She looked at me for a few seconds and then said, “I think you’re old enough now to hear the full story.”
I was a little taken aback. My aunt Nadia had told me stories of her late brother many times, and they were all wondrous. She was the head of my father’s side of the family. Being much older than my father, she was more like a grandmother to my siblings and me. I, however, had a special connection with her because I, apparently, looked very much like her when she was young. But the real reason we got closer was that I moved schools to one near her house. So every Wednesday, while my friends went for ice cream in the city, I would visit her in her dim, antique-filled home after school before going back to school for basketball practice.
Her children, all grown up, lived out of her neighbourhood, so she really appreciated my visits. Sometimes she would cook Labaniyeh or Fasouliyeh, my favourites, and watch me eat while telling me stories from the past.
If I was mad at my father for ducking my allowance for a bad grade, she would tell me stories of how he misbehaved as a child to cheer me up. If I asked her about a beautifully crafted ring on her veined finger, she would tell me stories of her late husband and the travels he took her on.
But my favourites were always about her brother. To us, she was the oldest aunt or uncle, but to her, she was the second oldest. Her older brother, Waheed, had died around the age of fourteen. At big family gatherings, she would tell stories about how he would talk to mules and warn of foods that were about to burn in their pots.
Once, gathered around her large dining table, she told us the same story she had told multiple times of how Uncle Waheed saved the neighbour’s baby’s life. The details would change each time. Sometimes it was in the summer, sometimes in the winter. Sometimes he was crying, sometimes he was peacefully playing with his rag doll. But the gist of the story remained: Uncle Waheed was busy doing something while the neighbour’s newborn wouldn’t stop crying. Uncle Waheed was sitting on the ground somewhere, violently rocking back and forth, his eyelids fluttering. This wasn’t unusual. His eyes constantly fluttered, and he always rocked while he sat playing with his doll or stacking pieces of wood.
Aunt Nadia recalls the baby crying for five days straight, and it was putting all the neighbours in their new apartment building on edge. Uncle Waheed, though, was especially distressed by it. He would wake up crying at night. He was twelve at the time, and it wasn’t unusual for him to have bursts of loud laughter or wails, but this was more intense.
On the morning of the fifth day of the baby’s incessant screaming, Uncle Waheed woke up crying loudly and walked to the living room where his mother and sister were preparing meatballs for lunch.
He mumbled something, “Little girl, poor little girl. Sick. Help girl!”
Only those two people were able to understand him.
Aunt Nadia looked at her mother. She didn’t have to say it. Her mother knew that they had to do it. She took a deep sigh of resignation and told her daughter to go wash her hands and get ready to go upstairs with Waheed.
“But what will we say?” Aunt Nadia asked. “Hello, we’re the new neighbours, and we think we can fix your baby?”
“Exactly that,” her mother nodded gravely.
They put on their black covers and led Waheed upstairs. The baby’s mother and her family seemed to be gathered in an unspoken agreement that the baby would die soon. A regretful, sweaty doctor left the house as they entered, mumbling about how sorry they were for the poor baby and that their son, who was “on the blessing”, was hoping to see the baby.
The mother, who had clearly been crying for as long as her baby, wiped her nose on her sleeve and let them in. The crying was even louder inside the small apartment. Waheed pressed his hands to his ears and groaned loudly while his white eyes turned in their sockets.
An old woman came forward and offered them seats. She seemed to know what was going on. She picked up the baby from his helpless grandmother’s arms and carefully placed her on his lap. He took his hands off his ears and gently took the baby. He held her by the head like he would hold his rag doll. The mother gasped and attempted to lunge forward, but the old woman held her back.
"Waheed flinched at the gasp, but I whispered for him to continue," Aunt Nadia recalled, "he couldn’t see what he was doing, but his ears were picking up every move, every breath, every heartbeat. He put the still screaming baby to his chest and pressed her very hard against his deformed chest. I feared the baby might break. A part of me wanted to wrench her out of his arms, but I thought it couldn’t get any worse.
He mumbled something in her ear that not even my mother and I could decipher.
He was rocking back and forth in his chair. Gently at first, then fervently. A hush fell on the room and everyone held their breath. Within five minutes, the baby was quiet. She was utterly listless. I exchanged a fearful look with my mother. We both wondered if he’d finally put that baby out of her misery or if he’d really stopped the crying."
Aunt Nadia described how the mother tore herself from the stunned old woman’s grip, ran to the baby, and snatched her from Uncle Waheed like a terrified lioness. The baby was fast asleep, her chest rising and falling gently. She collapsed to the floor, still clutching the oblivious baby, and burst into tears of joy and relief.
As if awoken from a trance, the other women broke into incredulous utterances of relief, congratulations, joy and praising Allah.
Aunt Nadia looked at her exhausted brother, his sightless eyes hovering in their sockets. She helped him to his feet, and they all slipped unnoticed back down to their apartment so he could get some rest.
I never tired of hearing that story. Aunt Nadia might’ve had a propensity for exaggeration or embellishment, but we knew she never made things up.
“This is my favourite Uncle Waheed story!” I said.
“I know,” she looked at me for a few seconds and then said, “ but I think you’re old enough now to hear the full story.”
I gulped. Did he hurt someone? Was he like a Lennie from Of Mice and Men?
Aunt Nadia sat down and poured herself a glass of water while I pretended to eat, already feeling sick to my stomach.
Before moving to Damascus, where my dad was later born, Aunt Nadia lived with her family in her native village of Sheikh Saad, on the shoulder of the Barada River. I always wondered why we never visited it in the summer like most Damascus residents did. She described the place as heaven on earth; apple orchards and grapevines were married with blue, benevolent skies for as far as the eye could see. There was always a cool breeze, no matter how hot, fragrant with the smell of freshly baked bread, honeysuckle and jasmine. She closed her eyes, leaning back in her chair and recalling running around the fields with her friends in spring, where all the fruit and nut trees were in bloom. Her favourite was always the almond blossom, where her father had put up a swing where she spent hours gazing at the little petals falling onto her head and lap.
Then she opened her eyes to let out a tear, recalling the story of why they left for Damascus and never went back.
When Uncle Waheed was born, he was skinny, tiny and clearly sickly. My grandmother had lost three babies before him, so she did everything she could to keep him alive. She prayed night and day for his escape from the same fate. She recruited all the nursing mothers in the village to come to nurse him whenever they could. Miraculously, he survived.
She wasn’t sad when it slowly became apparent that he was blind and disabled in every way. She was simply grateful that her firstborn was alive. He made her laugh and he made her cry. He gave her the gift of boundless patience and he sucked all prejudice out of her.
She had Aunt Nadia two years after him and after that, she had a child almost every year. My father was the youngest of eleven children.
Aunt Nadia became her mother’s companion and right hand. She took on the role of the eldest child, whereas Uncle Waheed took on the role of the youngest. His siblings adored him despite the startling noises he made and the help he needed. He was the one that comforted them when they grazed a knee or fell off a swing. He would bring his tatty blanket and sleep next to whichever child was ill or sad. The next morning that sibling would jump out of bed, good as new.
One day, when Uncle Waheed was about eleven years old, their neighbour came to bake bread with his mother. By the end of the visit, she asked my grandmother if she could take Waheed with her to a family gathering at her in-laws’ place in the neighbouring village.
“My mother raised an eyebrow in surprise,” said Aunt Nadia.
“That is very strange!” I said, “why would you want to take a disabled stranger to visit your relatives?”
“She said that she felt sorry for him being stuck at home and never venturing outside of our orchards,” said Aunt Nadia ruefully.
“And did your mother allow it?”
“She didn’t want to, but my father, who happened to be dropping off groceries, said it was a great idea. So he told Om Hassan that yes, Waheed could go!”
That evening, Om Hassan and her five children stopped by and loaded Uncle Waheed onto their cart and were gone for the entire evening. My grandmother was sick with worry. She didn’t talk with her husband the whole evening until he was brought back. He had sweets in his hand and seemed happy.
Over the next few weeks, the requests for Waheed to accompany people grew exponentially. Relatives, neighbours, and even workers in our field.
“My mother would say no, and my father would say yes, but her attempts to say no weakened when she saw that Waheed wasn’t unhappy when he came back. Perhaps it was good that he was popular after all,” said Aunt Nadia.
“I mean,” I said, “perhaps it was good for his social skills development?”
She shook her head, shutting her eyes angrily.
“One morning, my aunt, my father’s younger sister, came to our house huffing and puffing,” Aunt Nadia continued, “she wouldn’t sit down. She was fuming. I went into the room carrying a tray with tea, but she refused to take it. She was screaming at my parents and pointing at Waheed with tears in her eyes.”
“What did he do?” I gasped.
“He didn’t do anything. She was livid that my parents were “using him” that way.”
It turned out that Om Hassan, the first neighbour who asked for his company, had done so because she noticed that Uncle Waheed was “jinxed”. Every time she was there, she observed something unfortunate happening around him. The coffee would boil over or an egg would fall from a nest and break or food would burn on the stove. He would always be looking "strangely" at the misfortune while it was about to happen.
“Being the stupid cow that she was, she thought he was causing these things rather than just anticipating them. She tested her theory by borrowing him that first night to go to her in-laws. It turns out that her good-for-nothing husband was remarrying and she wanted Waheed to “ruin the wedding with his evil”.”
I swallowed hard.
“Sure enough, the bride was dancing when her white dress caught on fire from a candle or something! It was mayhem apparently. Satisfied, Om Hassan then collected the children and brought Waheed home.”
“What a horrible woman!”
“Well, her husband was deserting her and her children for another woman, so I would understand her rage, but I pray every day that she burns in hell for what she did to Waheed. To us!”
“She didn’t hurt him, did she?” I put my hands to my mouth.
“Not physically, no. But she would go around the village with her foul mouth and tell everyone about her victory. Soon Waheed was used by more stupid women to “ruin” weddings, harvests or even simple family lunches!”
“Poor uncle Waheed!”
“Well, luckily, he wasn’t aware of anything. He was in a good mood when he came back carrying bags of sweets to share with us. I think that in his mind, he was proud of himself for pointing out that the bride’s dress had caught on fire so they could save her from burning alive, or that a beam was falling from a ceiling, so they could quickly move a sleeping baby from underneath it.”
“What a gift! I wish he were still alive,” I whispered.
“Me too. Life was so much better with him around. He warded off many a disaster. But he was an angel on earth, and angels don’t last on this evil earth long. They are placed among us to soften our hearts, show us what miracles can be realised, and help us let go of control. I am sure that he summoned my mother up to him in the good place, where he is treated well. And very soon, I will join them!” She nodded, smiling to herself.
I cried all the way back to school.
That evening, I asked my father to tell me what happened after the angry aunt scolded her brother and sister-in-law. He said he hadn’t been born yet, but his mother had told him that she and her husband couldn’t sleep all night. The village regarded their helpless child as a Jinn-possessed, disaster bringing force.
My grandfather felt particularly guilty, foolish and humiliated. They packed all of their belongings and moved to Damascus the next day. It was a different story here in Damascus. After saving that baby girl's life, Uncle Waheed became some kind of a celebrity.
A year or two later, he got sick. He developed a high fever, and his white eyes stopped darting from side to side. He was reticent and immobile as he huddled in his mother’s bed. For a week, his siblings sang to him and stroked his hair while his mother held him, refusing to leave his side. Legend has it moments before he died, he became a beautiful boy with smooth, glowy skin. Brilliant light emanated from his pores as he sniffed his mother’s hair and whispered, “Don’t be sad. I will see you soon.”