A few days ago I was clearing some old junk in the house and I found a large file with old documents. My father rarely threw away any papers, in fact he used to make dozens of copies of each document he deemed important and put a copy in every drawer and shelf. That way he eliminated the need to search and, of course, he assured quick accessibility in case he ever needed to refer to a certain document for whatever reason. I came across legal documents and slips of old payments made to him or by him, things that dated back to the 1960s and onwards, and in the midst of the piles of paper I found a copy of two letters mailed to us by my granduncle. One letter was for ten pages and the other for five pages and included attachments. Yep. There were legal documents stapled to it, clearly referred to throughout the letter.
The minute I held the letters in my hands flashes of memory came rushing back to me. I remembered myself opening the door and receiving one of those thick, fat envelopes that contained one of the many letters he used to send to us, I remembered the compassionate smile on my father’s face as he read through it (actually in my last memory of such letters my father merely skimmed through the pages), I remembered my grandmother’s face whenever my granduncle was mentioned to her even in passing, and I also remembered that nothing steered her out of a bad mood except a certain anecdote about him which my uncles used every now and then to cheer her up.
My granduncle held a grudge against my father and my uncles for so many years and died before he ever got over it. I never fully understood what the problem was, it had started long before I was born and I grew up merely overhearing conversations about it with repetitive references to certain people – clearly villains – that I had never met and curses to others I knew for something appalling they had apparently said at some unfortunate hour. Near the last years of his life that problem was clearly all he could think about. So he bombarded my father with lengthy phone calls and fortified them with those meticulously detailed, highlighted, subtitled, page numbered and cross-referenced letters.
I held the copy in my hand and studied the handwriting; it was neat but also very shaken. Based on the dates I could tell that he was in his late eighties when he wrote them. That is about a time in which he didn’t always recognize close people, yet he could certainly remember in detail what happened 20 years earlier. I tried to make sense of what I was reading, but since I hadn’t been in on the origin of the problem, the letters, to me, were at an advanced level; there was no way I could understand what he was talking about without sufficient background information. In fact, reading on, I could tell that there was more than one problem, things that had to do with a house, with a cemetery, and lots, lots of conspiracies. There were stories inside stories and there were cows and buffalos involved:
My mother became very ill and she had three requests from me:
1. That I should not bury her in the village but instead bury her in the city with the Gizans [residents of Giza, a suburb of Cairo]. 2. She had a share with in a buffalo with Abo Hammad’s children, that I should give the buffalo to Hamdy [my uncle] because he was a student of medicine and administered her shots. 3. She shared a cow with Haj Hindy, that I should give the cow to my sister Saniya because she was poor … I did what she asked and sold the cow … and gave the buffalo to Hamdy…
I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed as hard as I did when I read that paragraph. To me, the entire letter, despite how organized it was, made absolutely no sense. I knew that there was some well structured logic in there, but no one could possibly decipher it except those who were physically present around the time all those things happened.
What puzzled me, however, was the fact that my father actually got out of his way to make a copy of those letters. What on earth was he thinking? But each time I remember my grandmother laughing at that anecdote I can’t help concluding that the copies were probably intended to travel to my four uncles and three aunts. For discussion, you think? Of course not. Probably just for laughs. I know that he eventually became a major source of entertainment for the family.
My granduncle was a very athletic English teacher who always took pride in the fact that he participated in the 1936 Berlin olympics. He also boasted – sometimes condescendingly – that he was the one who introduced my father to my mother, whom he referred to as a Saudi princess (she was the daughter of a school principal in Medina, but who was checking?)
Sadly, my granduncle’s daughters grew apart from us, but recently we’ve been making efforts to communicate. The only thing that makes me think about him and my father with peace is that my father was right there holding his hand when he was on his deathbed, and that his daughters never stopped checking in on my father during his illness, and that he was elated when he saw them just a few days before he passed away himself.
And this is in spite of what my granduncle had written in one of the two letters classifying major wars, subtitling it “The Longest War”:
The First World War (1914-1918) lasted for four years and was among world countries
The Second World War (1939-1945) lasted for five years and was also among world countries
The Gulf War between Iran and Iraq (1980-1988) lasted for eight years
But the war between the Abdel Fattah family and their cousins began ten years ago and hasn’t ended until now …
As wise and foreseeing as the elderly can be, I’m glad that my granduncle was wrong about that last war he mentioned. Those who remain among us from the old, turbulent days, my cousins and my father’s cousins have nothing but laughter and loving, endearing thoughts about my granduncle, his grudge and of course his letters!