Uncle Basset

"Saad Al-Asha"

I only found out about the Chadian–Libyan War when I learned that my paternal uncle, Basset, had fought, and died, in it. It was my first real encounter with death. In the mid 1990s, when I was nearly nine, my father told me how young men had been picked up off the country's sidewalks and forced to join a war they knew nothing about. This absurdity began in 1978, and ended in 1987; a decade with neither a substantial presence in our memories nor a reliable historical record. 

I looked for photos of my uncle, hoping to find a thread to connect me to his brief life. I noticed, for instance, that he smiled in most of his photographs. In this one, his smile is as captivating as my cousin Lobna's, who’s wrapped in his arms. The photo was taken in a traditional Libyan courtyard. It is probably early morning; our house is facing east, and Basset and Lobna are facing north. The sunshine nearly collides with the rusted water tank. But I didn’t inquire about the exact date it was taken; what's the point in investigating the time that death has separated us from?

In our Islamic heritage, we don’t cling to the dead. We believe that they’re "Alive and provided for by their Lord," even if the verse was actually referring to our martyrs. I remember how my grandmother couldn’t forget that the body of her teenage son had never made it home. Basset's tragedy was the tragedy of thousands of soldiers lost to the war, but a tragedy’s prevalence does nothing to placate the pain; each family still longs for their own farewell, even if it were in the form of receiving bones that do not add up to a body. 

 

I located the photograph at my maternal uncle’s house, who also happened to be Basset's cousin. I found out that my parents got divorced six months after I was born before I learned that they were relatives. The two families are still close, and I’m attached to both of them; I grew up among my mother's brothers, and I always spent time at my father's brothers’ house. (I see their courtyard at the top of the same photograph.) The water tank survived until I was nearly 30; it is older than I am, and has witnessed losses and gains that I missed, including my uncle's life, and his death. It is not strange to find the photo at my mother's brother's house; he has many photos of my paternal uncles, who in turn have many photos of my maternal uncles. 

Memory loss is bearable, as is a relentless memory. Forgetting may conceal the intensity of our emotions–especially towards the dead–while remembering every detail sometimes leads to the consecration of the departed. In both cases, the visual memory of my uncle extends beyond the control of the image, and the memory of the house remains tied to the courtyard, with its football field and barbecues–where I encountered the family house at the height of its bustle. 

There is no magic formula for growing up. I don’t often think about whether I would have felt differently about the memory of my uncle if I wasn’t this close to the house and the family. My uncle died before he turned 20; he didn’t have the luxury of contemplation I have now. I didn’t get a chance to figure out what was going on behind his smile so I could fully understand its magic. Lobna is the only one who can translate this experience, at that specific place and that specific time. We know that time changes a place, but that one’s home is immutable. 

I learned about the concept of home from the pre-Islamic poets. We make nomadic nests that release no roots or lineage; invisible roots that linger like the tents of our ancestors, in their constant movement and inherent silence. Here I am, suffused with belonging and stability in the Libyan sense: as in, adopting a community in its good and bad. I go from my maternal uncles’ house to my second family home, where I hear about the son my grandmother lost, and here I am, in the place that housed him for two incomplete decades; this nomadic nest–albeit esoteric–affords me exploration and questioning. 

Born in Al-Bayda, he is a filmmaker, translator, and article writer. Some of his works have been published in several international journalistic websites.

Saad Al-Asha
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