Cover art by Joumana Al-Ramzi
What is a beginning? ما هي البداية
What is love? ما هو الحب
Abu Ismail Masri grew up in Nablus, Palestine and had two sons and two daughters; he died of illness a few weeks after he returned home from training to fight with the Turks, when the younger of his two sons, Omar Suleiman Masri, was seven years old. His wife, Amina Bakir, used to sing, in the presence of her granddaughter, “ya ghazalleh kaif aani abaadook?” which translates into “Oh dear (literally, gazelle), how did they keep me away from you?” Amina Bakir, died at the age of 85, but according to her granddaughter, I’timiad, she cried over the loss of her husband every day until the day she died. She worked in many fields to support her four dependent children; she dyed fabrics, sewed, cooked, and she also learned to read on her own, for her own satisfaction. During that day in Nablus, people made a living doing mundane things, such as sewing dresses and making Knafeh (a traditional Nabulsi sweet); they lived a simple life. But a simple life is not one that Omar would be blessed with.
It’s the first day of Eid al Fitr; I accompany my father and grandmother to visit my father’s aunt’s husband, Abo Moeen. I enter their apartment on the third floor of a middle-aged building in Amman. I am introduced as Kamal’s daughter. Abo Moeen asks me what my name is and I reply, “Dima.” To that he responds,”deematon samhato alqiyadi sakoobo yastagheeth biha althary al makroob” a verse from a poem by Abu Tammam from the Abbasid era, describing dima (which means a raining cloud) as a blessing that answers the call of the thirsty soil for rain.
Abu Moeen, as Omar is now called, is taken care of by his daughter, I’timad. He turned 100 years old this year; his eyes turned blue from old age, and his memory remains as strong as it was when he was as young as his great granddaughter. He has hundreds of books in his library, which is an empty bedroom with old marble floor except for floor-to ceiling dark brown shelves covering one of the walls, with topics ranging from poetry to history to traditional ululating in Palestine, and still hundreds more packed in cardboard boxes from the time he left home. Tell him your name as I did, and he’ll recite a verse from a poem about it. Abo Moeen has the gift of knowledge and wisdom I hope to grow old and acquire; I believe he has gained much of his insight from reading.
As a young child Omar was kicked out of school for being mischievous but always carried a book he was reading in the back pocket of his pants. As Abo Moeen tells me, people of the town would see him as he passed by and say, “There goes the kid who taught himself on his own.” His older brother took hold of the family business of importing tobacco, and he put his young brother in charge of the dirty, risky work of getting the goods while he gambled away the family money. Abo Moeen continues to tell me that one night, while he was climbing one of the mountains to get the illegally imported tobacco in, he got caught, and at sixteen years of age was sent to prison. He remained a day and was let out, back to his books. His love of learning that he had perhaps inherited from his mother helped him overcome the challenges in his life.
I ask him for a book that would tell me more about the history of Palestine and the conflict with Israel. He lists names of authors and books I have never heard of. His daughter takes me to the library to pick out a book on Palestine. I pick one called “Palestine its history and struggles” by Najib Al Ahmed. He asks me which book I had chosen I repeat the name multiple times, for he has poor hearing. Once he had registered what I had said, he boldly accuses the author of being a liar. I asked him why, my laugh clear in my voice, he retorts, “They’re all liars and betrayers. History is always written from the winner’s point of view.” I didn’t want to read the book anymore, I wanted facts about what had really happened, when I expressed this to him he replied by saying, “No read it, read it and see for yourself what you think of it,” teaching me not to take everything I hear for granted, but rather to decide for myself.
During another visit to Abo Moeen’s house the theme of his talk was the importance of knowledge and the insignificance of your name to who you are. He kept repeating a verse from a peom by Ali bin Abi Taleb in between stories to emphasize what he means by, “kon ibna man sheata wa iktasib adaba,” which roughly translates into, “Be whoever’s son you want and gain literature (knowledge).” In a society where much of who you are and who you become depends on your family name and their place in that society, Abo Moeen sees the true meaning of the self; it is not how much money you have, the name given to you by your parents, or the clothes you wear, it is you, your thirst for knowledge, for truth, and living up to your potential.
Maybe it was that books took Omar to a different life that made him fall in love with reading; it would take his mind off a life without a father, and no real guidance. Maybe books were his only teachers and that is why he held onto them so tightly. In his teens he was kicked out of school but not off the desk of the eternal student. As the years went by he got married, left his wife and kids, came back to them, worked as a tailor, left his work, moved to Jordan, books were the only thing that remained by his side, always.