Saturday, December 13, 2014

Auntie Attentive

They say the name you give a child grows to become a part of their personality. I know this is true for Auntie Attentive, who lived with us for the first few years of my childhood. My aunt would notice the tiniest speck of stain or tear on the clothes she picked to buy. She'd notice the little smudge of chocolate spread at the corner of your lips that you forgot to wash off, or the strand of hair that your hairband missed to pull up. When we pull out the fat photo-albums for a trip down memory lane, there are only two photos documenting her presence in our childhood. In one of them, she is in a park with my sister, their noses and cheeks frozen red. The other, she is in one of our birthday parties, sitting in a corner, looking lovely and smiling shyly. She was never one for being photographed.

I remember feeling constant fascination with the way Auntie Attentive structured her life- on her own terms, without having to flex them for the unpredictable speed of life. I woke up everyday to the soft jingles of her bangles against each other as she exercised. I'd sit up in bed and watch her, how she moved up, down, left, right without ever going out of breath. My favourite exercise to watch was one where she'd catch invisible tennis balls in the air. I'd giggle and try to catch her attention, but she was so focused on what she was doing I'd soon give up.

My sister and I went on with our days, and never managed to see Auntie Attentive ever free. She was always doing something. Sometimes she'd be busy reading a book, glasses perched, with a pen in hand making side-notes in a writing pad. Sometimes she'd be cooking, cutting lemons, mixing spices, browsing for ingredients in the cupboards. Sometimes we'd go into the room and see her lying down with round cucumber slices covering her eyes. She had a way of giving equal importance to every activity she engaged in, which made her always look busy.

Our favourite time of the day was bed-time, when she was in the mood for telling stories. She told us of King Suleiman and how he spoke to animals, of the brave Ali who pulled open the heavy gates of Khaybar... and sometimes, she would sing to us. Rhymes that we never really understood, but left behind an inexplicable feeling of tragedy:

Mama Najiya
Take these hand-cuffs off me
Have a bit of mercy on me..

It never occurred to us to ask why Auntie Attentive was staying with us, why she wasn't married with a family like all our other aunties. Auntie Attentive was in fact married. Her husband was in a prison miles away for a crime he never committed, accused of 'betraying the country', just one of the thousands of innocent souls who spent years behind bars at the hands of Iraq's old regime.

Auntie Attentive eventually re-united with her husband. Prison had changed him. He had a lot of catching up to do. He had to repeat his education, going back to high school. The old and untouched degree he had wasn't worth anything now. He had to go through all the stages of university graduation to internships to finding a job, but with greying hair. She stayed strong and supportive throughout.

As I grew up and started to understand the things around me better, my fascination for Auntie Attentive has been replaced with deep-rooted respect. For her unwavering strength. For the letters she read from her imprisoned husband in secret, never breaking down in front of us. For her recognition that life goes on. For the way she filled the emptiness she felt from not having the children she had always longed for- with busy, scheduled, productive days.

Auntie Attentive is seven hours away from me by plane, but I bet you I can tell you exactly what she's up to now. She is either in the kitchen, rummaging through cupboards; on her desk, reading a book with glasses perched and making notes; or catching invisible tennis balls, the bangles on her arms clinking softly.


  1. Naw... This reminds me so much of a lesson that keeps appearing in my life, time and time again - that people are so much more than we think. Reading about this mini-evolution of your understanding of your Auntie and what her story is, is so familiar to me. That being said, her story sounds pretty darn moving - a hubby in prison? What they both must have gone through!

    In awe ♥

  2. <3 love you Ghadeer. Love reading your blog always!

  3. I have grown to like your Auntie. It is actually a very good quality to pay attention to details. We have to have "Saleekha and Tareekha " they say back home. I am not sure if these words are Arabic in origin but they mean that we have to be detail oriented in our ways.
    I hope that your auntie is able to make up for the lost time with her husband.

  4. I hope that the New Year brings peace and understanding among all of us. Happy New Year to you and your loved ones.


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