Friday, 11 March 2011

My dear Aunt Alia, may she rest in peace

For the first time in my life, as I near the age of 40, I see a dead body firsthand.  It was earlier today around noon; the body was that of my dear Aunt Alia, my mother's sister.

My mother's parents had five daughters, and two sons.  My mother is the eldest.  One of my uncles, Uncle Reda, died about two years ago; he was in his late fifties.  Aunt Alia's passing away was the first break in the close-knit sisterhood of my mother's.  I often felt the five sisters were each other's truest and closest friends, always in touch with each other on the telephone, always making plans for seeing each other, and generally pleased and supremely comfortable in each other's company, happy.  I have several pictures of the five sisters.

Aunt Alia - Mama Lolla as we all called her - was the middle sister, halfway between my mother and Aunt Zubaida - Tant Zizi - the youngest of the five consecutive girls.  My mother is Amal, or Moly to her sisters. The remaining sisters are Inshirah - Tant Shooshoo, immediately following my mother, and Sabaah - Tant Booha, between the late Mama Lolla and Tant Zizi.

They are five lovely women, pretty, funny, looking out for each other.

Poor Mama Lolla went first.  I kissed her cold, dead corpse in a neon-lit basement room where she had been washed and prepared for burial.  I was the last person allowed to say goodbye.  My beautiful aunt's pale skin, often flushed with red, was now almost blue.  She had died after suffering in hospital for about a week of a heart condition that caused her immense breathing difficulty.  It is likely she could not breathe anymore sometime in the early morning hours of Friday 11th March.  Tant Shooshoo, who had been sleeping-in with her at the hospital, woke up when Mama Lolla toppled over from bed.  By the time the proper medical attention had arrived, it was too late.

We had all gone to see her the day before, Thursday 10th, and she had seemed on the up.  Clearly suffering from difficulty in breathing, she seemed weak, but not broken, certainly not dying.  It was my first and last time to see her during her sickness.  My mother had gone to see her several times, but I had postponed my visit to the hospital because of work, and because her health seemed to have recovered from the initial scare upon which she was taken to hospital.

The hospital's staff was horrid: typical of the second-rate type of medical care one gets in Egypt.  Doctors were not called-in quickly enough.  Queries not escalated urgently enough.  Scans and test results not reported carefully enough.  Staff seemed to delegate things to one another, and it was left to us to follow through.  Whereas expert medical opinion agrees now that my aunt, had she survived, would have had to go through a lot of medical procedures that might have meant a shortened lifespan anyway, the hospital derlicted its duties.

Uncle Hassan, Mama Lolla's husband, had been very shaken by this sudden episode of ill-health.  Bereft with sadness, crying all the time, he seemed torn between moving his wife out of the hospital, and being patient.  As his wife's condition improved, his trusting approach seemed to be the wise course.  But now we wonder what would have happened had he taken matters in his hands immediately and moved her out right away.  

Mama Lolla got that nickname because of me.  A couple of months after I was born, my mother had to go back to work.  So, she did what lots of people do: she left her baby boy with her mother.  In my grandmother's home at the time, there was still Aunts Alia, Booha and Zizi unmarried.  I was spolit for choice.  But it was Aunt Alia who shone with her devotion and sheer suitedness to the role of acting-mother; the nickname was born: Mama Lolla.  Mama - mother - and Lolla, the preferred nickname the family had for Alia.  Mama Lolla took care of me until I was 9 months old.  Then we moved abroad, and she herself got married to Uncle Hassan.

The tragedy of their lives is that they were unable to bear children.  I say tragedy because it was something that pained not only them, but everybody else who thought her to be the most maternal of all her sisters.  She, as far as I know, never made a big deal out of it.  Instead, she devoted herself to Uncle Hassan, becoming a perfect maternal-wife, always on the look-out for him, caring for him selflessly, obliging him as much she could.  Mama Lolla became the de facto mother of all her siblings' children.

If ever I saw consternation on her face because of something Uncle Hassan might have said or done, that consternation would never manifest itself in words.  He was never an imperious or domineering husband, only perhaps slightly moody and set-in-his-ways; she was the angel who took care of him.  Even to her dearly-beloved sisters on the telephone, she never complained of Uncle Hassan; she explained his point of view and hers; sometimes she would expand on her inability to swing him around to her point of view.  But she was supremely patient.

On Thursday evening, when I was at the hospital with my mother to visit Mama Lolla, I noticed two incidents.  At first, Uncle Hassan was not there and so when his phone rang we answered the call absent-mindedly, found out it was a 'Marawan', told him Uncle Hassan will be back soon, and thought no more of it.  Half an hour later, during which we all chatted at length, Uncle Hassan returned to the hospital room.  Aunt Alia, instantly, gathering all the lifeforce in her, said: "Hassan, Marawan called for you."  She could barely complete the sentence before she ran out of breath.  

Though was the room had been busy with conversation, Mama Lolla was not part of it.  She could hardly say two words.  She followed us, smiling here and there, but mostly one felt she was focusing on her breathing.  She was sat down on a chair looking at the bed, leaning forwards in the chair, resting her arms on the bed, with breathing hoses running through her nose.  I was struck that out of all of us, she remembered the call and made sure he knew about it.

A while later, Uncle Hassan began tidying up the tabletop in the hospital room.  In particular, he wanted to find a home for a large scan that did not seem to fit into any of the drawers.  Aunt Alia noticed him from the corner of her eye.  As soon as she figured out what he was doing, she again, gathered all her breath and said: "Try the cupboard, Hassan."  Her sisters picked the cue and directed Uncle Hassan to the cupboard, where he was able to park the scan and tidy up the tabletop.  A watchful angel helping her husband.  Throughout my visit, Aunt Alia had not spoken with as much energy as when she said those words.

Aunt Alia was much-loved: this much was evident from her burial.  Many, many family relatives, some very old, made the point of attending her Prayer for the Dead at the mosque, of carrying her coffin, and of being at the burial site, praying for her and bidding her their farewells.

I love you Aunt Alia, Mamma Lolla, and I will miss you.  I wish I had been a better son to you.

* I was trying to make conversation with Uncle Hassan last evening and so I asked him where he was at the moment when Mubarak stepped down (after the recent revolution).  He thought about it for a while and said: "At home.  I didn't go anywhere.  It was normal.  This occasion was not like the other stepping-down, that of Nasser's in 1967.  That was a stepping-down that really unleashed people onto the streets [asking for him to not step down]."

Interesting, I said.

"And I'll tell you, Nasser's death was also a huge occassion.  Millions of people on the streets.  I'll never forget that.  I always say that I will forever celebrate his death," Uncle Hassan says this with a smile.

"I know that you didn't like Nasser very much."

"No, it's not that.  See, when I went to ask for your Aunt's hand, I chose to go on her birthday.  And her birthday is 28th of September.  So, I booked a meeting for my family to visit her family, to propose, on the 28th of September 1970.  Then, what do you know, while we're there, it is announced that the president has died.  So, that's why I always tease people and say that I will forever celebrate Nasser's death: it is the birthday of my wife, the day I proposed to her."

My late Aunt followed all this and kept smiling at him while he retold the story.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Academic Idol

"Professor Johannsen's paper was zippy.  It had robust vocabulary and I almost felt that I could dance to it.  I would give it a 7."

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Saturday, 11 September 2010

Safety First - a fairy tale

Once upon a time there was a Prince who lived in a crowded land where things were not always as he desired and he often felt he was powerless, even as Prince, to change things. He learnt to make do; he shared the streets with the hordes of the masses, and let himself be hemmed in and cut-off like everybody else. For, whereas he knew that everybody loved and respected him (once they recognised him), he also knew that the people carried too many burdens and could hardly have a minute to themselves. They did not mean him any personal offence.

One day, the Prince was visited by a cousin, who was Prince in another land where far fewer people lived and everybody drove four-by-four Toyotas. As a gesture of hospitality, our Prince gave full use of his own Royal Car to the visiting prince. But when it was time for the visiting prince to leave, he told our prince something that brought consternation to his face. The visiting prince said the car tyres were not as they should be; they had indentations and little bulges in them, and although the treads were far from being worn out, the cousin insisted that no man in his land would drive a car with such tyres. “Safety first,” said the cousin prince.

Well, our Prince mulled this matter for days and days, and then one day, he arose and called in his assistants and instructed them to change the tyres. Being citizens of the land, the assistants were themselves a very distracted lot. “Tyres? What tyres, Sire?” “Oh the Royal Tyres – but what on earth is wrong with them, Sire? They’re perfect, there’s nothing wrong with them.”

And the assistants scoffed when the Prince told them that he would no longer tolerate for himself, nor for his people – if he could get them to pay any attention to him instead of walking around looking down all the time – bad tyres. The tyres have 60K of mileage on them, that’s more than enough wear and tear, he said. “But Sire, people up and down the land drive with tyres 90 thousand kilometers old. This change would send the wrong message to the people. They might think their Prince a wuss.”

But the Prince would have none of it. Change the tyres they did. The Prince himself supervised the purchase and installation of two tyres from the land of Dunlop – two, not all four, for he had to acquiesce to at least some of his assistants’ nags.

But while the new tyres were being fitted, the fitting people could not hide their smiles. They showed the Prince the state of his older tyres, barely managing to hide their glee. For the old tyres were really in not that bad a condition. “Of course, Sire would not want to take chance on his safety should Sire be driving recklessly at very high speed, now would Sire,” they said, with glints in their eyes.

The Prince, being Prince of the land, took all this in good humour and tipped them lavishly. “Other-worldy, is the Prince,” they nodded to each other as he drove away, barely managing to conceal their superiority.

For a whole week, the Prince drove up and down the land with four excellent tyres, two of which were so perfect and new, he did not want to dirty them with the earth of his land; for the Prince knew the state of his land and its people, and he secretly despised them all; but still, he loved them – where else could he be Prince.

One morning though, the Prince arose to find a weak tyre. It was not completely flat, but it was suspiciously low. And it was one of the new ones. So, he rushed off to order the tyres filled up with air properly. The tyre-pressure assistant was respectful and all-so-keen to show usefulness to the Prince, and so when the Prince had tipped him, he decided to be that extra bit useful and ran off to get some soapy water. He poured the soapy water on the tyre that had been low and then beckoned the Prince to come and see.

There, right in front of his eyes, were two holes blowing bubbles in the soapy water. The prince could not believe it. At first, he thought the tyre-pressure man had set him up, for the tyre pressure man, as if being given directions by the gods, produced a piece of glass that he claimed was lodged at the site of the bigger hole. Might it be that the man always has a shard of glass in his pocket to produce at the site of a hole, so as to convince a wavering customer, wondered the Prince?

“Not to worry, your royal highness. I can fix it,” said the tyre-pressure man. He ran in and came back with a puncture-repair kit. “I’ll just stick a plug in. You will be back on the road in no time, Sire, with perfect tyres again.”

But the prince refused to repair the tyres. He unleashed a wrath of fury against the land of Dunlop, against the merchants who had sold him the Dunlop tyres of ill-fortune, and against his land and his people.

“You don’t want to drive off with a leaking tyre, do you Sire?” said the tyre-pressure man as if the Prince’s fury was only a passing grey cloud that would soon be impossible to find.
But the Prince was serious; he left his land and emigrated to the land of his cousin, where he became a commoner and got himself a four-by-four Toyota like everybody else. One day, while visiting his cousin at his palace, he inspected the state of the Royal Tyres. And do you know what, they had indentations and bulges.

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Wednesday, 26 May 2010

On the Run

"On the Run" shop
Mobil gas station
Cairo Ring Road
Near Mirage City

I've parked my car and am getting out. Someone pulls up and parks to my right. He flings his door open and it hits my car.

"Sorry, I do apologise. Wasn't paying attention," he says. It's a young voice, sounding husky and well-brought-up.

I am about to give him a cutting look, then I notice he is wearing police uniform (all whites) and the trademark Ray-Bans.

"Fine. Okay," I say.

By the time I am walking into the shop, he is coming towards the entrance. An attendant greets him, the other attendant calls out after him: "Hope you had a pleasant journey sir."

"Hooda! [Nickname for Mahmoud.] All good?" He acknowledges his fans. His pistol is in the holder, hanging off his belt, and he is sauntering into the shop.

Inside the shop, at the espresso counter, the guy behind the machine says: "Sire Kareem, the usual for you sir?"

"Yeah ..." he oozes, John-Wayne-like.

"I waited for you yesterday Kareem Pasha [a bigging-up] for two hours, but then I had to go," says the espresso guy.

"Dude, I am so tired, I've literally just rolled out of bed. I'm not seeing straight. I need that espresso pronto. I swear to god, I was driving dazed just now," the cop says.

"Coming right up, [King] Kareem," the counter guy says. [The tone is deferential.]

"Naah, I couldn't come in yesterday to see the stuff you told me about. We were ON DUTY." the cop says.

"God give you strength, sir. No problem, just let me know when you want to have a look at the stuff, and I will bring it over from the hotel," the espresso guy says.

Whereas the cop had paid for some food at the main counter, something told me he was not going to pay for his coffee. And sure enough he didn't.

"Everything the way I like it, eh? Sugar, everything?" the cop says.

"Of course, yeah," the guy says. But he actually had not put any sugar - it is not part of his job. He was just deferentially agreeing, letting the cop correct the shortcoming himself later. [This is a common attitude in Egypt: people do not like to say no, they will lie and say yes, just so as not to disappoint you. You can fix it yourself later, they reason.]

The cop, Ray-Bans still on, goes off to stand at one of the waist-height tables. He lights up a ciggie, gets on the mobile to natter, and starts sipping his coffee. He notices the lack of sugar and casually reaches out for a pack. He cuts quite a handsome figure against the bright blue skies behind him. He certainly has presence.

Employees from the shop pass him, and everyone throws a smile or a hello. He acknowledges them with small nods.

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Thursday, 13 May 2010

It's all written

I wrote this on 5th April but forgot to post it.

The roads are empty because of a run of four days of holiday (Egyptian Christian Orthodox hols and "Smelling the Breeze" Day). We're in a bubble of good weather here in Cairo, transitioning from winter to summer. Soon, I will be complaining about 40C days and constant sweating. But for now, it is under 30C by day, and over 15C by night.

Driving around parts of Heliopolis and Medinet Nasr, I cannot believe how charming this city can be. Just remove people.

This sort of holiday begs for visits to Sharm El Sheikh or Ein Sokhna (both by the Red Sea). But everything is full-up; I should have booked a month ago. I have been forced to stay in Cairo, without the daily work routine, and with a pile of things to do.

Still, it is nice to be out and about. Last Saturday, a distant family relative died. In accordance with convention, a member from my family should have gone to her burial. But my dad was at the clinic together with my mother. Should I go?

My mother said: "Well, it is a national holiday so there is no at-work excuse and our family should be represented, so you should go." I got a little upset and said that I don't know the way to the burial site, am not a close relative anyway, etc. My kind mother told me to leave it and not bother.

Eventually guilt got the better of me and I did go. Grandma Kareema (my sister's mother-in-law's mother) had always been very sweet to me. "He's prettier than either of his sisters!"

What a lovely drive it was to 6th October city. The sun was bright and the colours vivid. Roads that would normally take half an hour to pass through, I shot through like a bullet. I passed patches of countryside green by the highway; the trafficmen had switched to their white uniforms - everything was fresh.

The mosque at which Grandma Kareema's funeral prayers were held was big and impressive: Sheikh Al-Hosari Mosque. I greeted my sister's husband, who is Grandma Kareema's grandchild, and went off to do my wodoo' (ritual wash).

The 'asr prayers were spritually nourishing - perhaps because of the newness of the whole experience, perhaps because of my affection for Grandma Kareema. I was "there" during prayer, not away on my usual going-through-the-motions reveries. I reconnected - for fleeting seconds here and there - with young me, more faithful, more pious and devout. After 'asr prayers, the imam said we would offer the Prayer for the Dead.

People - volunteers, all of them - brought forward Grandma Kareema's coffin and placed it in front of the 200-odd congregation (people who just happened to be in the mosque to do their 'asr prayers). There was also another coffin, a dead man; his coffin was placed near that of Grandma Kareema's. Then we did the Prayer for the Dead.

Afterwards, men - random, unbidden volunteers - carried the coffin to the minibus where it would be transported to the graveyards. Men would run from afar just to carry the coffin a little of the way, mentioning God's name and saying personal, spiritual things that no one else really listened to.

I went with two mourners I had never met. We went in the beat-up Fiat 128 of one of them, then we switched to a cool 1970s Mercedes belonging to the other guy. Both men, in their mid to late forties, lit up ciggies and discussed whom they'd spotted and who didn't come. I felt very much at ease with these strangers.

One of them, Khaled, had a full head of gray hair. "Mummy wanted to come but I told her don't worry about it," he said. Something funny about a grown man with a distinguished mane of gray talking about "mummy". The other man, Tarek, did not have a speck of dust or grime on his black shoes.

"What do you do, Ahmed?" Khaled said.

"I work at university," I said.

"Yeah? Like you're doing a masters or something?" he said.

I mentioned a relative of theirs who had died in a car accident. Tarek told me that had I seen how unscathed his car was, I would have thought: "He must have survived. But poor Ahmed died instantly."

"Yes," I said.

"But then I had an accident, which if you had seen the state of my car, you would have said the driver must have died horribly, and here I am, I survived. Times. Everything has a time. It's all written," Tarek said.

We arrived at the burial site. The entire area was narrow dirt-roads with small buildings (graves) lining each side. The gravekeeper laid out plastic chairs for us and he a couple of helpers dug up the "underground room" where members of the Wardani family are buried and motioned for the coffin to come up. We hoisted it up. Everyone was mouthing prayers and Qur'anic verses.

At some point, the cover of the coffin fell off and I could see Grandma Kareema's corpse fully wrapped in crisp pink-on-white sheets, beautifully fragrant. The keepers got the corpse out and went down into the chamber with it. They took about 15 minutes down there.

I asked what they were doing. Someone said: "They're tidying up. Checking after the remains of the others, and finding a place for her."

We sat on the dark brown plastic chairs, surrounded by the golden colours of desert: the colour of the land, the walls of the graves, of the dust, of everything.

Everybody fell silent, looking down.

I noticed Tarek's shoes again. How can he walk through this sand and still have spotless shoes! He had his hands pressed together, at chest level, a little in front, fingers interlocking and playing with each other; it made him look very contemplative. Every now and then, he cleared his throat.

Someone's mobile rang. He got up and quickly silenced it, but took the call, walking away.

A donkey - I don't know what it was doing there - blew wind through its lips, making a loud, disrespectful noise.

Grandma Kareema's daughter, Aunt Mona, was in a state. She sat inside the grave-building, by the underground chamber, sobbing. I turned around to an older mother and her daughter and said: "Aunt Mona is very affected."

The mother-daughter pair looked at me like I was mental: "It's her mother who just died."

The gravekeeper now put the stones back and shut the underground chamber. They started shovelling earth on top of the stones, completely hiding them.

It was now time to leave.

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Thursday, 6 May 2010

When visuals strike

I am driving around Cairo and I notice this red bus that is of exactly the same type as the (new) red busses serving London. It even has the same iconic drawing on the side, just behind the driver (imported from the same company, I bet). For a second, my brain merges Cairo with London, superimposing our streets on theirs. But another part of my brain rejects the image. I like them separate.

Another such incident occurred a half hour ago. I have just parked, I open the door and there's a light breeze to relieve my heat. I have Four Tet's remix of "Roads Become Rivers, Rivers Become Oceans" by Rothko on my car system. Perfect music for a hot, 40C day and for me to spot two lizards climbing a wall. They're not exactly the same type of lizards I grew up with in northern Nigeria, but close enough to cause a superimposition, a type of dislocation.

Somewhere out there, everything is still the same.

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Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Mamma Mia!

One of my favourite 30 Rock scenes. End of episode 21, series 3. Delicious.

Jack Donaghy is a fictitious head of NBC who meets his biological father for the first time.

I am Jack Donaghy, Colleen's son. I was born around nine months after that.

Prof Milton Green:
Oh my God. Wait a minute. Is this contest some Mamma Mia thing?

Milton, I'm your son.

Prof Milton Green:
(overcome by joy)
Of course you are. I shoulda known the minute I saw you.
(gets up and embraces him excitedly)

I have a son! A beautiful son!

And I have a dad!

Prof Milton Green:
Fate has brought us together Jack. To open a whole new chapter in my life.

Isn't it amazing!

Prof Milton Green:
You don't know the half of it. I need a kidney.
(yanks Jack into his embrace and hugs him forcefully)

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