I made a memory box for my wife for Christmas. It is a side table made from an old backgammon board that my father-in-law owned all his life. My daughter retrieved it when they were in the Holy Land this summer. You can still see the chalk marks in the middle from keeping score. The table is most complete when furnished with a bottle of arak and two glasses; the game of life to be toasted with a friend. And so it is that one is remembered by how he lived.
Primarily, the images tell the picture. My father-in-law was a devoted family man, a dedicated husband and a good friend. He was also a very affable and kind man. He did not take things too seriously. So it is instructive to know what things he thought were important.
The background of his life was lived out over the dramatic political landscape of the Middle East with all its upheaval and transitions of power. Stability does not come easy to that part of the world. You have to work at it. Perhaps the best advice when trouble is all around you, is do not to add to it. Don’t borrow someone else’s quarrel. Be a friend and a bridge to peace instead.
There are many things people could say about you when you are dead. If all you ever did, was to carry out your prime relationships in an honourable and responsible manner, you did better than most. To not drop the ball in a world which can be volatile and unstable, is important.
He once told me the story of his coming up once over a pot of coffee. His own Dad was a medic who died of the Spanish influenza during the First World War. The irony was that he got the influenza caring for a Jewish patient. Still, my father-in-law was a man of remarkable balance who was not bitter or given to prejudice. He took people as he found them. I know because I showed up with a backpack and no visible means of support, expressed interest in his daughter, and lived to tell the tale.
Keeping on keeping on was what he did best. Losing his father at ten, he became the man of the family. Because his mother feared that he would be inducted into the Ottoman army as cannon fodder for war, they escaped by foot from Lebanon, and settled in Nazareth where they had distant family in the priesthood. That meant potential for an education and a future. During the perilous trip over the mountains, they survived on wild herbs and the undigested seeds extracted from boiled animal dung. When their mother could not manage his sister and wondered if they must abandon her, my father-in-law stepped up and carried her during the times she was too exhausted to walk.
Once reaching safety, he had the burden of providing sustenance for the needs of daily life. He did this by hatching chickens, keeping the eggs turned and warmed at night, and selling the hatchlings once they became pullets. An enterprising and inquisitive learner, he figured out how to rig up electrical lights to keep the eggs warm so that his sleep could be uninterrupted. One thing led to another and he ended up being an electrician who wired much of the municipality.
He once passed on some pointed advice about what brings true happiness. He talked about the importance of family life. Wanting to get my own saucy dig in, I asked him if he thought he did a good job. He turned to me and looked me in the eye and said with great solemnity. “Yes, I did a very good job”.
In hindsight, my father-in-law possessed great foresight. Perhaps he was most wise to cut to the chase and understand that the greatest riches in life are to be found at home. That is what he invested in and I have reaped the rewards. I understand with more depth now, that Abu Khalil did a very good job indeed. After all, I should know. I married his daughter.
The Shesh-Besh table in full action. Father-in-law on the left in the striped pajamas.