Who Likes Goodbyes!

What to write about This Arab Life this week, when I am far away from it if only for a little while?

Write in situ, my best friend Joye volunteered before she set out back to D.C.

And so I shall.

Vacations turn their temporary dwellers into the tightest of tribes. To them  belongs the wonder of the time and the intensity. For a few days, life obtains a certain rhythm and its inhabitants find themselves reflexively dancing to it even as they bring to the scene their own peculiar habits or inevitably indulge in the occasional spar. By the end of the journey, they become the keepers of a mood, a laugh, conversations familiar only to them and inexplicable to others, however hard they try.

My heart sank a few days ago as I kissed family and friends goodbye after a week-long getaway. They were leaving, each back to their own routine in Beirut, New York, London, and D.C. I was staying for another week with another group of companions. There’s something about that wave of the hand, that look back, that farewell, as you stand at the door willing them, against hope, to come back. Or a loved one beckoning you to them even as they watch you recede into the background.

I was never really close to Abu Ali, my paternal grandfather. He always seemed to me old and somber, and I was so terribly young and silly and giggly. The distance between us remained, even as I grew more mature and he grew gentler. The tenor of the relationship, for some reason, never changed. But a few years before he passed away, he visited us in Amman, as I was about to head back to university in the US. When I kissed him at the door, his eyes went misty, and for the first time all I could do is embrace him through my own fog. 

I barely knew Abu Mussbah, my maternal grandfather. Like so many Lebanese, he left for Africa in 1918, hardly ever looked back, returning to Lebanon every once in a long while. I distinctly recall seeing him in Amman, when he came to spend a couple of days with us before heading back to the Ivory Coast. He didn’t mean much to me, until one morning as the family sat chatting in the tiny glassed-in balcony, I saw my mother approaching in tears. A relative had just called from an embattled Beirut to convey the news of Abu Mussbah’s passing. We all jumped up, my brother Fadi racing to embrace her as she anguished over the final departure of a much loved father, whose absence became suddenly significant to me when I sat witness to my mother’s quiet wails.

I am at a loss at the lasting presence of these two memories as I write. There are other farewells I can’t bear to recount, so they will lurk untold.

I never watch reruns, especially sitcoms. Books, I will revisit often, but I’ve watched few movies more than once, and only two endlessly: The Year of Living Dangerously and Christ Stopped at Eboli. I’ve never been to a reunion. I hate retracing my steps to fetch an item accidently left behind. My first nightmare, I recall vividly. The family is walking through the derelict garden of an abandoned house. They cross the small, front gate, father, mother, and siblings, absentmindedly closing it shut, as I look on in despair unable to call for them to wait.

There are times when I tell myself: dwell, dwell in this moment and make it last–forever if you can. At five a.m., in June, in mid-1980s Amman, I am sitting on the front porch of our old Shmeisani house, waiting for Alia, Malia, and Sahar to pick me up for a road trip to the Red Sea’s Aqaba. It’s so very quiet. To the gentlest breeze, strands of hair begin to flutter, happy and free. A snapshot of blissful youth. Remember this one, I think to myself. It deserves to live.

Very late at night in the 1980s, he and I leave Muna’s engagement party in Jabal Amman. Under the faint street light, a kiss bequeathed by the gods.

Tomorrow, we all leave. There are now seven of us, each in our own little world, contending with yet another wave of the hand as we mount the hill, turn right and glimpse the last of the bluest of seas.


On Another Note

I’ve just purchased Adam Shatz’s Writers and Missionaries: Essays on the Radical Imagination. I rarely miss a piece or a podcast by Shatz. Here’s an excerpt from a fascinating interview he recently gave to RevDem:

The reason that I evoke the imagination is that most of these thinkers are writing works that are not purely a matter of ideas or rational argumentation. They are imaginative writers, and in some cases artists or novelists manqués. Claude Lévi-Strauss, for example, aspired to become a novelist and his most lasting work is not The Elementary Structures of Kinship, his pioneering contribution to structural anthropology. It is his Tristes Tropiques, a memoir that is often highly novelistic. Similarly, Edward Said – who is best known as a literary critic, a spokesman of the Palestinian cause, and as the author of Orientalism and as a critic of cultural imperialism – also wanted to write a novel, tried on at least two occasions to do so, and also wrote short stories. Roland Barthes, too, had dreams of writing a novel, and felt a keen sense of inadequacy because he never succeeded in doing so. And yet he gave us luminous, deeply literary, and secretly confessional essays that are a kind of autofiction. So you can’t really separate these writers from the novels they failed to write; the unfinished novels are present in their work. That’s why I called these essays on the radical imagination.

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