I am sad for Hugo Chavez’s death.
Not because I felt any particular affinity for the Venezuelan president and nemesis of the West. Not because of the time I laughed in a precarious sadness, a hilarity, a relief when I first heard that he called George Bush the devil. I am sad for Hugo Chavez’s death because my Amto Fatme is sad for Hugo Chavez’s death. My Amo Fatme is my paternal aunt who is my surrogate paternal grandmother at times my father needs her to be, at times when my still-alive paternal grandmother, my namesake, is too far in her home in south Lebanon, the home that greets you with the powder-white branches of pomegranate trees and the scent of jasmine far before you have reached its doors.
I am sad for the death of Hugo Chavez for Amto Fatme because she used the word comrade to describe him; she, an illiterate woman whose family betrothed her to her neighbor at the age of fourteen, called him her comrade. My friends who were there that night didn’t believe that this Latin-rooted word scurried out of her mouth during her hours-long Lebanese-accented Arabic diatribe about the times her house — my grandmother’s house and her pomegranate trees — was bombed. My Amto Fatme knows words like comrade, like white phosphorus and RPG; she knows names like Kofi Annan and Hugo Chavez and Benjamin Netanyahu. My Amto Fatme watches the news, memorizes the reports, and recants them in the late evenings to visitors on the balcony of her mother’s house, as she blows hookah smoke above the luminescent branches of the pomegranate trees that are asleep as they should be.
My Amto Fatme, in her rasp of a voice and her flowered abaya, in her generous laughter and her striking wit, in her robust compassion and her silence, had a comrade in a Venezuelan man who she believed saw her, a Venezuelan man whose Spanish simultaneously translated into Arabic on Al-Jazeera made her feel human.
My Amto Fatme, who valiantly beguiled reluctant young taxi drivers to drive her to the Western Union in South Beirut where her ten children wired her money for an escape van that would traverse the broken bridges of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to Syria, a route that has since then been inverted as Syrians find refuge in the homes of the refugees they once harbored. She walked that day amidst the bombs dropping on corners, on buildings, on bridges.
My Amto Fatme listened to that Venezuelan man, her comrade, with valor and intent. The roof of my grandmother’s house, where she left the kishek — or whey yogurt — to dry in the summer heat, was bombed that day and my Amto Fatme zealously points to that hole in the roof like a child points to a just healing wound repairing itself into a scar.