By the grace of God, all four of his children were with him to say goodbye.
Along the years, I’ve learned there is no such thing as a perfect parent. My Baba was neither a perfect man nor a perfect parent. No one is. But in my heart, I’ve always seen him as perfect even though in my mind I was aware of his imperfections.
My father was my one constant. I was always certain that there was this one person in my life who would do absolutely anything for me. He took care of me and my brothers and sister till his last breath. When we were university students, my father would come from Saudi Arabia where he worked to visit me and my brother in Egypt for a few days every few months and cook lots and lots of food that would go into the deep freezer. He absolutely refused to allow me to learn to cook so I could focus on nothing but my studies. As an adult, if I stayed at his house for a few days, he still washed my clothes. Which reminds me of the day some years ago when he picked up one my of very old bras in the laundry and called out, “Whose dead mouse is this??” At my despicable age, my sister and I would still run to our Baba when we had a disagreement: “Baba, Aisha did such and such!” He’d give a deep sigh, gently close his eyes, and listen to our complaints, muttering under his breath, “Mafeesh fayda [there’s no hope].”
When I was a little girl, I’d walk behind my father to place my feet in his footsteps thinking that maybe that way I’d grow up to be like him. I think that’s how I got my hard headedness “دماغي الجزمة”.
My Baba was a very passionate man.
His first and foremost passion was his children. He wanted us to be the best we could ever be. He pushed us to study hard. I remember getting a B on an exam in the 6th grade and getting a long talk from Baba. “You are so much better than a B,” he told me. He explained that I should give my all to whatever I do. Baba is behind my constant strive for perfectionism – that thing that drives most of my co-workers nuts.
My Baba could be one very scary dude at times. He literally made grown men cry as my sister will confirm. When my sister and I reached a marriageable age, we started getting suitors, as one does in Egypt. My father was a suitor interrogator. No one – really…no one – was good enough for his daughters. One day I asked my Baba why he said no to every young man who asked for my hand in marriage. He told me, “You are not going to get married until you finish your studies and graduate from college.” I asked him why he was even accepting suitors into our house in that case. “I’m scanning the market so I know what to expect when you do graduate,” he laughed, quite irritatingly I might add.
And that doesn’t even describe the half of how scary my Baba could be. Just as a simple example, Baba was driving in Cairo one day with my sister and brother in the car. Probably moving too slowly, he angered the driver of one of those menacing red public busses we have in the city. As he passed by my Baba’s car, the driver yelled out some obscenity to my father referring to his long beard. Baba got out of the car, opened the trunk, took out the crow bar, and rushed to the bus driver’s door to beat the shit out of him. Evidently and luckily for that driver, people held my father back and he was unable to achieve his goal. Anyone who has seen me get out of my own car in a storm of road rage will now know where that comes from.
My Baba worked very hard to give off that scary persona. He was quite proud of it. But my brothers and sister and I and people who knew him could easily see behind that scary exterior. My Baba was actually a very mushy, loving, and kind man. He had a growl that made me run when I was young. But as I grew just a bit older, I saw through him and would only laugh and roll my eyes saying, “Baba!” I tried using that growl on my own children sometimes. I get the same rolling of the eyes and “Mama!”
Baba was extremely passionate about chemistry. Research and teaching were not a job to him. They were so much more. His students were almost as important to him as his children. I’ve been with him so many times going through an airport or walking on the street and a young man or woman would come up to him to kiss him on the hand or give him a hug. After a short, loving conversation, my father would tell me that was one of his students.
My father was also picked up like that on the street in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia by complete strangers. My Baba did not only look scary. He also gave off an air of … let’s say sainthood or holiness, بركة baraka in Arabic. And my father really knew how to work it! This baraka quite frequently worked to our advantage. Baba would get special VIP treatment because of it sometimes. More importantly, it got me and my sister more suitors. One night, my sister and I – many years after we both married – were in Mecca with my father doing a small pilgrimage umrah. We stepped onto the bus to head off to our car after we were done but my father was held back by someone on the street. When he eventually boarded the bus I asked him who that was. He told me it was a man – a complete stranger – who was asking if he could have the hand of one of his daughters in marriage. My sister and I spent many a night arguing about which of us that man was actually targeting. My Baba’s only statement to these arguments was that the man targeted him and not us. He just wanted to be related to my Baba and his baraka. I cannot tell you how many times along the years I heard that. My Baba adored being adored.
My Baba was one of the greatest storytellers alive. One of my favorite things about Baba was that he’d forget (or feign to forget) that he told us one story from his past or another and tell it to us all over again. Many times. For years. I loved that because it meant that I could hear him tell the story again. The stories we heard most were from his childhood. But he also loved to tell a good dirty joke. My father had a favorite joke that involved shit. And anytime he could make a play on words and come out with the Arabic word for fart, he’d do so. Baba would also say “and as the saying goes” a lot. But there was never a real saying to follow that. He’d just say another normal sentence. And we’d all laugh and say “Baba! That’s not a saying!” And he’d innocently look at us with a “huh?” expression on his face. I loved listening to my Baba speak.
My Baba was a great patriot. He loved Egypt. He loved Egypt so much that even though he married an American woman (my mother) and lived in the United States for some 25 years, he never applied for American citizenship. My father had problems with the Egyptian government for years at the time of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. While studying for his PhD in the United States, he made a political statement that resulted in an order from the Egyptian government to return immediately. Had he done this, he would have been thrown in jail. So he was forced to remain in the United States for many years, unable to go home. The easiest thing in the world would have been for him to become American. He never did. He would never be anything but an Egyptian, he’d tell us.
My Baba raised us in the United States but fed us an unsurpassable love for Egypt. He eventually brought us to Egypt where my brothers and sister and I all went to university. He’d continue to work, however, in Saudi Arabia for the rest of his life. My Baba loved Egypt, but found living in it extremely difficult. He never ceased to complain about the stifling political environment, the corruption, the chaos, the filth. My Baba was a very ill man in his final few years. But when the revolution of January 25, 2011 erupted, he was given a new breath of life. My sister and I were his only two children in the country at the time. And we were women. But every morning he’d send us both out to Tahrir along with our girlfriends telling us to go topple that dictator, fully aware of the danger involved. I’d come home every evening to tell him about the gun fire, the tear gas, the deaths. He was proud. And he’d just push us on. On the day of the infamous Battle of the Camels, he sat at home watching the atrocities happening on TV. He called me on my cell phone as I stood on top of a tank at the front lines to make sure I was all right. I told him I was fine and explained the scenes in front of me. He told me to take care of myself. And that was that. I walked into the house that night, exhausted. My father was sitting in his favorite lazy boy chair watching the news on TV. I looked him in the eye, shook my head, and he smiled with a twinkle in his eye. One day, he decided he wanted to visit Tahrir. He could barely walk but nevertheless he did the rounds in Tahrir and thanked every soldier, doctor and revolutionary he could for bringing change to Egypt. He kissed some of their hands to honor them. He eventually sat down on his small folding stool while people gathered around him to listen to the stories of the man of baraka. My father told stories of Egypt’s greatness. He urged the young men and women listening to him to continue their struggle for freedom. My father lived to witness that. Alhamdulillah. Thanks to Allah.
Baba, I’ll miss your hugs. I’ll miss you being the last person I call from the plane as I go somewhere in the world and the first person I call when I return – just as the plane lands on the tarmac. I’ll miss you being the one person that calls me while I’m away to make sure I’m all right. I’ll miss you giving me twenty Egyptian Pounds that you find lying around somewhere so I can get myself something. I’ll miss your smile, your deep belly laugh, the twinkle in your eyes, and how you roll your eyes in exasperation at us. I’ll miss your complaining. I loved your complaining. It was never from the heart and we all knew it. I’ll miss seeing your eyes light up every time one of your grand children walked into the house. Oh how you loved your grand children and how they love you. I’ll miss your stories. I’ll miss your tears.
I haven’t lost my father. I will miss him more than any words can describe. But he is a part of me. I can feel him in me. He has left me with the one love I could always depend on. I will cherish that forever.
I love you, Baba. Be at peace now.