x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

From house arrest to the Great Wall: grandmother's journey

Holding up a tattered map in her hands, my 80-year-old grandmother carefully draws in a red dot over China.

Holding up a tattered map in her hands, my 80-year-old grandmother carefully draws in a red dot over China. The heavily-creased paper has lots of dots. Each time she visits a place, it gets a dot. Europe and the Middle East are completely coloured in; parts of Asia, Africa and both North and South America have scribbles here and there. "Next trip we are going to Cuba," she says with a big smile. By "we", she means her group of 10 widowed Arab women friends, who together travel to a different country each year. Her neighbour's teenage son helps them find travel bargains online.

Being single myself, I wanted to take a moment and reflect on a different group of single women, one often neglected by the rest of us: widows. When a man loses his wife, especially in the Middle East, he is comforted and often is quickly remarried under the insistence of his family and close friends. For women, though, it is a different story. My grandmother has been single for more than 30 years. My grandfather had been a general in the Syrian army, and many of the women in my grandmother's group had also been married to senior officers in the Syrian or Lebanese armies. They all lost their husbands as a result of wars or political assassinations.

When her husband was alive, my grandmother's life was one of privilege, with invitations to all the best parties and social events. That all changed when the news of my grandfather's death was published in the local newspapers. "When you're widowed, you don't get invited to big parties. You get isolated; it's like you are contagious," my grandmother once told me. "I think other women are intimidated and threatened by vibrant and independent widows like myself." She said that with a wink and a beam.

That unwavering ability to laugh off even the worst of times is my grandmother's trademark. Instead of complaining and feeling sorry for herself - as I catch myself doing sometimes - my grandmother and her group of friends hold "Tarab" parties where they sing popular old songs, copying legendary Arab singers like Um Kalthoum and Fairouz. A grandson or two play the oud as accompaniment. Of course, every time they meet the talk quickly turns to the "good old days", and the "golden age" in countries like Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, where poets reigned and the army was dominated with "men of good families".

It's the same when I go to visit. The photograph album comes out and my grandmother goes into reminiscence mode. "We would eat along the beaches during the day and dance the tango at night," she says showing me a faded black and white photo of her and grandfather dancing near a fountain in a European square. "Your grandfather was sent off to Russia and France during his career and would come back speaking bit of Russian and French and wearing the best clothes," she tells me. "They knew how to do nice elegant hair styles back then, not like now." She gave my own hair a disappointed glance as she said that. To this day, she would never be seen in public with bad hair. One of her widow friends does the hair for all the women in the group.

Despite their travels, life for my grandmother and the others is not easy. They struggle to live off their state pensions, no more than between US$50-$200 a month, and save for their trips. I like to call and check on her every week as you hear of widows being targeted by burglars, and my grandmother was attacked once by a man with a knife as she was walking up to her apartment. Her neighbours came to her rescue when she screamed.

However, sometimes the same neighbours also bully the widows. "They think I don't have a man standing behind me," she once told me. So my uncles have to intervene to "remind" people in the community that there is a man standing by my grandmother. After such a long life (she has been "80" for some time now) she always offers lots of good advice. Like: "Never get too caught up with politics and wars, as they come and go." To prove the point she tells me the story of one of her friends who was once her political enemy. But the same woman later smuggled food to my grandmother and her children when they were under house arrest by lowering a basket from the roof.

Looking at a photo of my grandmother posing on the Great Wall of China with her friends, it's not so hard to imagine her in her glory days, chatting on her balcony with Naguib Mahfouz or Gamal Abdel Nasser (once, as a child, my father even played in Nasser's lap). She is a survivor of a different age - though she still plays poker with the likes of Omar Sharif. I only hope that when I am her age, I can handle single life as well as she does - and have such a close knit group of spirited friends.