When I picked up the phone that Monday evening in August of 2011, I thought I was hearing the voice of my hero, Ghalib, Mirza Assadullah Khan (1797-1869) oboing across the half-night, “Ghalib, I think we have caught sight of the road to death now. Death is the string that binds together the scattered beads of the universe.”
I gazed at the rouge Oklahoma sunset hovering between the day and night and notioned that, in the East, that very same sunset is a sunrise poised between the night and day. How confusing is relativity? I thought. How can the same thing be two different things at the same time?
My brother’s voice across the time-space wilderness resounded in my head, another echo of confusing relativity. How can we dialogue, ear to ear, from two dissonant times and places? “Brother,” he said, “can you hear me?”
“What’s wrong?” I gasped. “Your voice portends a heartache.”
“Uncle Ibraheem gifted us his years.”
“Oh. When? When’s the funeral?”
“Whenever you arrive?”
“If I leave tomorrow morning, I can be there Wednesday evening.”
“Good; I’ll tell Father Elias to set the funeral for Thursday afternoon then.”
Another of my hero’s sayings scrolled before my burning eyes, “O Asad, don’t be taken by the delusion of existence; The world is but a ring in the web of thought.”
Uncle Ibraheem was the baby, the last of my father’s eight siblings, the only one who did not remember his father. His father, Priest Nicholas of Amioun, died at eighty-two when Ibraheem was only five months old and his mother, Grandma Khouryieh, was fifty-two. The saga of this frail woman–who, singlehandedly, raised eight good children between the Two Great Wars and died at 102– is an unsung Odyssey. Lebanon was under French mandate then, having been extricated by forceps from the womb of the dying Ottoman Empire.
Flying east across eight time zones confounds the brain’s circadian rhymes and spins vertiginous thoughts around the half-awake mind. Looking from above the clouds, I thought that I could see eternity’s dome bending under the weight of time. My thoughts grew wings. Homo sapiens originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago out of a planet that is four-and-a-half-billion years old, I mused. And, throughout that entire time span, no one had ever experienced air travel until the 1930s. That was when Homo sapiens first travelled against time. I felt privileged as I recited to myselflines fromJohn Gillespie Magee’s High Flight:
“Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
Beirutairport was abuzz with immigrants returning from the circumferences of earth to their little hometowns in Mount Lebanon where, awaiting them, were all the loving arms and brimming eyes of relatives and friends.
“What is the purpose of your visit?” asked the officer as he examined my American passport.
“A wedding,” I replied.
“Oh, congratulations; who’s getting married?”
He eyed me with consternation as he took a second look at my birth year, 1946. Then, as if it were his duty to investigate this sexagenarian oddity, he held the passport stamp in midair—to indicate that he was not going to stamp my passport until I had answered his questions—and wryly queried, “How old is your uncle?”
“Eighty-eight,” I replied, with a matter-of-fact tone.
“Is it going to be a big wedding?” he teased.
“A very, very big one, indeed.” I nodded knowingly.
“And how old is his bride?”
“Four-and-a-half-billion years,” I sighed.
He grinned knowingly – to say that he understood that I wished to withhold the bride’s true age from him – and muttered, “Alf mabrouk.”*
Then, with automatic disregard, he stamped my passport, handed it back to me, and yelled, “Next Please.”
Amioun, our hometown, stretched like a sly cat atop the long, rocky mount that framed the olive plane beneath – its nightlights in the distance glowing like a halo around a golden crown. At my uncle’s home family and friends were sitting on the cool, long veranda and all the women were dressed in black. His wife, Aunt Salam, walked towards the car as I was pulling my suitcase out of the trunk. She was smiling when we started hugging but her smiles turned into tears over my shoulder. I kissed my five cousins, their spouses, and their twenty children before I sat next to my aunt and asked, “Did he suffer?”
“He went peacefully and quickly. We were all with him. He smiled at us before he took his last breath. Pneumonia was his friend.”
The funeral services were held at St. George’s Orthodox Church, one of the oldest in continuous use in the world – it used to be a heathen temple, dating back to about two thousand years before Christ. One could see the different strata of stones carved during different eras to rebuild its walls after its myriad destructions by wars and elements. The floor, the walls, and the arched ceiling were all of ancient stones. It could only hold in its bosom my uncle’s family and close friends; the rest of the attendees – hovering around the church like a black, humming belt of pilgrims encircling the Ka’bah – savored the siren tunes of the Byzantine mass as it crept into their ears out of anachronistic loudspeakers.
“No hand shaking or kissing, please,” announced Father Elias, as he ended the mass and led the family into the condolences hall. There, we all stood in an arch while the masses of condolent faces passed us with bowed heads and uttered, “Allah yirhamu.”** The passing endured close to four hours, causing our eyes and feet to surrender their stamina to mounting fatigue. It was not possible for some of us to remain standing – my mother at ninety-five, my aunt at eighty two, and many who had frail joints sat down after the first hour or two and escorted the long, black line of ‘pilgrims’ with their eyes.
It was deep into the night before we could retire back to Uncle Ibraheem’s home for a huddled family time. Faces were relieved at the closure of an eighty-eight-year-long life, filled with love and smiles. We talked of simple matters, admired all twenty boisterous grandchildren, and memorialized with endless tales an entire generation whose last ambassador had just bid us farewell.
The following three days were equally grueling. Visitors filled the condolences hall on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and we all took turns in sitting and standing up. They came from remote corners with faces that have aged along with mine. I renewed contacts and friendships with many I had not seen since I left Lebanon, forty years before. We made covenants with each other and promises, which we knew we could not possibly keep, but which felt so dear at the moments of making. “Let’s get together soon. Come visit us, please. We’ll call you when we visit the U.S. We’ll have so much to talk about.”
During these few days, I said so many good-byes to so many old faces that I might never see again. Lines from a poem, ‘How Do You Say Good-Bye’, which I had written to a departing friend a long time ago, floated before my gaze:
“Let us wander to the tavern at the corner of the street
Share a jug of frothy spirit, something warm to eat watch the many faces of a lazy afternoon
Exit together in the diming light
And then, pretending we shall be together soon
Depart on separate ways into the night.”
Back at the airport, a high school friend and classmate shouted my name from above the throngs. We hugged after forty years as if we had never been apart, sat in an isolated corner, and began reminiscing. Then, as if seized by an afterthought, he looked at me and said, “I’m sorry about your uncle. I saw the pictures in the paper. It was a massive funeral, said the reporter who wrote the article.”
“Do you happen to have a copy?”I asked, wanting to return with something to show my Oklahoma family.
“No, I’m sorry.”
“Never mind; I’ll get one from one of my cousins.”
“He must have been a very rich and famous man, judging by the thousands of people who showed up to pay their respects.”
“Uncle Ibraheem? Rich and Famous? He was anything but that.” I smiled.
“Well? How come such a massive funeral then?”
“He was a kind man who spent his entire life glowing with joy. It was his joy, his indelible smile, and his tireless readiness to help anyone in need that touched all those who knew him.”
“Does he have children?”
“Five, and they’re all like him.”
“You mean kind, helpful, and glowing with joy?”
I smiled and nodded. I did not tell him that my ordinary uncle and aunt raised five highly intelligent, educated, and very successful children. Relative to kindness and joy, such attributes seemed much too perfunctory to mention.
Back among the clouds between East and West it suddenly came to me that funerals are reunions just like sunsets are sunrises. Feeling smug at my startling discovery, I picked up the new book I had planned to read on my way back, David Hume’s ‘A Treatise Of Human Nature’ and began browsing. A group of lines that contemplated death clung to my eyes. “We all were part of the inanimate for four-and-a-half-billion years. Then we all experienced miniscule specks of sentient existence, which we came to call life. Why then, when we are returned to our primary state, do we so protest?”
Funerals are not just reunions, I thought; indeed, they are also weddings. We are returned to our original home, to be what we had forever been, wedded to earth. Two thousand years ago, the Stoics figured out that ‘the goal of life is to live in agreement with nature, which is to live according to virtue. For nature leads to virtue.’ And Epictetus(55-135), not Hume, was the one who said it best: “Never say of anything, ‘I have lost it’; but ‘I have returned it.’ Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned.”
This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63
* A thousand congratulations.
** May God bless him with mercy.