoria, the eldest, and Blanche, the youngest.
Ragheb Moftah was Farida's protégé, and she was the driving force behind his projects to preserve the Coptic music heritage. She was charismatic, strong-willed, and had an imposing presence. Farida was both revered and respected by the clergymen of the Coptic Orthodox Church at the highest and lowest ranks. Farida was the driving force behind her father Habashi Moftah and Ragheb Moftah's decisions. In spite of the fact that she was so powerful and wielded her influence when necessary to promote any cause of interest, especially her humanitarian projects, she radiated compassion and sympathy for those who sought her help or needed her. She was always there for her immediate and extended family members whenever they were in need. Moreover, she was sought for advice regarding social matters by her feminist peers, and her husband's close associates, like Prime Minister Yeyha Pasha Ibrahim, her sisters' spouses Kamel Pasha Sedky, Abdallah Bey Simaikah and many others. She did not indulge in much conversation, except when she had to address matters of concern. I remember vividly that no one dared to contest her opinion, and that she seemed to assume more of a patriarchal than a more submissive matriarchal role in most family matters.
Shortly before Farida Moftah died in 1972, President Anwar el-Sadat bestowed on her a medal of honor for her lifetime dedication and contribution to support charitable and social causes. She was also honored posthumously by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who bestowed on her the title of 'deaconess', for her services to the Coptic Orthodox Church and most particularly when she assumed responsibility for the restoration projects of the Coptic Chapel, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem [the Old City]. In fact, she made it a point to visit Jerusalem quite frequently, before the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and to supervise the continuous upkeep and maintenance of the Coptic Chapel. She also solicited contributions to raise funds for this project as well as others. The title of 'deaconess' is derived from the Greek word diakonos, which means 'servant' or 'waiter'. Deacons assist the priests and clergymen in their pastoral services, and they support other pastoral and administrative duties. Farida served the Coptic Orthodox Church in various capacities and for this reason the title of 'deaconess' was bestowed upon her. She also supported and supervised projects of restoration of Coptic artifacts and icons in some ancient Coptic Churches in Cairo.
Farida Moftah was connected with well-known Coptic families, and they were all bound by a common social background, as well as common objectives to promote Coptic and national interests. They founded Coptic schools, the Coptic Hospital, and orphanages. Farida Moftah was a close friend of 'Tante Anna,' who was Mirrit Boutros Ghali's mother. They both shared similar views, and both dedicated themselves to social work and philanthropic projects. Farida founded al-Jam'iyyat al-Sayyidat al-Kiptiyyah al-Khayriyyah, [Coptic Women's Philanthropic Society for Orphans], and 'Tante Anna' attended to al-Mashghal al-Butrusi, [The Boutrosi School of Art and Craft for Girls].