My Grandmother and Her Grandmother’s Photo

"Badreldin Al-Warfaly"

In this photo, my grandmother is looking at a photo of her own grandmother, who died more than 60 years ago. Because I wanted to capture my grandmother’s expression when she saw her in the photograph–many years after she last laid eyes on her–I made sure to take this photograph. 

My grandmother had no idea that this photograph of her grandmother, which I had found by coincidence, even existed. My friend, haj Mohamed Amoush, and I were sitting near the shrine of Sidi Al-Sha‘ab, immersed in conversation, when the name of a family from Tripoli came up. I had done some research on the life of one of its members from the 19th century. “My grandmother’s grandmother carries the same family name,” I told Mohamed. “But I don’t know if she’s related to them.” Resourceful and impulsive, Mohamed then immediately made a phone call to a man he knew who shared my great great grandmother’s name. To our surprise, he told him that he had kept a photograph of her, and that he himself was the child standing beside her in that photo. 

The photo was delivered to me in less than an hour. As soon as I saw it, I realized that I had made a great discovery.  I’ve always been obsessed with old stories and the faces of the men and women in my family tree. Finding a photo of a grandparent or a great grandparent might be easy, but to stumble upon a photo of the grandparents of your grandparents is a whole other story. 


My penchant for history derives from my curiosity about my grandmother, but also my grandfather, who left an even stronger impression on me. My grandmother’s stories weren’t about history per say, but she told me many. There is the one about how when she was a child, a group of foreign photographers took her picture in Sabratha while she was playing with other little girls. She thought it was a compliment that they chose her over the other children; perhaps it meant they thought she looked tidy and well-dressed. When she went home, her mother scolded her, fearing her father or older brother would one day find the picture published in a magazine. I sometimes fantasize about finding that photograph. I had asked her once to record her as she recounted that story in detail, in the hopes that the recording would be proof when I one day found the photo, though I also knew that the chances were slim. 

My eldest son, Omar, is luckier than me, because he’ll get to enjoy many photos of his parents. He also got to know his father’s grandmother in person. Every Friday evening, Omar accompanies my mother when she visits her own mother. And I know that Omar has managed to weave together a reservoir of memories with his great grandmother.

I eventually managed to find more about my grandmother’s life than just this photo of her grandmother, such as her birthdate, which had been undetermined. My grandmother claims that it had been exactly 40 days since her mother had given birth to her when the Bosseiry earthquake hit. (It was named after the judge of west Tripoli who had passed away at the same time: in the evening of 19 April, 1935.) I always had my reservations when I heard this story. Because as far as I knew, that famous earthquake took place in Tripoli, and my grandmother was born in Al-Qusbat, in the heart of Msallata.

I continued to believe that my grandmother and her mother were confusing one earthquake for another, until Hussein al-Mizdawi sent me a clipping from the diaries of one of the sons’ of Msallata. This is what it said: “On Friday evening, on the 14th of the Islamic month of Muharram 1935/1354, a strange occurrence, like nothing we’d ever seen or heard about from our parents or grandparents, took place. The earth beneath our feet rumbled and the walls shook.” 


This piece of information was vital in determining my grandmothers’ date of birth; I could now tell her with confidence that she was born in early March, in the year 1935.

Born in Tripoli, he studied medicine at Tripoli University and is a researcher in history.

Badreldin Al-Warfaly
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