Conversations With Our Mothers

The end of summer is something, isn’t it? Thunderstorms and rain showers. The earthy scent in the air that puts you at peace with your angst if only for a little while. Relief from the heat and a hint of anxiety at the specter of school–again. That one never leaves you even decades after you got that diploma and bolted to your real life.

I am staring at the books. Most sit, a couple stand, pages open. I do that every now and then.
The rest wait. Some have been waiting for too long, I confess.

The anchors of my next book. Thirty pieces of paper. I am nearly there. The very rough details of a life and time, not mine, once wonderfully close, now unbearably elusive. A prequel of a sort. I fret, I walk, I swim.

Visitors always think it’s me in the photo. Could've been had Lartigue been nearby with his camera

Two nights ago, I was at a loss what to watch before turning off the lights. I browsed Mubi, saw Jane by Charlotte, and thought why not. Jane Birkin. What do I know? Her and Serge Gainsbourg, vaguely; their song, Je T’aime Moi Non Plus, absolutely; Death on the Nile, clearly. La Piscine, only recently, would you believe? The freshest recollection: her death last month. Another icon gone. Charlotte Gainsbourg, her daughter, is more familiar. A few movies, magazines.


About the past, “it feels like another life,” Birkin repeats a few times to Charlotte in the documentary. The past is always another life. Another life when I flip through old photo albums; when passing by the old haunts of Amman, most disappeared or abandoned; when recalling a young memory, young friendships, young loves, young adventures…

And of course, the documentary can’t but invite comparisons. I watch them chat away across scenes, and I muse about the old disaffections and new conversations between me and my own mother. 

The documentary, done in 2022, is an ode and a farewell, a conversation and a communion. It announces the relationship between the two, with encounters that feel a tad bit awkward, or perhaps formal, for a mother and daughter, but then the intimacies, almost always casual, with hints of the very personal and tragic, become the freewheeling script. In the end, it’s what the title betrays: Jane by Charlotte.

Even when I was in my late teens, my mother used to call me the il-barbarieh: aloof and arrogant, she meant. I never wanted to say more than a very fleeting hello to her friends when they came for afternoon tea and petit fours, I never wanted to befriend their kids, I never made time for extended family, except a beloved aunt. I never made nice with those whom I knew not to be nice. I never ever did anything I didn’t want to do unless I was absolutely forced to. I was rarely home when I lived there, and rarely there when I didn’t. There was always love–and silence. When we talked, it was always about the smallest of things.

I dearly wanted to spend a lot more time with my father though, but he could afford to give only so much. When I grew up, left home, and moved on, I made do with morning coffee or afternoon tea once a week. Until my mother suffered two health scares, until Covid hit, until my father passed away. Thankfully in peace and not from it. Suddenly, I found myself at my mother’s doorstep every other day. Because I dearly wanted to.

I have my own film clips and recordings. I have notes and questions. So many questions. “Do you want to ask me anything today?”, she often offers as I am about to sit. We begin at random, and then I notice the fascinating patterns of her life.

The heaves and sighs of an anxious Lebanon and the lulls in between. My mother’s wedding in Nabatieyh down south in 1954. A pleasant, ululation-free affair because my father wouldn’t allow it. Silly man, he thought it silly, she said. The two shirts, two pants, and two pairs of shoes he owned when they were first married. The very quick pace of his career and the riskiness of his politics. The burden on her. The house in Hazmeyyieh and the start of the lifelong friendship with the Farahs. The cool evenings with my father on the tramway going to this sea front café or that. The 1956 earthquake and the neighborhood’s escape to the corniche when she was pregnant with Raghida. The 1958 civil feud and escape from Hout Street in Ras al-Nabe’ when she was pregnant with Fadi. The coup on the eve of 1962 and ensuing death sentence against my father when she was pregnant with me. The escape to Jordan in October when I was five months old. The June 1967 War and escape to Beirut from Amman in May when she was pregnant with Iman.

Altaf on her wedding day, 1954

Pregnancies, calamities, and escapes. A short story. A long one. An enchanted life, otherwise?  I am sure she cursed the day at the time, as I would have, no doubt. But when she remembers now, it all sounds so matter of fact.

The family after the escape to Jordan, 1962

At one point towards the end of the documentary, Birkin sits as reels of the past play against her face and the wall behind her. They are from the early ‘70s. Her eldest daughter, Kate, from her first husband John Barry, plays and laughs, her blond hair fluttering. She died in 2013 at the age of 46. Birkin had often referred to Kate earlier in the documentary. But as she looks at the images, she suddenly needs to turn away. This, she couldn’t bear.

There are times when my mother stops in mid-conversation just for a minute. Which shard of yesterday, I wonder, is inducing the momentary quiet to her thoughts.


On Another Note

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk is out, and so are the knives. The Guardian’s Gary Shteyngnart has a mean sense of humor, so, of course, we have to share it:

So who or what is responsible for Elon Musk? “Growing up in South Africa, fighting was normal,” Musk says, and there’s a whiff of desperate masculinity floating through the book, as rank as a Pretoria boys’ locker room. It is not a coincidence that the back jacket features a fully erect penis (some may argue it is actually one of Musk’s rockets, but I remain unconvinced)…

When you are as messed up as our hero, there is a lot of psychological work to be done to stop the downward spiral, work more boring than building a rocket. Work even more boring than this book.

Scroll to Top