By Khaled Diab
Once the mother of our world departed, her ghost arrived, plunging me into the memory hole which grief opens up, where the past becomes its own present and the present morphs into a kind of phantom future.
Friday 11 August 2017
Egyptians fondly refer to their country as Um el-Dunya, Mother of the World, drawing comfort for their lacklustre and turbulent present by reaching far back to the ancient past when Egypt was at the summit of the civilisational pyramid.
I am doubtful that the world could have a mother and, if it did, I suspect it would not be Egypt. But there is a mother of my world and, because I have spent the greater part of my life outside my native land, she, in many ways, is, or was, my Egypt.
That is why when mama took a sudden fall and fell seriously ill, Cairo, that heaving city of constant commotion and continuous motion, seemed to dematerialise. Although the 20 million or so souls who inhabit the metropolis were oblivious to the fact that they had become shadows, Cairo’s legendary gridlock melted away before my taxi as it hurtled from the airport to the hospital, as though someone high up had notified the city’s unruly motorists to clear a path for this worried son.
When I entered her room in intensive care, I was horrified by the sight of my mother intubated and struggling with the nurses. Although mum’s flesh was weak, her spirit was still willing and tough. Never one to accept faits accomplis, she was trying to spit out the tubes that had been rammed down her throat. It was only after we comforted her and gently explained that she could not breathe without the machine that she desisted. Cruel to be kind, flashed through my mind.
Seeing my mama bedridden, with a broken hip and a collapsed lung, unable to move and unable to speak was unbearable to witness or to endure. My ‘baby’ brother, Osama, who along with my sister, Ghada, had dealt with the brunt of the emergency, could not bear to be in the room anymore and bowed out for a breather.
Mama’s extreme frailty brought memories flooding back of the once vigorous, uncompromising, outspoken yet gentle and fair woman who raised four children almost single-handedly, and nearly super-humanely.
The same four children who, due to the geography of modern life, were gathered in the same place for the first time in years, feeling, despite their adult masks, faces and costumes they now wore, like helpless children in need of a comforting squeeze from their mummy.
When mum, her multi-shaded eyes lacking the sparkle with which they once shone, finally had the tubes removed, the first words she spoke were in keeping with her character. She asked how we were doing, expressed her satisfaction that her four kids were gathered around her, and complained about the bland hospital food. Ghada was so overjoyed that, in addition to her repeated expressions of love, she regularly told mum, like a mantra to reassure herself, that she would take very good care of her and get her home soon.
“I don’t think I’ll ever leave this hospital,” mum said at one point and we, echoing the doctors’ assurances and to reassure ourselves as much as her, told her she’d be back home in a matter of days. But despite a short-lived improvement, my mum turned out to be right and a few weeks later I had to rush back, in a race against the malfunctioning clock of multiple organ failure, arriving just too late to say a final farewell.
Once mum departed, her ghost arrived, so to speak. I plummeted into the memory hole which grief opens up, where the past becomes its own present and the present morphs into a kind of phantom future, where I clasped and grasped at all mum-related remembrances with every tentacle of my mind, in a desperate effort to keep her alive, even if only in the form of my subjective image of her.
Over the years, the space mum took up in my head had diminished due to the many years we had not lived in the same country. But now she was everywhere in my consciousness, even though it distressed me to realise that I did not remember as much as I wanted to, as much as I should, as much as I must – the little essential details, the exact words uttered, the tiny shards that make up the shattered whole. I became aware that location is a vital component of memory. I imagine that when you spend your entire life in the same country, city, town or village, regularly revisiting or passing the same places constantly, this triggers and reinforces memories – when you never or rarely revisit the scene of the time, the recollections gradually fade until they appear to be so dreamlike that you sometimes wonder whether your memories are actually real, and where the real ones end and the invented ones commence.
Mum was also there at her wake, in the memories and words of family and friends, and at subsequent family gatherings. Throughout the ordeal, well-meaning people tried to comfort me by telling me mum had gone to a better place, that God must love her for taking her during Ramadan, supposedly the most blessed month of the year. But my unbelieving ‘soul’ could gain no consolation from their words. With no God, no afterlife, neither heavenly nor hellish, no blessed nor cursed times of year, I could only console myself with the thought that my mother’s pain and suffering had disappeared with her consciousness, that the hell of disease was over, and she now occupied the paradise of oblivion. Of course, she believed in the afterlife and had worked consciously her entire life towards pleasing her Lord. For her sake, I hoped that he truly existed and that he would be there to reward her goodness.
When I went to visit her tomb, mama seemed absent from this alien terrain, even though her remains lay only feet away, under my feet. My brother, Amr, who is the second eldest after me, had prepared a prayer which he recited with his head bowed in front of him, trying to conceal the tears which had involuntarily welled up in his eyes. This was the first time I had seen Amr, who prefers to shield his emotions from sight, cry ever since mum had got sick, though I understand he wept during her burial, which I missed due to a fault by the airline. When I tried to comfort him, we both cried in each other’s embrace, something that has not occurred since we were children.
Egyptian tombs are pretty homely, with an outer house and a subterranean burial chamber, a practice that stretches back to pharaonic times, which is typically shared by the various deceased members of a single family. But this being a new tomb, my mother was the only occupant. The idea that mum was all alone in that cold, dark place shook me severely. Having been born into a large family and raised one herself, my mother had rarely spent time alone, and so the idea of her now being by herself, even if she could no longer feel anything, distressed me.
Reflecting on mum’s life and the central role she had played in shaping mine led me to discover that what I call my conscience is to a large part actually her voice. Iman Khattab may not have made a visible difference to the world but for the many people she embraced and took under her wing – from her younger siblings whom she helped raise to her friends and protégés – my mum made a world of difference. Empirically, it is easy to disprove the notion that only the good die young. But they always die far too soon for the people who loved them and those who were touched by them.
My mother was only two months older than Donald Trump. I wonder what she would have made of his black comedic rise to president, and particularly his toxic views on immigrants, refugees, Muslims and women – all of which mum was, in some form, at one point or another during her life. Despite her sensitive nature and apprehension about hurting people’s feelings, she was not one to take prejudice and bigotry lying down – though she was always a connoisseur of lying down or reclining, often with a well-earned snack and a hot beverage – as demonstrated by the numerous confrontations she had with racists, one of which included a man with a barking Doberman trying to knock down our front door, the way she taught us to stand up for our rights, and how she always stood up for what she thought was right and defended the weak, with little concern for the personal costs.
Although mum was never officially a refugee, she and my father fled into self-imposed exile. In a sort of shotgun wedding, with Egypt’s state insecurity apparatus holding the barrel to their heads, my parents, who were engaged at the time, got married in a hurry when they discovered that a political case was being concocted against my father. Just how serious and far-fetched that case was would only emerge nearly four decades later, during the 2011 revolution, when a revolutionary salvaged the scorched and synched confidential file on my father which state security had been keeping on him and his family.
At first, my parents fled to neighboring Libya, where a young and not-yet-completely-unhinged Gaddafi had recently abolished the monarchy and installed himself as republican monarch, even though he had no official position. Here is where I and one of my brothers, Amr, were born. However, it would not be long before my father could no longer deal with the regime and fell out of favour with it.
Britain, which was still relatively easy to immigrate to back in the mid-70s, was decided upon as our next destination. Mum went back to Egypt to give birth to my sister, Ghada, before joining my father – but she was delayed three years as state security held us hostage by banning us from travelling in the hope of luring dad back to the country. Fearlessly, though she was probably terrified, mum, with a babe-in-arms, a toddler and a young child, sued the government repeatedly, and won every time, while holding down a job, but each time. However, state security had other ideas and defied the courts by re-inserting her name on the no-fly list at the airport.
Eventually, we made it out of Egypt. But getting to England required a multi-nation tour of the Arab world in a frustrating attempt to find that sweet spot where Arab and British bureaucracy converged, a country where my father would be allowed in and the British embassy there would handle our paperwork. But eventually we landed in Thatcherite Britain…