The Hakeem of Saida

I lost my uncle Moueen yesterday. My mother broke the news to me and I didn’t understand it at first. It came as a total surprise. I knew he was struggling with certain health issues, but clearly didn’t realise the extent. Didn’t even cross my mind that this was even on the cards for him. As I understand it, he was sure he’d be out of hospital. Typically when I write these eulogies about my family they are a method of working through the pain. I am usually crying. I am almost always a little distraught.

This time however I am completely numb.

Lebanon in the 1980s, the country was at war. It didn’t really matter to my parents. Summers meant we were in Lebanon visiting family. To this day the how remain unknown, but it felt that a new car would be adopted into the wider family every single year.

And so it came to be, that sometime in the late 1980s my father would borrow his uncle Moueen’s gold Pontiac (or some extra long American car) for the summer. This car was entirely out of place in the tiny little town of Saida. It was not designed for roads designed within an old town with its own idiosyncrasies. It stood out, and was so awkward to manoeuvre anywhere. People would get out of their way offering guidance, like Navy Catapult Officers guiding a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. For the entire summer, my dad relished in the fact that everywhere he went he was referred to as ‘Hakeem’ (hakeem being the Arabic word for doctor.) as he went about his business. For that summer, in the moments he was driving that car and having to interact with people, my dad felt like he was the ‘Hakeem of Saida’.

But of course he wasn’t, he was pretending.

That was his Uncle Moueen’s title. It was a title he built over years with dedication, kindness, compassion, morality and exceptional humanity. Much of this service to the wellbeing and health of helpless children, happened before I was born or when I was a child. My father however was there and he saw what was going on. Each act elevating my dad’s reverence to his uncle further and further.

My father’s relationship with his uncle (like his relationship with any of his uncles) was not traditional. In Moueen, he had the older brother he never had. With that relationship came a profound admiration and reverence, which probably explained his obsession with one of his kids becoming a doctor. For my father, there really was nothing greater that could be achieved than becoming a doctor. A concept that was developed and moulded around one of his real life heros.

My very first recollection of my uncle was on one of his many trips to our house in Athens. My mother had prepared a massive spread (as she would do regularly) in honour of my uncle’s visit. At the end of the meal, I remember asking him how the heart worked.

My mother rolled her eyes. My dad dismissed my request outright. My uncle would proceed to try and educate my 9 year old mind about the inner workings of the heart. I remember nothing of what he said, but sitting on his lap while he talked, made me feel safe.

He occupied a space in my heart that is difficult to express fully, but I will try. Over the years I would meet up with him both in the UK and Lebanon. During the days we would spend together I would get to know him a little better. I would observe his words, which were meticulously chosen. His points were poignantly made. His demeanour, calm and collected. He carried a childlike enthusiasm for all things.

His eyes would widen. His thick bushy eyebrows would become animated. This was always on display when he would show me (or tell me) about his latest woodworking project. While medicine was his vocation, he true love was carpentry. He took exceptional pride in the craft and had dreamed of following in his own father’s footsteps. His father was not supportive of that path for his youngest son. The dedication to woodworking would have to wait until his retirement years.

We would talk about politics and authors. My favourite recommendation of his was Leo the African by Amin Maalouf. To this day, it remains one of my favourite books.

He would talk about history as though he lived through this period himself. Assured of his facts and the reasons behind each element of a story. For me, these conversations were unique in that I would rarely have this breadth with someone else.

I do hold some regret because it was too long since I had reached out to him. I remember the last conversation was a rambling one as I explained my reasons for leaving Denmark and what I hoped to achieve in Canada.

Moving countries and being caught up in everything that goes into settling into a new country. The reality being that I took his presence for granted. Sadly we don’t live forever.

I know that my uncle Moueen was a man that lived with integrity and that his life is to be celebrated. True role models are not common in our world. People in your life that you can look up to and can admire for what they brought to the world. We should all be lucky to have even a fraction of the impact this man, born the youngest of his siblings, would have on the world.

I don’t want to feel sad, because my uncle lived a full life and was able to leave this place better than how he had found it. He made an impact on countless lives. He is a lesson that few will be able to replicate.

Ok, I lied the last sentences have made me cry.