My father was sat in his office at our home in the UK when the phone rang. It was my uncle’s wife calling from their home in Salzburg.
“Farag is dead.”
It was sudden and unexpected.
In the days following his death, there was no funeral announcement in the city he’d made his home for almost two decades, nor was there an open house to receive mourners. Instead, what followed was a frantic effort by his sisters, of whom two were also living in exile in Spain and the UK, to lay his body to rest.
He returned to Tripoli seven days later, received by his brother-in-law and nephews, and was buried streets away from where he was born.
My aunt had been ill for some time, and was in Jordan for treatment. When it became apparent that she was nearing the end of her life, and fearing she would die away from her homeland and family, my father and two cousins accompanied her on a plane back to Libya.
She died a couple of days later at my grandparent’s home in Tripoli, surrounding by her siblings and their children. My father was flying back home to the UK at the time of her passing. The news was broken to him on the phone as he sat in his car at the airport.
My aunt was sent out of my grandparent’s home with tears and ululations, and was buried alongside her parents, whom she cared for in their old age, the following day.
My father had just come back home after running errands. He sat down in his office to return a call from his sister-in-law. She was in Tunisa accompanying my uncle for medical treatment.
A stranger answered the phone in a hushed tone, and amidst the cries of my uncle’s wife.
“The man is already dead.”
It was the paramedic.
His wife boarded a plane that evening, the body of my uncle in tow, and the funeral was arranged in Tripoli the next day. The flight was cancelled due to fighting near the airport at Misrata, and passengers were ordered off the plane with their luggage, the body of my uncle among them. They finally arrived in Tripoli the following day, and the burial took place after maghrib prayer.
The extended family are a lifeline for the exile, and for as long as they live, their hope of reconciliation. They are a peephole through which they may see themselves. And so with the death of a family member, the exile mourns the loss not only of the individual, but a larger and more abstract entity: home. The lifeline is weaker, the peephole is more occluded, and the risk of “severing the connection to the source”, as Hisham Matar describes, becomes a greater reality.
But even before we experience the deaths of our loved ones, we have mourned our separation from them, and from our homeland. And so mourning becomes less of a phase to be superseded on their passing, but a political condition of existence. In our homeland’s turbulent political and economic state, mourning serves as a form of political resistance, and a means of maintaining our connection with her.
Perhaps the motherland too feels the pain of separation and distance. In a poem by Libyan poet and survivor of the Italian occupation, Fatima Uthman, she writes of those who have fled the homeland in exile in the same vein as those who had died. “Oh my homeland” she laments, “you are twice ruined, all have left you; some fled in exile, and others hung or murdered”.
Besides the pains of separation, there is also the fear of dying in exile: of dying out of place, of being buried in a barren land, alone. In the immediate aftermath of my uncle’s death in Austria, my uncle’s death in Tunisia, and in the midst of my aunt’s declining health in Jordan, the greatest pain was not of their illness or passing, for “every soul shall taste death”, but the prospect that they may die, or worse still, be laid to rest away from their homeland and family. Mahmoud Darwish writes in his work In the Presence of Absence: “They put us on trial: why were you born here? We said: why was Adam born in paradise?”. That I was born in Tripoli suddenly became consoling and critical. In my grief I misassigned a meaning to it, perhaps undeservedly. That we rode through the lands as we did, and ended up in a town in the north of England was our destiny, and as Allah reminds us in the Qur’an: “no person knows in what land he will die”.