Subject: "It is finding that is astonishing"
To: Sima, Nawal
Thu, May 30, 2019, 5:15 PM
Dear Nawal and Sima,
A friend, Sarah D., shared with me a New Yorker article by Kathryn Schultz called “When Things Go Missing.” She gave me a heads up before. The piece had devastated her. I can confirm after reading it that the piece is indeed devastating. It masterfully hits what we all fear: loss. In it, Schultz intertwines two types she’s experienced—the deep, debilitating grief of losing her father and the everyday, more trivial, misplacement of things like her wallet, bike, keys.
After reading, I immediately responded to Sarah and wanted to share the email with you both (of course).
One of my earliest reading memories is from A Place Called Here, a young-adult fiction book by Cecelia Ahern. My pre-adolescent self was fascinated by it. How the young protagonist, a curious and sweet Sandy, is obsessed with understanding what happens when things, like old socks and people, like her classmate's brother, disappear. Where do all the lost things go? she'd ask herself. Sandy then takes a long journey and uncovers a world where the lost things dwell. The discovery makes her want nothing more than to return home. There was a darkness to the book that my young self couldn't fully grasp but was haunted, even enamored by. I can't remember what happens in that book, but this idea—a landscape of the lost—stuck with me.
Quite telling. When I crossed into teenagehood and had a bit more responsibility, my scatterbrain patterns became evident. I would lose everything: phones, pencil cases, books, report cards, you name it. My mother, who is incredibly organized and detail-oriented, would always tell me, نور ركزي الله يرضى عليك, and read aloud, وَٱلضُّحَىٰ وَٱلَّيْلِ إِذَا سَجَىٰ, the Qur’anic sura she uses to find my lost objects. And still, I would misplace one thing after the other (though, to be fair to my mother, the sura has been very potent).
Once, when I was 18—so, mind you, not that young—I lost my first laptop. I cried for hours because that laptop contained precious folders of pictures: high school outings, Mama and Baba cutting my birthday cake, my brothers and I in Ehden for Eid, one of my first dates with Rami on Batroun’s rocky beach. It also stored my first (terrible) poems: on sunsets and rivers and emotions I wanted to feel but didn't really comprehend. Losing my laptop’s hard drive signaled a loss of endless memories and streams-of-thought, my right to reaccess previous timelines in my life that I knew I’d eventually forget. It hurt, in my stomach, as if all those photos and poems were spiraling one last time before they’d decay into an irretrievable part of my consciousness. This has always been the fear I’ve carried, heavy like concrete: that if I forget a memory then the event never really happened.
That night, when I went to my parents' home in Tripoli, they gave me my younger brother's laptop to finish my end-of-term philosophy and politics essays. The next day, I left that laptop outside the bus station in Beirut.
I think I've learnt my lesson along the way. I lose things less. I try to focus on my surroundings. When I climb out of the servees, I look back to make sure I've grabbed my laptop and phone. I spend hours organizing my drawers, I color-code my hangers. It is almost as though the control I get from trying to rewire my absentmindedness will prepare me for what comes next. The bigger losses.
One of my resolutions for 2019 was to somehow make space for the idea that I will lose my people. Like everyone else, every now and then, it washes over me, the anticipation and anxiety over grief to come. I look at my parents when they are doing the most banal of acts: folding clothes, stretching in the morning, and want to cry, want to hold time in my hand, make of it a monument. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and panic: Who is crossing the road without looking both ways? And then my chest presses in, something huge swinging. The knowledge of what is inevitable. Death will come and take away what I treasure most. Instead of obsessing over my placement of objects and items should I not, instead, prepare for that?
I read brief and dispatched articles on Buddhism here and there on the art of letting go of what we can’t control. It’s one of the ways I sit with temporariness, how I fight my fear of impermanence. I am no expert on Eastern philosophy, but I know that a tenet of Buddhism is that attachment is at the heart of suffering. And I am very much attached (and committed) to people, to cities, to communities, to faces, to homes.
In a conversation with one of my closest friends, who has had her fair share of grief, about my resolution, she tells me not to waste my time preparing for death. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “Maybe the only way to prepare for grief, if that is even possible, is to acknowledge that the end of a life or the end of an era is not an 'end,' but simply a transition.”
I hold onto her words as I grapple with the end of my six-year relationship. The relationship was an anchor, a wonderful home, and I left it behind. I willingly chose to ‘lose’ it, so to speak. Something I struggle with is this daunting sense of betrayal: not just that I betrayed my former partner, but I also betrayed one of my ‘selves,’ a self that once thought the relationship, its love, was indomitable. But I hold on to the idea that its 'end' doesn't in any way detract from its meaning. This is why I love Schulz for ending on this note—we are here to keep watch, not to keep. And so I like to believe the photos and bad poems and relationships and people that dwindle or disappear are in there, in here, somewhere.
When Mama lost her father, she retreated to a very dark world. She and her sisters were constantly in tears, eyes red and drained. The overarching emotion they felt while doing anything was sorrow, deep deep sorrow. A year after his death, Mama’s sisters were sitting outside on a Dubai veranda when a yellow parrot arrived, all bright and thoughtful. The parrot stayed in that house, in the middle of the Dubai desert, even though its cage remained open, for four years. Mama and her sisters did not necessarily believe this was their father, but they felt it was; that their father had returned, willingly, to bring them together once more under his aureole. It was only after the parrot that my mother started to feel better, to breathe more lightly.
It is the finding that is astonishing, as Schultz writes in the conclusion. Finding this article on a dreary work-day, walking out of the office and being thrown off-guard by an ashy full moon, dancing to a song you've never heard before and feeling as though its lyrics came from your four chambers.
A couple of months ago, the yellow parrot finally flew back into the sky. And once again we lose what we've found, yes. That's the paradox. But that doesn't change the fact that we did find it, or it found us, somehow, somewhere.
To: Nur, Sima
Fri, May 31, 2019 at 1:56 AM
I read this before meeting you today, and the urge to write you back was immediate. Alas, here I am, after the music and juice and awkward, confusing interactions with boys.
The book you read, A Place Called Here, incidentally reminds me of a song from the new remake of the Mary Poppins movie, The Place Where The Lost Things Go. It is way too late now, and I ought to be asleep, but instead I sit in bed listening to this song and meet my urge to respond to you.
I, too, am prone to losing things. Sunglasses in the ocean. Phones on public benches. I, too, refuse to let go of people. I still speak to all my exes. I almost challenge myself to maintain a space for every person who has ever occupied some meaningful part of my narrative. Holding onto things carries a sordid relief.
Alejandro and I ended things weeks ago, and today, on his birthday, I wrote to him that I loved him for the first time. The absurdity of not having the freedom to express such simple and true words is never more apparent than when you are separated from the fear attached to them. "I love you deeply," I wrote, not in an attempt to define our relationship or to lead it anywhere - simply to state a truth. "I love you deeply," he wrote back. A relationship transitioned. I want to hold on to what is slipping away, and chase what is to come at the same time. I want it all at once, all the time.
It has been years since my grandfather passed, and my family still holds on. Yesterday, my grandmother wore all white instead of her perpetual black for the first time. The magnitude of loss is often incomprehensible, and the results are unpredictable. In our house in Jieh, ever since he passed, a white butterfly stalks our garden. Out of curiosity, I looked up the standard lifespan of a butterfly; about three weeks. Yet, without fail, we would spot one every time we would visit, flying around our heads, watching over the gardenias and ennab trees.
Nothing is more astonishing and dangerous than the finding that occurs within a wild and generous imagination. Earlier today, a few days into arriving in Beirut, I strolled the corniche next to a man who had always attracted and intrigued me—we chatted, meandering into conversation laced with depth but heavy with exhaustion and dismissal. "I'm too exhausted to even have these discussions," he muttered. I welled up with compassion for his tired frame. We strolled and sang. The night carried itself with an antiquated romance, but the chemistry was not there. The moment paled in comparison to the elaborately orchestrated scenes my mind had created. The attraction refused to solidify into something real. A fond friendliness coupled with an assured awkwardness settled in me. I didn't know where my heart had ended up. The night felt both disappointing and right.
Ya Nur, I don't know how to express this in a solid way, but you are somehow the focus of my trip. It's a bit bizarre to say, but when I daydream about summer, it is moments with you I conjure up. Sitting at the beach, in the woods, in your apartment, in my house in Jieh, drinking, listening, sharing, writing, working, being being being. You are one of the few people with whom the moment never pales in comparison to the daydream.
I love you. I hope you sat with you, and I hope it was fruitful. Otherwise, I hope that sleep takes you in its arms and rocks you with the comfort only our Mamas have known how to bestow.
To: Nur, Nawal
Tue, Jun 4, 2019, 1:58 AM
Dear Nur and Nawal,
When I flew to Beirut from Amman in May 2016, my heavy suitcase was over-packed for summer in Beirut and winter in South Africa. I had summer dresses and shorts and sweaters and coats and running shoes and sandals and enough underwear to last me over a month. When I landed I could not find the suitcase anywhere. Farah and I spent an hour looking for it. Eventually, I reported my bag missing and walked out into the arrivals hall feeling defeated but also oddly exhilarated by the realization that the world will not end just because my bag has suddenly disappeared. Of course, it had not yet sunk in yet that I might never again wear my mother’s silver ring I packed with me, or that I was due to travel to South Africa in three days with no belongings except for the clothes I was wearing and my laptop (what use was a laptop to me then?).
What still amazes me is that, once in the arrivals area, a gut feeling told me to look to the left in one final desperate attempt, and there it was, my suitcase clutched by a woman I did not know. When I went over to her, she realized her mistake and thanked the heavens that I had found her and that her pick-up was late because otherwise she would have taken my bag all the way to Syria.
Since then I would proceed to lose or misplace many precious belongings, beginning with the same ring which was probably stolen in our Cape Town hotel, but which I did not notice missing until I was back in Amman. I misplaced the Chimurenga magazine too, spent a year looking for it inside my house, and found it one odd and hazy afternoon after I had fallen asleep listening to the magazine’s Pan African Space Station. I woke up and felt a pull towards my brother's abandoned bookcase and found that dust-covered book somewhere it had no logical reason to be. I lost my Rusted Radishes pouch once at a coffee shop and again inside my own house, finding it the second time months after it had disappeared only because I was searching for another lost item I cannot recall anymore. Most recently, I lost a necklace my aunt had gifted me one Christmas. I took it off by the sink and was never reunited with it, but something tells me it will make its own magical reappearance someday.
My father is the king of misplacing things. His speciality: sunglasses. It has become a running joke in our family to see how long a new pair would last with him. When I was young, I remember him placing his sunglasses on the roof of the car in our garage so he could play basketball with me. Later, he would get in the car entirely oblivious to the fact that his sunglasses probably flew off the roof as he drove away. The older he gets, the more absent-minded he becomes, and so every new lost item feels to me like a painful reminder of the passage of time.
When I was in Beirut last October, I lost an anklet I had bought with my brother from Camden Market the month before. I was still so very excited about it and wore it every day. It must have fallen off somewhere between the airport in Amman and my hotel room balcony in Hamra the next morning. I was smoking a cigarette there when I noticed that it wasn't around my ankle anymore. Someone from my past told me some people believe anklets break once they have served their purpose, or once a chapter in your life ends and a new one begins.
There's a passage in the piece you shared: "Another possibility, considerably less likely but equally self-sparing, is that your missing object engineered its own vanishing, alone or in conjunction with other occult forces.” Sometimes I think many of the things I lost might have engineered their own vanishings because they had served their purpose, or merely so that they can serve their purpose more powerfully once they have returned to me. I'm not a superstitious person, but this is something I try to embrace, perhaps because it softens the blow of loss: to accept that each item will occupy only a finite number of days in our lives and that nothing can stay with us forever. I would like to say that I no longer mourn my lost objects, a discovery I made when my father, very visibly upset, confessed to me that he accidentally shattered my favorite mug. All that came to mind was that perhaps it was time to take out the mug I had bought from Tate Modern from its box.
But it is one thing to speak of losing things and another to even conceive the death of our loved ones. There were nights when I cried in bed because the thought of a loved one dying planted its seed in my sleepy heart and grew. My parents’ gradual feebleness sneaks up on me during ordinary moments. My great-aunt, a writer herself and my best friend during family lunches, seems to be shrinking with every passing month. And of course, there came a point when I had to admit my grandmother has reached an irreversible point of old age (yet she still surprises us once in a blue moon with music and dancing).
On my brother’s most recent birthday I sent him an emotional message, to which he replied: Why are you speaking like this? It’s not like I’m dying tomorrow. But what he did not understand, or rather what his heart refused to dwell on, is the fact that it did not matter whether he was dying tomorrow or not, but simply that he would die someday, and I would have to endure his absence from my life. And if that was not the case then it would be him enduring mine. And if by some miraculous (and equally terrible and unfortunate) circumstance we die together, then our family and friends will have to endure double the pain of both our absences.
In the piece, the author says that it is the anticipation and inevitability of further suffering in her life that undoes her. I was discussing this with Ola, particularly how on the eve of my brother’s birthday, I was filled with dread and helplessness as I looked at photos of my brother and me as children. I wanted to reach out and help them, save them from what I did not know, yet I knew that they were far away, dead perhaps, and I could never reach them. Ola suggested that we feel sad because being born is just the first stage of death, and we go through our lives learning how to prepare for our own inevitable moment and grieve for the inevitable moments of others.
It’s a depressing way to look at things. Yet when this moment comes, this heartbreaking and terrifying moment when we lose someone close to our hearts, maybe we will be humbled and reassured by the promise of a yellow parrot which will visit us someday and pull us out of the darkness. In my grandfather’s case, it was a little squirrel who visited my aunt one morning after he had passed. Imagine a squirrel in Amman. And she always tells us that she knew, just knew, the squirrel had something to do with her father.
I’m not sure if I’ve told you this, but I never met my maternal grandfather. He passed away before my parents met. He is the only member of the family other than myself to have graduated from AUB. My mother speaks fondly of him all the time, and his pictures are scattered around my daily life: on the bookshelf, in my Teta’s photo albums, on my phone. On the last night of 2018, I had a dream my grandfather was waiting for me by the sea in Beirut. I ran to him and we embraced, both teary-eyed and emotional because we knew that we had been waiting for this moment for as long as we can remember, we knew life was cruel and had stolen our time together. After we let go of each other, I studied his face, so warm and so familiar to me. The moment felt both eternal and fleeting. He said only one thing to me: Make sure your mother is eating well. This encounter still moves me now: Firstly, that I finally met my grandfather, whom I loved and who loved me, in a city both of us lived in sixty years apart, and secondly, that he had used the limited time we had together, perhaps even summoned this whole encounter, to make sure his daughter, my mother, would be okay and that I would take care of her. The morning after, I went to my grandmother’s house and recounted my dream. My aunt listened, amazed, and told me she had dreamt of my grandfather too.
I will never know where this dream came from. Maybe it really was my grandfather. Maybe someone mentioned him that day and I dreamt about him. Maybe it was the wine and cheese that I had for dinner. I hardly dwell on this. I have accepted that what I experienced that night was a rare and beautiful and important moment in my life, regardless of whether it was real or not.
Maybe searching for a loved one after they have passed is a futile endeavor fueled by denial and desperation, yet I do believe that some people, like some of our lost items, return to us when we least expect it. When I say this I do not mean literally as ghosts, rather that the same spirit with which they infected those around them when they were alive somehow lingers behind after they have left, appearing in a dream or a dusty book or the particular voices of their children or in a parrot or butterfly or a squirrel. We just need to stay alert, arms and hearts wide open, life flowing in and out as it pleases.
To: Nur, Nawal
Sat, Mar 27, 2021, 2:47 AM
Nur w Nawal,
I don't think I've fully realized the grief I hold in my heart until this evening. It's been a struggle to make lunch lately (as it has been a struggle to do anything, really), but I decided I had to prepare something because it was already 6pm and all my mum and I ate were some pancakes for lunch. I cooked way too much pasta and made a pathetically small salad for two. My mother and I sat at the kitchen table as the sky became darker outside, and I suddenly felt my eyes tearing up. This specific setting (a sudden desire to cook pasta, kitchen table, evening) made me miss my dad more than I ever have. It felt wrong to eat without him, as if impromptu evening lunches were, by some law of the universe, predominantly my father's domain. What was even the point if he wasn't there, whistling and pouring himself some whisky and plopping himself down at the head of the table like there was nothing more in the world that he desired than to be there, with us, and share a hearty meal.
It broke my heart and this heartbreak trickled into the rest of my night. I was having tea with my aunt as we reminisced about my great grandmother's house next door (which is now an office). It was designed like those old Damascus houses, with big windows and open space and plants everywhere. When I was young, I would open my door and walk out, not telling anybody where I planned to go, and sometimes not knowing myself. If I wasn't home, I was upstairs with my grandmother. And if I wasn't there, I was at my great grandmother's or somewhere in the big garden. No doors were ever locked. Life was as simple as that. There were always women sitting on the sun-tanned leather couches on the porch, drinking tea or coffee with my great-grandma. She was in a wheelchair and wore a shawl because she had no hair and still, she was the strongest woman out of all of them. Sometimes I would stroll into her house looking for my mum or hoping someone interesting was visiting, but I would find her alone, and she would tell me to grab a chair and follow her, and we would sit outside and smile at each other. My father used to tell me we were lucky she softened in her old age.
Anyway, again I almost started crying as I spoke about all of this with my aunt. I think about how so many people from these memories are now dead, and we've grown up, and no one writes letters anymore, and so much is lost and forgotten, and it's as if I can't breathe. Again, I find myself indulging and indulging in my childhood where everything feels small and sunny and safe. I take myself there every day and I stay, pulling on the threads of my memory and watching all the spools of time come undone. I wonder if this is why people have children. At night I spend hours watching video games Salem and I used to play. Sometimes I spend days trying to remember the name of a cartoon or a video game, and when I finally remember, I feel like things are going to be okay, because I have recovered another piece of the puzzle. I just want to be kissed on the forehead and tucked into bed. I want to live in that moment forever. I keep thinking about this play I read, how one character said he wants to be held like a spoon or a little cup. Every morning I wake up and wonder what I really need to leave my bed for. Then I call my mum and she comes and gives me a kiss, and opens the window, and sits on the edge of the bed and holds my hand and talks to me about nothing in particular. I see people on my phone continue their lives sometimes as if there is no pandemic and it feels like they are all betraying me. Time continues to pass and my father continues to be dead and we continue to be unable to hold hands with those we love and even those we don't know too well and grieve this loss together and I am scared that by the time we are able to do this, too much time would have passed for us to remember exactly what it is we wanted to feel and say. I know I have to write but I feel as if I've forgotten how to.
And amidst all of this, I continue to miss you two and think about all the conversations we will have someday, and about all the things I want to tell you and ask you. I’ve been thinking a lot about a poem called Piano by DH Lawrence. I think you should read it.
I love you,
To: Sima, Nawal
Sat, Apr 10, 2021, 11:07 AM
If this email were an object, I'd hold it so close to my heart. I'd just keep it there for the day, so its softness and longitude becomes an extension, another limb in this body. I told you this over the phone, and I'll say it again—the deep, painstaking witnessing you do when it comes to your family brings them closer to the people in your life who have not met them. Your mother's persistence, your father's charm: your writing brings them to us. Akh Sima, you remember when we sat on the stairs of the Roman Theater in Amman, the spring of 2019, that conversation we had on how old photographs have the potential to destroy us? Or that night in Chouf, a year before Amman, how we stood underneath the pine trees in the dark and talked about how disappointed we were by the concept of time? These conversations were foretelling in their own ways.
Since your father passed, I often find myself drifting toward you, wondering how you are holding up. I am incredibly ashamed to not have an answer. I think the reason people don't know what to say to someone grieving is because of how limited language becomes. Words, they feel so void. What does one say, how does one even broach the topic of "permanent" loss? I don't know. But I am thinking of white butterflies and yellow parrots and little squirrels. I am thinking of something you once wrote me, over two years ago:
"Maybe searching for a loved one after they have passed is a futile endeavor fueled by denial and desperation, yet I do believe that some people, like some of our lost items, return to us when we least expect it."
Two nights ago, a friend came over. It was quite late and we sat across one another on two couches six meters apart, frustrated by the pandemic-imposed space. He too had lost his father to COVID in January. He was at mine because I randomly reached out to him for something related to work, and he told me he was in such a dark cloud that he couldn’t function and could I, please, reach out another time? I told him to come over if he felt like it would help to talk it out, and he did. When he came over, he didn't want tea or arak or chocolate. He really wanted a stainless steel pot to just dump boiling water into: rage, rage, he was consumed by rage, and how could he not be when the world was conspiring against him. How, he asked me, are his friends not checking on him enough? How do they sleep at night knowing he's burning, or worse yet, how do they party knowing he doesn't know how to put out his fire? He was teetering between hating everyone and being oblivious to their existence, and meticulously keeping track of his friends' behavior—marking them down for not showing up enough. I felt so guilty and sad and exhausted for this human whom I don't fully know, but love, for all the people who feel as though they have nowhere to go with their pain, for all the ways we fail as humans, for all the ways this world fails us. We spoke a lot—about how flighty and self-absorbed our generation is, how consumed we are by news and how dysfunctional it makes us, how we are deconstructing all the structures but unaware of what to build instead. I think of how my aunties and mother love one another so fiercely, it feels like a blizzard. He tells me of how, in the wake of his father's death, his aunties as well did not leave his mother's side. This is what I believe in, deep commitment that doesn't waver. And how to foster that in a world (perhaps rightfully) drifting away from the nuclear, tribal structure?
Sima, you keep returning to your childhood. It makes me imagine you in a big garden with apricot and pomegranate trees, your hair wild in the air. Life simple as the image. Me, I spent my winter in Dubai, watching my younger cousins build sand castles at noon, put on plays for each other, run from one house to the next barefoot. God, they're beautiful. I want them to always be reckless and curious and unconditionally loved.
Sima, I love you. I hope you will wake up soon and feel light, and guilt will not feel the need to follow you like a shadow. Until then: I am thinking of you. Please let us know what we can do to help—it can be the smallest of things, like helping out with an application you don't want to do, or having you come stay here in Beirut for a while. My home would love to have you in it for the summer.
To: Nur, Sima
Sat, Apr 10, 2021, 5:28 PM
I first must apologize regretfully for taking so long to read these and to respond. My mind has been flimsy and distracted lately, hung up on some things and careless about others.
I am listening to “The Astounding Eyes of Rita”, an album by Anouar Brahim. I sink into the first track, The Lover of Beirut. The album cover is a black and white photo featuring a sensual woman of unconventional beauty (Rita, I presume). The music does not invite me, but rather pulls me in with a visceral tug. I feel my heart clench and release. I am filled with dread. To borrow from Ocean Vuong, I let the dread enter me. (Actually, he says, "I let the laughter enter me," which is infinitely more powerful and carries with it the weight of intrusion, of entering by force, of helpless witnessing). No music mesmerizes me more I think than the intersection of Tarab and Jazz. I once watched a Ted Talk about the "sound of the universe," describing what two black holes colliding could hypothetically sound like, “how black holes may just "bang on the universe like a drum."
I imagine Tarab and Jazz like that; two black holes, inevitably drawn together, pulling at each other's depth, circling around each other. Slowly at first, then with a ferocity, until there is a soundlessness and one engulfs the other.
Sima, your email tucked itself into my heart like a pygmy puff. Or perhaps this is the image that comes to mind after Nur described wanting to hold it in her hand, and I imagined some small, fluffy creature whizzing around us and keeping us light and warm. Maybe grief does this, opens up a new dimension of seeing and feeling and documenting.
A few weeks ago, my family lost my grandmother’s sister, Teta Feyze. She lived well into her nineties, died peacefully in her sleep. She had been the center of my family for the last few months of her life.
I once called Teta, 8pm New York time, around 3am in Beirut where she was. She was awake and had just finished eating dinner. It was the first suhour of Ramadan, but this is also her regular routine, not much changes for her in Ramadan. She answered the phone despite having told me on an earlier phone call that I should not expect her to pick up (she does this often, refuses to answer my calls because they elicit too many strong emotions, an overwhelming saudade).
She asked how I'm doing, but it was clear she wanted to talk. "أنا مش منيحة," she told me, "بس مين منيح هل ايام". Age had not been kind to Teta Feyze, who now needed to have her diapers changed.
My family saw Teta Feyze as a bitter, old woman. She has become intolerable, my grandmother told me on the phone. Even my aunt Basma, an even-tempered well of love, had begun to lose her temper, snapping often.
Teta Feyze was married, once, to a man I've never met but who has been described by almost everyone in the family as the asshole to end all assholes. My memory is foggy here about whether he died early or she left him, but she never remarried. Teta Feyze moved into my Teta’s house a year before she passed, after having lived at a relative’s house for many years. I would visit her often to play with my second cousins who resided with her. We would bolt around the house, climbing couches and bunk beds, staging elaborate scenes. I was at their apartment one day, a two-bedroom in Aicha Bakkar that I recall vividly because it had a green, metal door that we would often cover in chalk drawings and doodles as we pretended to be teachers, forcing Teta Feyze to be our student.
That particular day, we had turned their closet inside out and dressed ourselves to the nines, pretending we were contestants in Star Academy’s newest season. We wrapped ourselves in colorful shawls and shimmied up to Teta Feyze, while she stuffed waraq enab. We needed a judge. She entertained us with amused patience. After each of our performances, she gave us serious, somber-faced feedback. The competition was stiff. Our performances became more elaborate, and with it her admiration and adulation grew. Afterwards, we were exhausted, lying on the floor around her with our legs up in the air.
Looking over to Teta Feyze, I asked, "So, tell us, who was the prettiest?"
She laughed, and told me "بصراحة كلكن حلوين بس إنتي بتجنني".
Sahar and Sarah would laugh at my vanity for years to come.
"She obviously just said it was you because you asked," they would tell me. Even then, I knew enough to believe them, but still felt as though I was her favorite. I really do think we all did, on some level.
Teta Feyze, "a bitter, old woman?" I mean, yes, the years had been unrelenting. She was a heavy-set woman with a severe case of hypochondriasis who could no longer relieve herself independently. She called Masarat, our household worker, about seven times an hour to perform unnecessary tasks, like move the remote control a few inches or return the hand-held telephone back to its hub. She was lonely, desperate, and terrified of her imminent and inescapable end.
On the phone, Teta told me that she was seeing Teta Feyze in herself everywhere, even in the mirror, that it gripped her with a panic for her own end. I put my therapist hat on, reminding her that it is sometimes better to pause some thoughts, evaluate them for their accuracy and usefulness.
She asked me if I were fasting, following it up immediately with "بس لأ حرام صعبه عليكي". At that moment, I wanted more than anything to be able to commit to fasting. I wanted her to be proud. But it’s been years since I fasted the month of Ramadan, since it felt right and real and true to do so. Deep down, I know that part of me, much like the child who played teacher by an apartment door or pretended to be a show contestant (or a mermaid, or a disguised princess), is accessible to me only through the threads of my memory.
It is this nostalgia for childhood, for lives lost and past, whether those of others or ourselves, that weaves itself through our letters. I feel it merits repeating, "the same spirit with which they infected those around them when they were alive somehow lingers behind after they have left, sometimes appearing in a dream or a dusty book or the particular voices of their children or in a parrot or a squirrel." Let's think about taking those emails we wrote and making them into something. It feels like the right time.
I love you both.