A Space for Writers of the World
In June of 1985, Rania, Dania, and I left Lebanon to spend the summer with my parents in Detroit. Mazen, eighteen at the time, stayed with his father to prepare for a retake of the Baccalaureate Part II national exam that would take place mid-July. Demographic tensions stemming from twisted political and religious affiliations that had originally led to civil war, intensified between East and West Beirut a month after I left. Our condominium complex was struck by several bombs. Mazen, who was standing on the porch at the time of the explosions, leaned sideways to evade shrapnel shells. He crawled back into the house only to find that the TV set had shattered and his cat, covered with white powdery residue, was hiding underneath the brown velvet chair in the family room. War was no longer around our home—our home had become a war casualty.
From across the ocean, the breaking news struck me like lightning. Several of my neighbors and their children were killed. Over the phone, Mahmoud sounded terrified, but reassured me that they were fine. Mazen, frightened and immobilized, sounded downhearted and panicky. I was discouraged.
He broke into tears. “I love you, Mama.”
“I love you too, sweetheart,” I said, frantically wondering how I would get him out of Lebanon.
The next day, I rented a home and sent for Mazen. I decided not to return to Lebanon, at least not until the civil war had settled. Mahmoud, a Lebanese patriot, adhered to all that he possessed—his assets and emotional ties, and refused to join us. Unfortunately, in December of the same year, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and was given a year to live. We returned to Lebanon in January of 1986.
The thought of losing Mahmoud set me off in different directions. I had fancied having a husband who I would live with until we became crippled by old age, especially because we were both young and healthy. Death was always a word reserved for the elderly and the mere thought of Mahmoud dying forced me into a state of dysphoria. I tried to put on a strong front, but quite often, I couldn’t talk to the children without feeling I had a fishbone stuck in my throat. Polishing mirrors and furniture, I drowned in my tears on the days that we were not at the doctor’s office or in the hospital running a dose of chemotherapy. And on the days that my eyes were swollen by too much weeping, I’d instruct the maid not to answer the doorbell. I couldn’t talk to anyone without feeling weighed down and helpless.
I fought Mahmoud’s disease with mental and physical ferocity from the beginning. But toward the end, prayers and candlelight vigils were my means of comfort as the echoes of his constant coughing traveled through the joint walls of our condominium to the ears of our neighbors, who in kind words would say in effect that they were praying for his relief.
I wasn’t sure what sort of relief they were referring to, but perhaps the change of his color from the normal pinkish tone to a duller, darker, grayish hue was a death signal to all those who saw him. He was approaching the end.
The intensity of my affection increased with the intensity of my war against cancer. I was hoping to turn the vigor of my love into a powerful, invasive treatment that might triumph over the malignant cells residing within him, but I failed. I was perplexed by my un-precipitated, poignant affection for Mahmoud. I was beginning to wonder…is this love?
I blamed my arranged marriage for my inability to connect with Mahmoud on a heart-throbbing level. I could never say the words “I love you” to him. I had learned to care for him over the years, but I never associated care with love. I believed that love between couples was nothing more than a four-letter word and that “star-crossed lovers” was a term coined by Shakespeare to captivate his audience and give the relationship between Romeo and Juliet more credence. When Mahmoud gave me gifts, he lightheartedly followed his gesture with, “Aren’t you going to say I love you?” but I always replied with a smile. His illness brought me to the realization that I was wrong and that true love was something that is not only real, but can be felt willingly and joyfully. My love for Mahmoud had finally exposed itself. It shook the ground beneath me like an earthquake.
I held him in my arms night after night throughout his illness and whispered, “I love you…” over and over again. I no longer sealed love, with trepidation, between my lips. My words took flight with sensual fervor like “the winged seraphs of heaven” that connected Edgar Allen Poe with his beloved Annabel Lee.
Mahmoud confided in me one night. “Even though I am very ill, if this is what it takes for me to hear you say I love you after twenty years of marriage, then wherever this illness is leading me, I’m willing to go.”
With tears running down my cheeks like burning flames, I realized that not only does love harmonize one’s being, but it can also be painful.
Mahmoud died on December 10, 1986. At home, on the evening of his death, relatives, neighbors, and friends stopped by to pay their respects. Oblivious to my surroundings, I held onto one of Mahmoud’s shirts and cried for hours. The faint odor of his shirt wrestled its way into my nostrils and gave me an escalating high. I hoped to draw a bond between the living and the dead, but instead, my pain grew deeper. Mazen, who left his uncle’s house where men were paying their respects, came home, walked into the living room where I was sitting, took me to bed, and held my hand until I fell asleep.
The next morning, we drove to Chacra, Mahmoud’s hometown, situated thirty miles from Beirut and a few miles west of the Israeli border. Mahmoud’s parents were deceased, but their home, which appeared neglected and abandoned, was used to prepare the corpse for the evening prayer. His two brothers and sister who lived in Africa asked that we delay the burial until their arrival the following day.
Islam encourages readers of Quranic verses to surround the dead until burial. The verses may be read by family members or by hired individuals. I had engaged two young men to spend the night and read the Quran over Mahmoud, but the sound of rocket shells echoed through the valleys and caused everyone to fall into a state of panic.
There was a lot tension that year between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israelis launched an air attack that evening and from fear of a ground attack, hundreds of young men, regardless of their involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, fled the village by midnight, Mazen included. I spent the night alone, praying over Mahmoud’s corpse. By 9:00 a.m., Mazen returned. Mahmoud’s two brothers and sister also arrived from Africa. The funeral began.
Over twenty men approached the front door that led to the living room where I stood. I held my arms across the door like a child guarding her jewels. I had hoped to prolong the moment. They asked me to move aside and not to join the procession. I trailed behind the procession anyway, taking slow, but heavy steps as I stomped my anger into the ground and cursed at the furnace of my pain. My sisters-in-law were in the front yard of their parents’ home along with several other women performing a wailing ritual. They wept and beat their faces with the dust of the earth and initiated conversations with the dead. They conversed with their parents and with Mahmoud about sweet memories and moments of bliss. They walked in circles, shouting, “Allahu Akbar…La Illaha Illa Allah…Allahu Akbar…La Illaha Illa Allah”—“God is great…There is no God, but God”… raising their handkerchiefs to and fro.
Then, suddenly, one of the women approached me and said in a firm tone, “Where are you going? Stay here with us. Women are forbidden to join in the burial process.”
Baffled that she agreed with traditional mores and the status quo, I ignored her comment and continued my route. The men were too far ahead to notice that I was following them.
I had lost my husband. My children had lost their father. I didn’t think that anyone had the right to force me to follow tradition. Rania and Dania were holding on to me with more strength than I ever thought they had. The sky seemed to be caving in when a blue lightning bolt landed heavily on my shoulder and a strange voice that rang in my ears ordered me to let go of Mahmoud. Petrified and numbed by the experience, I froze for a moment, wondering if my body had separated from my mind, then walked at a reduced speed to gather my senses. Coming to terms with death was something I had to work on, and it certainly wasn’t going to happen on my way to the cemetery.
I wasn’t able to focus on what had happened at the time, but as I think about it today, setting aside the philosophy of mind-body problems or physicalism, I credit that God communicates with us in unconventional ways. I believe that at that moment, He sent His Angels to warn me to draw back and to let Mahmoud’s soul unite with the cosmic energy of the dead. Perhaps the warning was an act of kindness. God solidified my tears and gave me a moment of temporary relief and deliverance. As I approached the procession, I ignored the despicable stares of the men whose eyes banned me from joining them.
Occasionally, along the one-mile walk, I’d get a glimpse of Mazen’s dark hair that contrasted with the graying heads of the older men. The corpse had been wrapped in a white kafan, and covered with a bright green cloth with Quranic verses written in gold thread around the edges. Islam encourages that there be no barriers between the corpse and the earth and a coffin would have prevented this. Every now and then, Mazen would shift the weight of his father’s corpse. He shifted it from the outer to the inner end of his shoulder, causing it to swerve from side to side and to drift back over the shoulders of the townspeople who opted to share in transporting the stretcher. They took turns to relieve each other, but not Mazen. Whether they participated in the ritual out of affection for Mahmoud or divine invocation, they hauled him away like robots extirpated of human emotion. They did not look toward Mazen or even say a word to him. Perhaps they thought that it was his duty to endure the physical and emotional pain resulting from his father’s death and to recalibrate his position in life by forfeiting his youth and assuming a level of maturity tenfold.
Once at the cemetery, the men circled the area around Mahmoud’s grave with an Imam standing close by. Then, a young boy came running toward me, stopped abruptly, and said, “They told me to tell you that they would literally carry you away if you didn’t keep your distance.”
“Tell them I will. I promise…”
I watched from a distance. Mazen seemed as if he were programmed to follow rituals and do as he was told. He laid the stretcher on the ground, removed the green cover and with the assistance of a few men, lowered it into the hollow grave. Custom was completed. Nothing was said. The scene gave me confirmation that men were emotionally more controlled than women, and to be in their company was to redefine my femininity, at least for the moment.
I turned my head away from the men’s view, and wiped away my tears while tripping over the cobblestones beneath my feet, trying to find my way out of the cemetery. Staring at empty verandas and the cloudy sky, I noticed an old man leaning on a cane and walking in my direction. He stopped for a moment, shook his head repeatedly, cleared his throat, and said, “And you thought that your loved ones will live forever…”
I stiffened for a moment to connect the dots that were meandering between our eyes until I realized that he’d just taught me a lesson—never take your loved ones for granted. But then, I wasn’t sure that such a lesson would have prepared me for Mahmoud’s death.