Goodbye Mama Sabeeha

A column cried by Naif Al-Mutawa

Children depend on routine. It comforts them, gives them security. Weekends are the break in routine for children, a sort of new routine in itself, a change of pace all kids look forward to. I grew up the most fortunate of kids. My grandmother, Mama Sabeeha, was a significant part of both my weeks and my weekends.

As her neighbor, visiting her house when I was done with my schoolwork was a treat. I remember those days as if they were yesterday. I remember walking over to her house with a book that I wanted to read and sitting in her garden reading before the sun would set. Often times she would chase me indoors when she saw me squinting trying to squeeze the last drop of light from the sun to get another word or two in. If I were lucky I would sneak in a quick dinner at her house before going home and feigning hunger for a second dinner at my own home. It is funny how our definitions of luck change with age. Today I consider myself lucky if I am able to skip a meal.

I remember the myriad of times I stormed into her house crying because of the unfairness of the world. My father did this. My mother said that. Why did I have to do things I hated? My hair wasn’t that long. My clothes weren’t that tight. I wasn’t that fat. Life was unfair. She would always listen and give me the best advice she could. Typically, she would calm me down, and remind me that no matter what, I had to listen to my parents. They knew better. It always seemed more reasonable when she said it. But she always listened. Even into my adult life.

Wednesday nights were Mama Sabeeha nights. Wednesday was weekend eve in Kuwait while I was growing up, I was allowed to take a book and spend the night at my grandmother’s each week. She would allow me to stay up slightly longer than usual as long as I was reading. As her oldest grandchild, there weren’t any contemporaries to take my attention from the pages I was glued to. Those nights always ended the same way. I would be allowed to sleep in her room with my book under my pillow. And when the lights were turned out I would call out “Goodnight Mama Sabeeha” before turning on my side. She always fell asleep before I did.

Wednesdays were the days I always looked forward to because I knew that I would be able to spend all Thursday morning reading.

I remember one morning in particular when she invited me down to the basement of her house. She led me straight to the wall opposite the stairs we had come down. And as we turned to the right, there was a wall full of books. I had seen those books before but they had no meaning to me. That day she told me they were my mother’s books and that she had been an avid reader as a child as well, just like me! The books that were empty pages on a wall became my new treasure trove. I began flipping through them as she smiled and turned away. While my attention was on the books, she went back up the stairs into her bedroom, leaving me alone. I told her years later that that little moment was a very important event in my relationship with reading.

My grandmother had been ill for quite some time. She had a dialysis routine that tied her to the hospital on a regular schedule. But each Thursday, no matter how she felt, she invited everyone to her table. Mama Sabeeha lived her life that the ethic of Islam rests on generosity. And she was as generous of heart as she was of purse to all those, family and strangers, who came to her table.

I always considered it my Thursday mission to make her laugh at least once during my visit. I knew that if I ran out of my best material, I could always get her with my backup strategy of asking if we were having the same old Thursday chicken again (a day reserved for fish for as long as I can remember.) That joke never tired her. She always laughed. And I choose to believe she meant it each time.

Last summer my parents flew to Beirut while violence again raged there on the heels of yet another assassination. My grandmother was hospitalized at the time and was clearly worried about them. I told her that my father decided to go to Beirut because the flights to Baghdad were all sold out. She laughed so loud that her blood pressure shot up and I made my quiet escape. I smiled, kissed her forehead and said my goodbye. Mission accomplished.

Mama Sabeeha passed away on Saturday, January 12th. She left behind 8 children, 30 grandchildren and 23 great-grandchildren all of whose lives she had become a central part of and all of whom love her very much. On that sad Saturday, history repeated itself for me when again, without a word, and while my attention was elsewhere, my dear grandmother again went upstairs leaving me alone with my books. She has fallen asleep before me, before all of us.

Today is my first Wednesday without her. There will be no book to share. Tomorrow there will be no fish. But I will think of her more than ever.

Good night Mama Sabeeha.

Goodbye Mama.