“What can you do when you live in a zoo?”

My sister sent this phrase to me in a text message today, reminding me of a line one of my uncles would often say to make light of life’s ups and downs. Never take anything too seriously always seemed to be the philosophy which guided his life, for better or – as was often the case – for worse.

My sisters and I exchanged memories of our maternal uncle Adel throughout the afternoon after learning this morning that he had passed away (الله يرحمه/God rest his soul). It was a tough and emotional day coming to grips with the idea that I wouldn’t see my uncle again during this life.

 
Me nestled between two of my uncles in Cairo, Uncle Adel on the left

He was in many ways my last living link to my father, who died almost two years ago (الله يرحمه). My father and uncle Adel, the second-eldest of my mom’s male siblings, had become close friends during their days studying electrical engineering at Cairo University. In the early years after graduation and before they crossed 30, they worked together, travelled to places including Kuwait and Bombay, India–adventures I had heard little about growing up, and perhaps they will forever remain a mystery in the crevices of my late father and uncle’s evaporated memories. Both had later decided simultaneously to emigrate to Canada in the late 1970s to complete Master’s studies and pursue their careers.

It was my father’s continual presence at his good friend’s home in Giza that led to his acquaintance with my mom and their eventual marriage.

 

My mom and uncle in 1960s Port Said, Egypt

Since my father and both of his brothers passed away in recent years, it was really Uncle Adel who kept those memories alive for me, which makes his passing more bitter and difficult. I associate Uncle Adel with so many stages in my life because, unlike all of my other uncles and aunts, he would visit us frequently at our home in Vancouver, Canada, often staying for prolonged periods of time.

I spent a good part of my late morning and early afternoon praying for my uncle with tear-filled eyes, talking to my mom and reading excerpts of the Holy Quran for his soul. Yet by later in the afternoon I found myself laughing as my sisters and we shared memories of Uncle Adel’s cheerful disposition.

I remembered how, while visiting us during my university years, he would never fail to wake up bright and early, often before anyone of us could flutter an eyelid, and start singing “You are so beautiful to me” in the shower quite loudly, before getting dressed and heading out for a stroll just after sunrise. This routine annoyed me to no end as I struggled to get enough sleep before heading to a morning lecture after spending a late night working on an essay or reading assignment.

Singing Elvis Presley’s classic “You Are Always on My Mind” was among my uncle’s other quirky customs. He would look into my eyes intently and pronounce in a very high, exaggerated pitch, “Maybe I”, before looking away and mumbling the rest of the line “didn’t love you quite often as I could have.” That was the only line of the song he knew, I think, and it sent me into hysterical laughter every time without fail.

“Whatever you do, never. Ever. Let them see you sweat,” he would say in a comedic way.

Uncle Adel’s strength and vitality visibly diminished in recent years, although he always had a spring in his step, twinkle in his eye and smile on his face. When we would visit Cairo in recent years, he was the only person who would pop by our apartment near the Pyramids for a visit virtually every evening. He would sit for hours on the balcony sipping his much-loved cup of Nescafe Gold with Coffee Mate, and chatting with my mom and me, often sharing stories about his experiences living in Montreal, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

 

Mom and her brothers chatting on our balcony in Cairo

When my father passed away, Uncle Adel would say he was surprised he was the first to go since dad was several years younger. My uncle was among relatives who carried my dad’s corpse to its final resting place. I think it dawned on him then that death really is around the corner and that one must be sure to nurture a relationship with God, something I noticed him focus on more closely. “Indeed, we belong to God and to Him we shall surely return.” (Quran: 2:156)

I wish I could have been with uncle today in Cairo to offer my final farewell as he was buried along with his father, mother, eldest brother and other relatives at the family’s tomb in Cairo’s City of the Dead.

Uncle Adel was exceptional and unique, very far from perfect and unpredictable in all aspects of his life, from his choices of love and investments to his last-minute travel decisions. He was absolutely one of a kind and unforgettable. I love him and will miss him dearly.

To commemorate my uncle’s life, as I do for my father, I’ll offer some extra prayers and wishes for his soul to find peace. I hope that if you have read this, you might also send a good wish to God on his behalf as well.

When you leave me in the grave – don’t say goodbye

Remember a grave is only a curtain for the paradise behind

Excerpt from Jalaluddin Rumi’s poem “When I Die”

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