On a day like yesterday, eight years ago, my maternal grandfather passed away.
So I sit back and try to re-live the moment: not because I enjoyed it but because I can't help but do so when I open that drawer in my mind labeled "Jaddaah" (My Grandfather) that consists of all the information I can ever gather on him. [On a side-note: Do you find it funny that I refer to him as "Jaddaah"? The arabic couldn't get more formal than that if I tried. Does addressing people formally limit the relationship? Maybe so under general circumstances. Yet in my family, being polite to elders is the un-breachable law. My whole life, I have never spoken to my father in a singular form.]
The year 2003 was the worst in the years I've lived through so far. I vividly recall the dark and dull atmosphere, the tense moments, the long hours of idleness. 2003 brought about some really important events in my personal life. But it also brought about other global events: like a space shuttle sent and returned with seven dead astronauts, or the invasion of Iraq, or the world losing one of their most precious human assets.. Most of that year we spent staring at the television screen, trying to compensate for The Guilt by filling our minds to the brim with the anguish and despair of what was on constant display there.
The memory film's rewinding quickly now back to my eleven-year-old self. The skinny geek with the huge circular thick-rimmed glasses (that only decided to get into fashion when I changed them -_-) sitting on the top of my bunk-bed, reading what I thought at the time was a very funny joke book I had borrowed off the school library. The world outside is yellow- literally. Inside, it's so quiet that I can hear the sound of silence. And then a loud, startling, telephone ring breaks this. My mother picks up, and now I'm only giving half of my attention to the joke book laid out in front of me. The other half is dedicated to deciphering the purpose and participants of the phone call. Which is an easy task even though I can only hear one side of the conversation.
It was my uncle calling from London. I knew that because of the way my mother added a "habibi" after every sentence, the kind that's reserved for your big brother. Yes, everybody was fine. ...Yes, the kids don't have a holiday at the moment. ...Yes, the traffic still hasn't got any better....New news from home? No, we had tried calling them but the lines are really bad at the moment...Yes, what can we do other than pray with all our hearts....Yes habibi, what is it?....Tell me?....Is something wrong?.......What is it, habibi?....BABA?!
And then I hear a thump, and struggle down the bunk-bed's ladder to see my mother on the floor, holding the phone at an arm's distance, shaking silently. My mother, the strong woman who tells us to wipe away our tears and get on with life when we cry over a broken toy. The woman who could put through with anything- who survived alone in a strange cold land with two little children, a job and an absent husband. Now she's alone on the floor hopeless and sobbing. And what is that expression on her face? I can't seem to place it because I've never seen it on her face before. A surge of instructions flow through me. Some tell me to stop being so cold, standing and staring. Others tell not to venture into the unknown. This is a foreign situation and you should stand back now.
What I do is go to the kitchen to get her a glass of water. Please don't judge me. Remember that I'm eleven, and that this was the strangest thing that had happened to me. Remember that feeling during desperate situations when your brain and heart shut and refuse to co-operate, and then irrationality takes over. Soon, in no less than five minutes, the house will be filled with men and women, some I have not even met before, sitting around my new fragile mother, offering little whispers of comfort that do not help at all. For now, it's just us and the despair. It's bad enough losing a father. It's worse losing a father who has been asking you to come visit for a year. It's worse losing one in the midst of news of war and chaos and ambiguity. But it's worst losing one and being told way after his soul has passed on, after his soulless body has been laid underneath and after all the prayers have been recited.
Most of what saddened me that day and several weeks after, (weeks filled with a silent house, the occasional murmurs and ready-made meals), was seeing my mother going through such pain. But what also saddened me was the fact that the little time I had the chance to spend with him was all that there would ever be. So I tried to keep myself satisfied with what I had- the stories of how he would take me for a walk in our garden, and I would miraculously stop the cries that everybody else would try anything in vain to put to silence. How everybody would complain of how difficult a baby I was, and he would announce that I was a smiling, happy one. How he came to us in London when I was five, and took me to McDonald's for the first time in my life! And then, on our trip to Iraq, practicing French with us, telling us jokes and laughing at our lame ones, showing us old pictures and enjoying all the goodnight hugs and kisses...
But the stories aren't enough to fill my drawer, so I steal away bits of memories from other people.
My grandfather was one of those rare people who literally worked his way through life. He was born in one of Iraq's scholarly families. This meant he had the obligations of a religious scholar's son to society- no school or college work would excuse him from his duties to stand by his father in the mosque or religious center. He worked to pay for his own education. Yet his intelligence and determination paved his way to Paris, arriving at a new city knowing not one word in French and leaving the city with a Doctorate degree in law from Sorbonne University. The years my grandfather spent in Paris will remain preserved in my family's history through all the stories being passed on- stories of the city's atmosphere at the time, the strikes, the people, the cafes he loved, the little community he found himself part of, the girls that "fell apart on either side of him as he walked on carrying his good looks" (exaggeration does run in the family!)
With his degree in hand, my grandfather planned on returning to his land. But he returned to a different country to the one he left- his Iraq had been seized by a ruthless group. Their entry brought about the beginning of what would prove to be a continuing downfall of the country. He was no longer aloud to express his thoughts freely, even as the Dean of the University of Mustansiriya in Iraq, and he went to Kuwait as a lecturer in the University of Kuwait, leaving behind his sisters (who he continued to support financially) and a lecture hall named after him. By this time, he had a family: a girl and two boys. Who had he married? His brother's widow. His brother had recently passed away, leaving behind a distressed wife and two orphans. My grandfather married her later on, and took the orphans as his own children.
I wish I could write more on this. About how he eventually helped found a university, the University of Kufa, near the city of Najaf. Or about the sort of father he was to his children- grabbing any opportunity to educate them, the kind that would always take his family out for dinner on a weekend to their favourite restaurant, or ask them to pick a holiday destination. I could go on forever about his efforts to bring up his children to be people accepting of others' opinions and to be true servants of God. But enough memory-stealing for the day.
Many times, I remind myself of my ancestors and what they left behind, and that keeps me motivated to try to leave something behind for myself. So fast-forward the reel back to the present: hopefully the little walks down memory lane help me contribute more to current moment. For now, carpe diem!