Via Basel: Unspoken Lessons
For the last year I have been working on archiving and digitizing my family’s history, mostly pictures, documents, and recordings. It is a huge undertaking and a work in progress, but it has allowed me to peek into the past, bringing up a variety of memories, sweet and sad. Presently, I am spending more time with my two granddaughters, Sophie, 5, and Ava, 3, experiencing the joy as well as the challenges of dealing with children raised in a different time and place than when I was their age.
Hence this post:
I called him “Baba-Jiddu” which was unusual since in Arabic, Baba stands for dad, and Jiddu for grandpa, but from early on I made up the combo and it stuck.
A favorite memory of my maternal grandpa, Abdul-Ahad, or “Baba-Jiddu,” was assisting him in counting the church collection following Sunday’s Mass, before he took it to his office to place it in his large safe. Those were the early 1950s in Baghdad: he was a successful merchant and I was 7 years old. I remember vividly his office in a souk in the central commercial district, the narrow passages, the sounds and sights of storekeepers selling merchandise or making pots and pans from tin sheets, the winding steep stairway to the spacious second floor where the center is open to view from the covered roof down to the main floor. Finally we snake around the inner balcony to reach his main office, a large room with an imposing desk, large couch, cabinets, and chairs and in the corner the massive, heavy, and stable safe. It all fascinated me as a young boy, observing him deal with customers, opening the safe to deposit important documents as well as cash. In short he was also a mini bank of these times. His word was as good as a legal document; all trusted him, including the church since he was the treasurer, accountant, and safe keeper, all in one. His honesty and integrity were unapproachable.
For the first six years of my life we (mom, dad, and younger sister) lived in his Big House in the Saadoun neighborhood, but even after we moved to our own home we were only a few blocks away. He was a constant presence in my life these years. In previous posts here at EIL I detailed our rituals together, early morning tea, afternoon naps in the sunken room, and in the evening accompanying him to the tea cafés where the men played backgammon and dominoes. Honestly I cannot remember him being angry or scolding me or anybody else for that matter. He was the epitome of kindness with a broad smile most of the time. Yet he was no pushover and commanded respect with just his presence and actions. A man of few words yet he articulated a firm message when necessary.
As the above picture clearly shows he showered his wife, my grandma Kaloola, with love and adoration throughout their 49 years of marriage until her untimely death from illness in 1970.
Later on, as I recalled these early decades in Baghdad, I was struck by his generosity and giving of his wealth to charities, his church, and helping the extended family as they moved from Mosul to Baghdad. He gave to his children early and often, all six of them, education, trips, weddings, houses, etc. Yes, he was well off to start with, but by the time he passed away, although he was comfortable, he had gotten rid of most of his fortune. It seems he enjoyed giving and was not worried about himself. Of course in the tradition of these times and cultures it was also the offspring’s duty, especially the sons, to take care of their parents.
I don’t ever recall him giving me advice or a lecture. Yet the values and traits of honesty, integrity, kindness, and generosity that he carried on with his actions in everyday life were much more powerful and effective that any spoken word. As I move into the final chapters of my life, I hope to emulate him more and more, and in my writings show his example to others, since less is more when it comes to mentoring.
“By their actions they shall be known.”
Basel Al-Aswad, father of EIL founder Christopher Al-Aswad, is a yogi trapped in an Orthopedic Surgeon’s body. His loves in life include reading, writing, hiking, enjoying nature, meditation, and spending time with his large Iraqi family, and now, semi-retired, he is exploring new avenues in medicine, education, public speaking, and social engagement.