After a hard life, such tragedy is so sad to behold

When Nabaweya's aged mother died in a fire, we knew the tragedy was all the greater because of the pain Nabaweya herself had previously endured.

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Every Thursday morning our doorbell rings at about half past nine. Sometimes it's 10. If my flatmate doesn't get to the door first, I push myself out of the comfort of my covers and shuffle half-blind to open it to find our cheery housekeeper. Nabaweya greets me with a knowing smile that says, "Go on, back to bed with you", and starts to settle herself into my home like it's her own place. She takes off her outside clothes, ties her hair back in a small scarf and sits down to have tea and breakfast first, often with her daughter or niece who accompany her.

I either barricade myself into my room or begin getting ready for work as they bang around in the living room and kitchen, mopping up the week's mess. When I first moved to Egypt, it was a little strange having a house cleaner. I grew up with my mother doing the majority of the housework until I was old enough to start helping her myself. Even when we lived in the Gulf, she avoided having someone else come to help - until her career began to take off, that is, and she struggled to find the time. But in Egypt, even expat students have someone in to act as house-keeper - someone doing the cleaning, another the cooking, another to drive and run errands. This is how the system works - it keeps a large part of an unskilled population which would otherwise not find employment.

Nabaweya joined our lives almost two years ago, coming on the recommendation of a friend who had employed her for four years. He sang her praises, saying she was honest, loyal and punctual, and soon she was working for five of our friends. Nabaweya is a small woman of 66 years, and many children. In addition, she raises her young grandson and keeps him on a short leash, making sure he does well at school and learns English, sometimes making him practise it with her foreign employers. She does her job like it's a profession, keeping strict times, ringing in if she is ever sick, and calling to remind us to bring the clothes in from outside. All who employ her love her; she is part of the family and none of us could do without her.

As a result, I was devastated when she called one day asking me to ring round her clients to say she wouldn't be coming to work. Her mother had died. Her call had woken me up and I was so groggy I couldn't process what she was saying properly. Later, I rang back to offer condolences and to see if she needed anything. All she could do was sob. We all assumed her mother had died because of her age, but when I called back a week later to check on her, Nabaweya was composed enough to tell me what had happened.

"Hadeel, my mother burned to death," she said. My eyes went wide with shock and I insisted that I see her. Nabaweya promised to come to a friend's home because she needed to get out of her house. When I saw her, Nabaweya had shrunk in size and was dressed in a dark abaya. She sat on the couch dabbing her eyes with a tissue as she retold the story. Her mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease four months ago and was living with her youngest son, Nabaweya's brother. One evening there was a power cut and the son lit a candle for his mother, putting it down beside her. Later he told his mother he was going out for 15 minutes but he was gone for much longer. After he left, it appeared the candle toppled over on to the old woman, setting her clothes on fire. The doctor said she had been subjected to burns for a least two hours.

When her son returned he saw smoke escaping from a window and found his mother lying on the floor still alive. The rest of the flat was virtually untouched by the flames. Wailing, she was taken to a hospital where she finally took her last breath. Nabaweya's voice cracks when she tells us this, and our hearts break for her. She told us she could not speak to her brother. "Why did he leave her?" she asked.

After telling me the dreadful story, Nabaweya looked at me in the eyes and said: "Hadeel, is my mother being punished by God or will He have mercy on her soul?" I told her that her mother was safe now, in a better place, and would only want us all to pray for her. We all found the episode emotionally draining, not just because we love Nabaweya and found her story so sad, but because we knew the tragedy was all the greater because of the hard life she had endured - raising children on her own after her husband died, trying to give them good lives, cleaning two homes a day to make ends meet, and all this while suffering from diabetes so severe she needs a crutch to walk.

It was too much. But hers is just one of the million of stories in Egypt that weigh upon our hearts. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo