* Find my original Facebook post here
** Photos and illustration by Sara El-Yafi
My beloved grandmother passed away two days ago.
Mother to five glorious children, wife to former Lebanese Prime Minister Abdallah El-Yafi, a gifted mathematician, and my personal food inquisitor (‘Sara. Eat.’), Hind Al-Azm El-Yafi, lived 93 honorable years.
The pictures attached to this post were taken the last day I saw her. That day, my grandmother was in the ER because of a pneumonia that eventually took her life. Whenever I see my grandmothers, I like to ask them a bunch of existential questions from -what is the meaning of happiness- to -where is the chocolate-. That day, she received the last question I was ever going to ask her: “What is the most valuable lesson you have learned in life?”
She smiled and said one word: “Love.”
“Why love?” I asked.
“Why hate?…” She replied. “When you live this long, you understand that hatred (البغض is the word she used) can never coexist with happiness. Love is the only unerring and infallible human condition and the solver of all harm.” ” الحب معصوم”
My grandmother was born in 1919. A time where women and goats had equal rights, except that goats were mostly free-range mammals and women were not. To add to the onus of her ovaries, those days were mostly isolated, dictated and restricted for almost all people. Life was generally uneducated, autocratic and fatalistic due to the religious and socio-political orders in place. But as with all human conditions, life’s quality often depended on people’s chosen response mechanisms. The truth is the way we choose to rejoin to our circumstances sets the quality of our life. Feelings convey perceptions, and perceptions are choices, and in the end, you get to ultimately choose how your life feels and at what frequency your life vibrates.
My grandmother has always harbored an interesting response mechanism to her surroundings… In the incredibly confessionally-ridden-segregated Lebanon, she sent her Muslim kids to Catholic Jesuit and Franciscan schools in the 40s and 50s (boys went to the former, girls went to the latter) to get their education. If you’re familiar with the Lebanese sociopolitical landscape, you probably know that “inter-faith mixture” in Lebanon today is not very ‘hip’, so I’ll leave it to your imagination to visualize what the 40s must have been like. When asked why she and my grandfather were sending their kids to be raised by the wine-drinking-Jesus-Christ-symbolic-flesh-eating Christian religious order of the Roman Catholic Church, my grandparents would reply “Children must befriend and understand all their compatriots. Where else would they do that?”
Indeed, the Lebanese Prime Minister, the headman of the Lebanese Sunni community, had his kids learn Christian prayers, Christian values and morals and befriend Bernard and Micheline in order for his children to be better Muslim citizens. That was my grandparents’ thinking in the 40s. Resultantly today, my own father and his siblings know everything about both the Bible and the Quran and they think Georges Brassens and Alain Souchon are the sh*t.
I extend more respect to my grandmother for the role that she played as the wife of a high-profile politician and the influence she had on him. It was my grandfather and his cabinet who gave the voting rights to women in Lebanon in 1952, one of the harshest battles in my grandfather’s political career as most of the political clan of that day was against it: the Muslims thought it was “unislamic” and the Christians were afraid of Muslim women (They’re not to be blamed. Sometimes in the morning, I am afraid of me too). Although it may be naive to assume that my grandmother had a direct word in policymaking, I know that when my grandfather got up in the morning to go to work, he was getting up to fight for the rights of ladies like his wife who was equally, if not more, impressive than he was.
I am revisiting these episodes because I would like to resound my grandmother’s last words and put them in serious perspective.
When someone as experienced as my grandmother says that love is the most important lesson she has learned in life, it should not be overlooked. Like most men and women of her generation, my grandmother has witnessed the lunacy of the 20th century from both a civil as well as an official conscious perspective. The 20th century alone has produced 160 million human killings, half of which were perpetrated during a time when the world population was 60 to 75% less than what it is today. We have had 105 wars (not accounting for ‘battles’, and not accounting for the bloodcurdling events perpetrated under regimes of “stable oppression”) with the “smallest war” producing a death toll of 20,000. A new war has erupted every SINGLE year on our planet since 1900; and if you were to go back to every single one of those wars, none of them has yielded the “desired result” of the group that instigated it. None.
And instead of harboring the most awful perception of mankind, my grandmother harbored a belief that only love will save the world. Senile dementia? No. Historical facts. History shows that failure is the only long-term result of every war as the use of force has never yielded any constructive, lasting results for any belligerent initiator. That is history and that is fact. Scholars like to say that the explanation behind such a reality is that nature’s course sets that “civilizations inevitably rise and fall.” To me, they miss a very important detail in that sentence: I believe that civilizations -that are built on aggression- inevitably rise and fall. Yet we have never tested a civilization built on empathy and love as it has simply never existed.
I’d like to believe that human beings are capable of creating such a society because we all share all but 0.01% (1/100th of 1%) of identical genetic sequences. So biologically, as a species, you and I are virtually identical to one another at the level of our genes (literally, 99.99%). Looking around at the diversity within our human race, obviously this 0.01% accounts for a significant difference in how we look, think and behave, but I cannot believe that 0.01% can win over 99.99% every goddamn minute of every goddamn day of human history by setting us apart in hatred and competition to this extent.
We can start rewriting the human narrative by rethinking our institutions together, and laying the groundwork for a compassionate civilization. We can start seeing the rest of the human race as equal, fellow travelers, other species as part of our evolutionary families and the biosphere as our community. Our human default mechanism CAN become love and compassion. But it is a choice. Otherwise, I don’t really see how we’re going to make it.
Many people often seem to be less emotional about the passing of an old person because they’re old. If they die young, it’s a tragedy; if they’re 93, it becomes “life.” Well I find that the treasures carried in the minds of the latter people make them our richest wealths of the world because only they can tell us how wrong we all are, all the time. If you have a grandparent still in good health, or an older parent, ask them, I’ll be damned if any of them vouches for aggression instead of love any day of the week. History has shown us that it does not work, so why continue? We can rewire.
I know my grandmother did. And she died with the hope that maybe one day we will too.