I stared guiltily at the flimsy papers filled with typed notes. 'My name is Alice Antonious Assad,' the narrative began. I had forgotten about this. I had forgotten about my promise. It was only while rummaging through my files that I came across the fragile papers and the memories flooded back.
It's been almost 10 years since my beloved grandmother passed away. The pain at the time had been so strong that I had put her most precious belonging away: a manuscript of her life story.
A few years before her death, our family managed to flee from war-torn Beirut. The civil war was in full swing. Our home had been repeatedly shelled. My parents and sisters went to the US, while my grandmother went to live with her daughter in London. Every summer we travelled to London to be with my grandmother. The move was difficult for her. 'This is the second time in my life I find myself fleeing and leaving my home and belongings behind,' she used to tell me with a sigh.
The first time was in 1948 when the state of Israel was created. She and her two daughters had then made their way to Lebanon.
Half-jokingly, I once replied, 'Nana, you should write a book about it.'
The following summer, Nana presented me with a few typed papers.
'I am doing what you said,' she said proudly. 'And you are going to write my life story.'
Nana worked hard typing up her memoirs. A summer later, she presented me with a 40-page manuscript.
But I had just started university at the time and was overwhelmed with studies. I put it aside. A few weeks before her death, she asked me whether I had started to work on her biography. Her look of disappointment was unmistakable when I acknowledged that I had not.
'That's all right,' she said smiling. 'You'll do it. Just don’t forget me. Please.’
'I'll never forget you, Nana,' I promised. 'I'll write it up.'
She passed away that summer and I had lost the most wonderful person I knew. I put away her manuscript.
The war ended in Lebanon and I moved back to Beirut. The years passed and I became a journalist. And then, a few weeks ago, I came across the manuscript. For the first time, I began to read the notes. And for the first time I began to see my grandmother - not as my Nana who brought me sweets and endlessly played with me, but as a woman who early in the last century would have been called a feminist.
Born under Ottoman rule, but raised in British-mandate Palestine, she spoke fluent English and faithfully followed English traditions - until she passed away, she insisted on having tea at five o'clock every day. Defying all Arab norms in those days, she attended university and travelled to Baghdad to become a teacher. I continued to read enthralled as tales of love, war, sacrifice and betrayal unfolded in front of me. In her late twenties - a scandalously late age - she married. Her husband, however, fell into heavy debt and died soon after. She was left alone with two young daughters. Again defying Arab norms, she refused to remarry and insisted on bringing up her children unaided. In 1948, she and her children fled to Lebanon with the thousands of Palestinian refugees escaping the nascent Israeli army. She enrolled in a typing class and became an executive secretary.
'Never accept financial help from anyone,' she used to tell me. 'That way your children will never have to bow down to anyone.'
In a modern setting her story would seem normal. But in the 1920s, an Arab woman - a career woman - living on her own was considered quite scandalous.
She had one wish before she died: to be cremated and her ashes buried in Palestine. Knowing that the Israeli authorities tend to refuse such requests, her ashes were smuggled into Jerusalem where she was buried near her family. She was home once again.
On 28 June 2002 my daughter, Yasmine Alice, was born. My grandmother would have loved her namesake.
I have recently started to work on the manuscript. I now owe it to both my grandmother and my daughter.
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