My Aunt Halima

"Fatima Ghandour"

We called her Aunt Halima. Even as children, we could tell that she was the closest person to my mother's heart. Upon marrying my father, my mother Halima had left her village of Qom, located almost 2000 km from the capital, Tripoli. She became the head of a large family: a husband, his three siblings, and the six of us. Our Aunt Halima was my mother’s confidant. For as far as we can remember, she would spend time at our house, and sit intimately with my mother over tea. A beautiful, elegant woman, we jumped for joy whenever she came to visit.

She always arrived with an expertly organized bag; she was a packing engineer! She placed her kaftans in a corner, the rest of her clothes laid out comfortably. In summer, lengths of light fabric would shine brightly in her favorite colors: shades of blue, pink, red, orange, green and turquoise, and in winter, she always brought her striped coat. She also packed a small, embellished box for her gold jewelry. In the corner of her suitcase was a bag of candy, which she saved for when we did a good job of helping our mother with chores, or when we ran out to buy Aunt Halima whatever she needed. 

She stayed with us for days or weeks on end, and sometimes longer. She helped us prepare desserts, and she was never afraid to express her frustrations when we failed to meet her expectations. What brought me closest to her was her flexibility and openness. She would support me even when I made mistakes; "Life is fleeting. Leave Fatouma be, my sister Halima." 

When I grew up, and my father bought us a car, I would often go visit her, and my parents knew that if I was out late, there was only one place I could be: Aunt Halima's house. She had inherited the house on Sa'idiya Street in Mizran from her husband. It had a well in its center, safer than the one in my grandfather's southern village. The high ceilings formed a wide canvas for the radiant sun. Some of the windows overlooked the alley; she planted Arab roses, flowers and cacti on their sills.

I loved her cooking, which she prepared flawlessly. I watched her make soup, couscous, and bean stew. Her salads baffled me; she always found the perfect balance of vegetables; tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and mint. Her seasoning was a concoction of lemon, two tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of salt, and dried mint. Whenever I tried to lend a hand in the kitchen, she insisted that I stay away. 

 

In this photograph, dated December 28, 2004, she was in her eighties. She had insisted on attending my master's thesis defense at the University of Tripoli, and had helped my siblings and my sister-in-law to prepare sweet and savory meals for the attendees. 

A year earlier, she had burned her back. When the electricity in her house went out one day, she lit a candle and placed it in a corner, but her clothes caught fire. Before she could put the fire out, it claimed a large portion of her back. When I took her to the Burns and Plastic Surgery Hospital, the doctor was impressed by her test results, particularly her heart rate and blood picture. I will never forget my anxiety while she was in the operating room, before the doctor came out to give us the good news; her body had responded well to the surgery. From that day onwards, despite her stubbornness and the love and support of her good neighbors, we never let her spend the night alone. 

 

In our house on the day she died–two days after this photograph was taken–one of her relatives called to tell me that my Aunt Halima wanted to be taken to our house. She had experienced pain in her chest, and was admitted to a clinic to run some tests. In my car, she spoke enthusiastically, smiling and serene as usual. "My heart can no longer take it, and this winter is brutal," she said. So I teased her: "Someone who has conquered life the way you have would never be defeated by winter." She laughed, pulled her cloak around herself, and said: "The night you are destined to spend in the grave you must spend in the grave. I have loved the life I lived."

In our recent COVID-19 isolation, my Aunt Halima’s spirit has comforted and consoled me.

Born in Tripoli, she is a writer and researcher, as well as a professor at the Faculty of Arts and Media, University of Tripoli. She has several published books including “Libyan Folk Tales: A Sociological Study,” “Carriers of Secrets (Narratives of Barak Al-Shati),” and “Mohammed Al-Zuawi: The Pleasure of Satire.”

Fatima Ghandour
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