“A Mention of My Father” by Leila Aboulela
When my father died, I found it preposterous that we should leave him in a graveyard, that we should cover him with sand and just walk away. He, who used to shower and change twice a day, pat his chin with expensive eau de cologne, wear nothing that was not freshly ironed. Sparkling white shirts without a speck of dust, the fashionable suits he travelled in, shining shoes. It seemed to me outrageous that he would be left to fend for himself in the outskirts of Umdurman, without his radio, his Guardian overseas edition, his tiny notebook in which he wrote in careful beautiful script the telephone numbers of everyone he valued.
My father was buried in the family graveyard, right next to his brother, close to his cousins and other brothers. It was where he would have wanted to be. A place that was completely his, of him, close to where he was born and grew up. A place he had visited time and again. It had good vibes, generations of the same family, thick bloodlines and continuity. I liked its peaceful expansive atmosphere, its laden histories but still when the day came to leave my father there, where he now belonged, it felt like a violation. The freshly dug sand moist and dark above his grave rose puckered like a troubled wound.
A couple of years earlier, my father and I had gone together to the graveyard, so that I could pay my respects to all the uncles and aunts who had died while I was away. My father sat on the ledge of his brother’s grave, in the same spot where he was later buried. He was matter of fact, not unduly sentimental. Although it was a sombre visit, there was still between us the happiness that I, my husband and children were visiting from abroad. In our honour, my father had put up new curtains in the house, made sure all the light bulbs were working, spread new sheets on the beds. Throughout my childhood only important guests got this treatment. To my delight, I had become one of them.
My father died in 2008. If he were to come back to life now, there would be lots to explain. He had missed out on Obama as president, What’s App, China in Africa, Islamophobia (the word not the concept), Brexit (the word not the concept), #MeToo (not the concept of course); he had missed out on Dubai as a holiday destination, the secession of South Sudan, a Muslim mayor for London, the weak sterling, the hotter summers, Egyptians keeping pets, Netflix, online shopping, the Arab spring, the Asian Tiger, the Syrian civil war, the Indonesian tsunami and the overthrow of Omar el Bashir. He had missed out on the virus. Corona, I would say, yes, remember Mama’s car, it’s spreading, there’s a lockdown. And no, even the West does not have a cure, believe it or not, even European are dying in the thousands though with stiff upper lips and there is public anger but no signs of grief. ‘’I don’t believe you, Leila,’’ he would say. ‘’You’re talking nonsense.’’
To reassure him, because I wouldn’t want him to be frightened, I wouldn’t want to spoil the mood, the special event of his coming back to life I would say, the Queen is still going strong, the tennis at Wimbledon, the power cuts, Ethiopian Airlines, the Guardian is still going strong. I had never forgotten his special weekly overseas edition, its pages tissues folded small in an envelope. His lovely trust in it; the pleasure he took in the rustle of its fragility. ‘’Look,’’ I would say, ‘’how much I am like you now!’’ Reaching out for my phone first thing in the morning, scrolling for the news. He used to balance his transistor radio on his stomach. It was the first sound I heard waking up, the reassuring pompous notes of the BBC World Service.
If my father were to come back to life, there would be a lot to say. How my children were doing, what they were up to, now that they were young adults. I would brag about how much like him I had become. Who could have seen that coming? I too feel shy in the company of my children’s spouses, I too travel with ease (at least I did before the lockdown), am wary of escalators, love a good gossip. I too am baffled by aggression; I too can’t be bothered with small details or going out of my way to eat special things. I too get moody on my own unless I am reading. My hair hasn’t yet turned white and my neck and shoulders ache. I too am perplexed by zippers and changing batteries, for him it was the batteries of torches and remote controls, for me it is the batteries of card readers and fashion watches. But I imagine my father now back to life, would become restless and unsettled. Where are my brothers, he would ask? Where is my best friend, my crowd, the movers and shakers, the ones with the news, where are my people? He grew up in a teaming household, ten brothers and sisters, countless cousins, innumerable friends. The nuclear family remained a novelty to him. On my own, I was never enough to hold his attention, not obtrusive enough. I was small in his eyes and only big in his heart, valuable but a responsibility. Finding himself in the 2020s, he would want to return to a world in which he was young again. Not be a father to a middle-aged woman.
And true I was like him. I too would want to return to the past, my past, to be with him when he knew everything, and I knew little. Before I had the choice and ability to disobey him. Before I started to needle him, to talk back, like girls talk back, sly, sharp, judgemental. I wasted so much time, not arguing (that might have been useful, might have honed me some debating skill). Instead I squandered time on an excessive focus on his faults, the needle thin dig, the sarcastic reply, just that one beat away from impudence. Baiting him while he was sweet and distracted, generous and optimistic. In comparison to children nowadays, I did know my place, was not disobedient or problematic. But that is not a defence of my adolescent rudeness.
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, ‘’Remember and mention the virtues of your deceased.’’ This comforts me because I cannot help but constantly remember my father, dream of him, see him in myself and in others. I spend considerable time dwelling on him. I am conscious of the times he lived in, the kind of education he received and did not receive, the cultural norms he operated within and at times rebelled against. The times he spoke out and the situations in which he was silent. All the things he profoundly understood, all the projects he strove for. The ways in which he was progressive and the positions in which he was traditional. His aspirations and his loyalties.
There was my father, the youngest son born and bred in Umdurman losing his mother at the age of two. Sleeping in the open air, eating with his fingers, playing football in the alley. There was my father at Trinity College, Dublin- a child runs across the road to rub his arm and then looks down at his fingers in surprise. There was my father walking barefoot through our house Khartoum, my feet are exactly like his feet. My father stopping the car on the way back from work to buy a watermelon and bananas, being harangued by his oldest sister, at the edge of his seat because Manchester United were winning. There was my father a teenager in the 40s, a university student in the 50s, a father in the 60s. In all these black and white photos, he saw life in colour and things around him, through his eyes, were modern.
People often say, ‘’My father taught me this and my father taught me that…’’ Parents teach all the time, every second, every minute but the child can only understand what echoes within her own soul. And different children pick up different aspects, translate and misinterpret, extrapolate, revise, reinterpret. Sometimes I phone my brother and ask, ‘’Why did Baba do this or why didn’t he do that?’’ My brother’s answer would sound like a memory of an aspect of my father that I had forgotten, an angle I overlooked. I keep remembering, gathering details, making connections, understanding better. Playing the game, ‘’I am now the same age as he was when this, that and the other happened…’’ It goes on and on because a whole life cannot be lassoed into a single explanation.
Featured images courtesy of author.
Leila Aboulela is a Sudanese author and the first winner of the Caine Prize. Her latest books include the novel Bird Summons and the short story collection Elsewhere, Home, winner of the Saltire Fiction Book of the Year. Leila’s work has received critical recognition and a high profile for its distinctive exploration of migration and Islamic spirituality. Her previous novels are The Kindness of Enemies, The Translator, a New York Times 100 Notable Books of the year, Minaret and Lyrics Alley, Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. Leila’s work has been translated into fifteen languages and she was long-listed three times for the Orange Prize. Leila was born in Cairo, grew up in Khartoum and now lives in Aberdeen. She is Honorary President of the SSSUK-the Society for the Study of the Sudans, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
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