I’m about halfway through Hanan al-Shaykh’s novel Beirut Blues where she writes about Lebanon’s civil war through letters. The book inspired the format of the following.
Dear kind uncle,
It has been two days since I met you and I have not been able to shake the image of you out of my consciousness.
Over the following two hours, I tried to mentally capture every detail about you- but manage to forget your name. I do remember your olive skin, your distinctive Lebanese nose, your short curly hair, your medium build in a loose t-shirt from an Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirt and baggy shorts.
My hostess said we would be going to Bahia’s mom’s house for lunch. In my ignorance, I anticipated it would be just the four of us: Bahia, your mom, my hostess and me.
I overlooked the fact that it was the second day of Eid and the lunch also included my hostesses’ husband, their daughter, sons and their grandchildren, your half-sister, and you.
In comparison I live in a two bedroom condo in a quaint suburb of Sacramento with my cat. Family dinners at my parents house in Southern California compose of half as many people none of whom is a sunburned foreigner. I also drink wine which helps me at family gatherings, but understandably not appropriate for a Muslim family holiday.
I am thousands of miles away in your city of Tripoli. Earlier in the day I spent an hour with my hostess wandering and exploring around a 900 year old Crusader castle in your city. Now I’m in a modern building wandering and exploring into your family’s lives. This past week I have met almost everyone in the room, and am awed that your mother’s hospitality to me a non-Muslim and foreigner.
During lunch you sit at the opposite end of the table and I can’t stop watching you and probably annoying my hostess with questions about you. I learn you are Bahia’s older brother, a few years younger than me, not married. I want to ask more questions but I feel I may have crossed an inappropriate line so I stop.
You show compassion to your half-sister a quiet Ghanaian teenager who as the other foreigner in the room, seems more lost than me and disappears from the gathering frequently.
Like the majority of Lebanese men I have met, you avoid returning eye contact. I am told this is out of respect to me, but it is still jarring and I struggle not to take it personally.
I follow your mom and my hostess into a sitting room. You are not there but I feel your presence as I stare at the artwork of Old Tripoli directly across from me.
Suddenly your nephew comes running in. There was an accident involving your young niece. There is a commotion. People are screaming in Arabic which I don’t understand, but I know now is not an appropriate time to ask questions.
I sit frozen as your niece is carried to your sister’s lap. The young girl is surrounded by angels including you, as you give your sister a cold compress for your niece’s wrist and start to call a doctor. You and your family kiss the young girl’s forehead. It is very compassionate and sweet. A few minutes later the four year old bounces across the room as if nothing happened. I see you not only as Bahia’s brother but now the as the kind uncle.
Coffee is served. I am not a coffee drinker as it makes my heart race, and it has been racing enough this afternoon between the events surrounding your niece and my mind and heart wondering about you and your family.
I think about my friends and families concerns about terrorism and kidnappings and the morbid irony of death from a heart attack due to strong coffee. You and your mom offer me tea instead which I accept, but am still thrown off by the lack of eye contact.
I say my goodbyes to your family as my hostess takes me and your niece (who seems recovered from the accident) and nephew to a soap village across town.
You are on your cell in another room and I don’t say goodbye. I’ll probably never see you again in the week I have left in Lebanon.
Kind uncle, although I never shared one glance from your eyes, thank you for leaving an impression on my heart.