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Racing Against Alzheimer's: The 90-Year-Old French Woman Who Only Remembers Her Cairo Childhood

Her Alzheimer's diagnosis two years ago made her grandson Valentin Noujaïm get on a plane to Cairo to film a documentary on her life in Egypt before she loses all memory of it.

In 1927 Heliopolis, she was born to an Italian father and an Egyptian mother. For twenty two years, Laurice Bocti lived a quiet life in the then-remote and lavishly green district of Korba.

Bocti is now 90 years old, has long since left Egypt and settled in France, and was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in the later years of her life. And the only thing she can manage to recall as the majority of her memories slip away from her, is her childhood in Heliopolis. In a bid to capture his grandmother's memories before they fade away entirely, her grandson, Valentin Noujaïm has now returned to Egypt and is filming a documentary about his grandmother and her youth. "I feel that listening to her talk about her past has somehow transferred her melancholic feelings about Cairo and Heliopolis to me," he says of the upcoming piece, set to be released in 2018.

"As my grandma got more and more confused and lost in her memories, I started to became obsessed by the fact that she's going to lose her memories that represent a big part of her history as well as mine," Noujaïm explains. "I realised we didn't know much about her life before she moved to France. So I began filming her talking about her Heliopolis life which made me feel that it's my duty to come to Cairo and see the place I belong firsthand."

Bocti's daily life growing up in 1930s Egypt resembled that of most girls living in the upscale neighborhood of Korba, mostly revolving around attending her classes in the French Sacré-Cœur College before catching up with evening mass in the Saint Cyrille Greek Catholic church, which is where she laid eyes on her future husband Charles Naccache for the very first time in the 1940s.

Laurice in the mid-1940s  

Towards the end of the 1940s, Naccache popped the question and her answer was yes. In the same church she spent most of her childhood and adolescence, Bocti and Naccache stood before their loved ones and vowed to be there for one another, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.

Come 1952, life in Egypt was in for a dramatic shift. With the ouster of the monarchy and the subsequent intolerance towards those who don't belong to the country on paper, the winds of change to the sociopolitical situation in the country brought with them a rather foreign feeling to the young couple who now had three young children; the desire to leave their increasingly hostile home country.



Charles and Laurice on 1952's New Year's Eve

The Paris of the East, Beirut, was their next destination as Charles already had relatives in the country. They settled down in the dynamic Levantine metropolis and began building a new life upon their arrival in 1957. After almost two decades in Beirut, the tiny country fell into political turmoil and social unrest, signalling the beginning of a long and bloody civil war.

Lebanese Civil War, 1970s (Source: Al Akhbar)

As the situation in the country approached the verge of total destruction, the couple, who were now approaching their forties, decided it was time to leave the Middle East altogether and set sail to new lands where prosecution and war would not follow. In 1975, they crossed the Mediterranean with their six children, seeking a fresh beginning in France's third biggest city, Lyon.

Five years later, it was their fourth child's time to walk down the altar and marry the man of her choice. To the west of France, Martine moved in with her husband and gave birth to their son Valentin Noujaïm in 1991.

Brought up like every other French kid, Noujaïm never quite felt he belonged. On their frequent visits to his grandmother, she would cook molokheya, foul, and many other Egyptian dishes, which left a young Noujaïm even more confused as to what place he could call home. It wasn't until his grandfather passed away in 2002 that Noujaïm started spending much more time in the company of his grandmother, who was now sharing more about her life in Egypt. "My parents never wanted me to have any connection to Egypt or the Middle East. They brought us up as French white people and wanted to cut all ties to that painful past," Noujaïm recalls.

A decade after her husband's passing, Bocti began showing signs of the chronic Alzheimer's disease. As memories of her long life slowly evaded her, a particular era of her life came to the forefront of her thoughts; her childhood in Heliopolis. "It's a small village, there's nobody there and it's very calm on the streets. It's green everywhere and everyone is friendly," Bocti would dreamingly tell her grandson Noujaïm, he recounts.

Noujaïm walking his grandma Laurice, 2017

Having studied filmmaking and at fear of losing his family's legacy, Valentin Noujaïm started filming his grandmother's reminiscing about Heliopolis. In his recordings, she would talk in vivid detail about her school, church, where she would buy lunches, and the stores she shopped at. Growing increasingly passionate and curious about the city in which his family was once rooted, Noujaïm took his camera and crossed the sea back to the now-drastically changed district and began filming in the same streets and alleys which his grandma once walked.

A walk down memory lane, Lyon, 2017

Upon landing in Cairo, Noujaïm quickly found out that his grandmother's memories of the city are just that; memories. Everything was different than how she remembers it. Heliopolis, though still beautiful, was not that remote oasis of calmness and tranquility. He began filming all the places his grandmother mentioned in her tales; Roxy Cinema, her church, school, and home.

From her balcony, Lyon, 2015

Unable to turn back time, Noujaïm is now in a race against it to compile all the footage he's filmed of his grandma and modern-day Heliopolis in a documentary that keeps his heritage intact and tells the story of his family before his grandma loses her final grips on reality. "I feel that listening to her talk about her past has somehow transferred her melancholic feelings about Cairo and Heliopolis to me. Though, as in France, I still don't feel like I belong here, but it's still a part of my story that I want people to know," Noujaïm concludes, adding that he's now in the editing phase of his documentary which he intends to release by mid-2018.

Meanwhile, Laurice continues to live a calm life in Lyon while her last remaining memories take her back to a mystical faraway land she once called home. 

Photos courtesy of Valentin Noujaïm.