Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Obituary: Mohammed Ali Kurdi

My father and me. Posted by Picasa

It’s the 40th day anniversary since my father, Mohammed Ali Kurdi (Abu Maher), died of cancer on August 15th 2006. He was 78 years old.

He had a very dignified death. He was not in pain and was communicative and aware to the end. He lived a very full and rewarding life. We buried him in the same grave as his father, which is what he said he wanted.

Somehow, as if by magic, my father’s illness and death brought our family back together after it had been fractured by disagreements over the family business. It was as if he had sacrificed his body to heal the family that he loved so much, and all we could do is watch, helpless to absolve him of this ultimate sacrifice once it had been set in motion.

My father was an original and an eccentric man. He read a lot and always bought four or five copies of every book, in order to give them to friends should they express an interest. He seemed to have an encyclopedic knowledge of most everything, especially history. Upon meeting somebody he would always ask who their parents were, and always traced their origins. “Oh, you are the son of so-and-so. Your father was a clerk at such-and-such court, and in 1952 he was renting from so-and-so in Jabal Amman”. “Your father”, he would continue, “suffered and worked really hard to have his sons educated”, “but alhamdullilah you children have prospered and done well”. He would often get a dropped-jaw, wide-eyed reaction when he would relate to people stories about their family that sometimes they never heard before, or did not think that some stranger could possibly know so intimately. These interactions always created an instant bond with people.

My father, in fact, would trace most subjects to their origins 1000 years back in history. It was sometimes hard to get away from him when simple interactions would somehow evolve into the history of the universe. I often had to rescue hapless friends of mine from the unfolding 20 minute historical account that invariably followed their introduction to him.

And now lost forever is all this information, all this history, all this knowledge. Who will relate to us a first hand account of the early history of Amman now that you’re gone, baba?

Despite not being overly religious, my father had a very peculiar religious streak. “Most of those sheikhs you see with the beards (il-mashayekh wil-multaheen)”, he would say, “understand nothing about Islam”, with the implicit suggestion that he knew all about it. My father taught me that Islam was a misunderstood religion, even by its followers. His was a historic Islam that had originally spread and succeeded through its inherent poetic beauty, its inclusiveness and tolerance. His idealization of Islam came through the idea that since the inception of the faith the realm of Islam had been, by and large, one of the most tolerant, inclusive, and accepting of peoples of other faiths that lived within it. My father would relate to me what I did not know, that, in fact, through most of history Jews had been accepted and lived in peace in Islamic societies at the same time that they were being persecuted most everywhere else.

My father was, in a sense, a very liberal Muslim. He felt that the meaning of the faith was more important than the outward rituals, and cared deeply about a philosophical Islam that he seemed to intuitively understand, marked primarily by its inclusiveness and tolerance. I wish more of us were Muslims like you were, Abu Maher.

I am fortunate to have been greatly influenced by my father’s deep intellectual curiosity, his sense of fairness, his interest in others, especially foreigners, and his love of travel. It was a point of pride to him that by the time I was 16 years old he had already taken me to five out of six continents, including most of the countries of Europe and the Far East, as well as the US. It gave him great pleasure to count aloud the names of all the countries that I had visited. I was a very fortunate young man, and I could only hope that one day I will be able to do the same to my own son. My father set the bar so high.

I realize that my father was many different things to different people. To most of our extended family he was a moral bulwark that they turned to for support, especially financial support. He always helped people, and took particular pleasure in paying for the education of young people. To me my father was always gentle (which he wasn’t to everyone) and highly moral (which he always was). Even as I rebelled against him as a young man he was gentle with me. I realize that everything that I am today I owe to him.

By writing this I do not mean to idealize my father. He had his fair share of faults and made many mistakes. He belonged to a generation whose style of doing business was becoming increasingly outdated towards the end of his life; less powerpoint presentations and professional business culture than wheeling and dealing. Of course, he didn’t need to be anything else than what he was; he had accomplished a lot in his lifetime: a self made man who was amongst the first in our family to be university educated. He enjoyed being a Pharmacist and a Businessman. He left behind businesses that 200 families depend on for their livelihood, including our own.

He would also often try to help people in ways that he would find they didn’t want to be helped. I believe that it hurt him whenever he would extend a helping hand only to have it be rejected, which happened to him more times than it should have. I also feel that he was taken for granted by friends and family alike, who realized upon his death what he represented, and just how much he had meant to them. The outpouring of genuine grief and feeling after he died was heartening. We still grieve.

Baba I miss you so much. It hurts so so much to lose you. You are in my heart always.

If you want to read more about my father see Ahmad's blog entry.