August 8, 2009
Posted: 1743 GMT
On assignment in Syria in the autumn of 2005, I found myself in Aleppo, my family’s ancestral hometown. I took the opportunity to visit my then 91 year-old grandmother, Nana Berine, my mother’s mother and my only surviving grandparent.
She’d been a petite , thin person her whole life. Since my grandfather’s death ten years earlier, she rarely left the house and had become even frailer, a whisper of a woman. Family members and her children – three daughters and a son including my mother – visited her regularly; my uncle daily.
In Middle Eastern households, the elderly traditionally stay home until the end. And so Nana Berine, still healthy enough to shuffle around the house, read the newspaper daily, watched Turkish television, and was tended to and cared for by a great number of family members.
That evening in 2005, exhausted with work and travel, I fell asleep on Nana’s couch. When I woke up a few hours later, Nana Berine had covered me with a blanket and wedged a pillow under my head.
“It’s good to sleep,” she said, in her nightgown, sitting in her usual living room chair. “It means you need it.”
Berine Gorani was born April 30, 1914. Throughout her life, first as wife to my grandfather Assad, then as mother to her children, then as grandmother to my twelve cousins and me, she always gave of herself with joy and love.
When my grandfather, a lawyer and author of Syria’s civil code, served as minister in various cabinets during his country’s brief experiment with parliamentary democracy, she remained as unaffected as ever. She dressed elegantly but simply and never lost touch with what really matters: the love for her family and the truth that, in the end, nothing matters much more than that.
As a little girl visiting Syria, I was often a difficult and unfriendly child. Nana Berine would sit on the living room floor, trying with toys and stories to bring me out of my taciturn shell. Ultimately, not even I was stubborn enough to resist her charms.
On the last day of every grandchild’s visits, she would give each of us a cardboard gift box, containing a few treats and little toys. Those boxes were treasures to me then and, in my memory, still are.
As an adult when I visited, Nana would hunt in her closet or jewelry box for something to give me. Having been the youngest of her grandchildren for a long time, there wasn’t much left for me to choose from.
“I’m sorry I haven’t got anything nicer. If I did, it would be yours,” I remember her saying while handing me a stone ring.
Anything that came from her was a gift, and everything of hers I will cherish for all of my life.
I have a black and white picture of Berine Gorani and my grandfather Assad, sitting at an outdoor restaurant terrace, dated 1958. Nana is wearing a white dress and four rows of pearls, leaning forward into the camera, smiling a tight-lipped smile, with a playful spark in her eye.
That was the Syria of long ago, when the scintillating possibility for a better future gave my grandparents’ generation some hope.
There was the hope for political stability and freedom, the hope of opening their country to the outside world, of rewarding its youth with work and opportunity. Before young Syrians, including a vast majority of my mother’s generation and their children, were forced to leave the region to study and work. Today, my family is peppered on four continents.
Berine Gorani’s generation is gone now. She was its last survivor. My Nana died on August 1, 2009. On that day, for me, a part of Syria died too.
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