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.


Noura said...


My condolences to you and your family. Its good to see you back online. I missed reading your posts and often thought of you and your family during the recent events in Egypt.


Ahmed said...

Thank you for your kind words, Noura. Hope all is well at your end.