By Kyra Assaad
“Hi Teta,” is how I used to start our phone calls. “Hi Karkouri,” Teta would reply, beaming through the phone. Growing up in North America meant that I didn’t have the chance to see Teta very often. Once a year served as our rendezvous. Although our vacations together were brief, and our phone calls echoey and delayed, the time we spent together was precious. Teta watched me grow up from the kid who used to roller skate through her hallways to the passionate feminist that I am today.
My dad sent her every school photo of me we had, and would frame photos of our vacations and portraits of the family. Teta would proudly display them all and refused to throw any of them away, which explains why you might see my face all throughout 1095 Corniche El Nil.
Living in Egypt during high school gave me the wonderful experience of becoming close to Teta and getting to know her a bit better. My fondest memories include swimming in the Mediterranean together one January in Alexandria, playing solitaire on her bedroom floor on New Year’s Eve, and experiencing the magic and wonder of the Siwa Oasis. Family reunions and weddings were the most joyful occasions, full of celebration and love, with Teta at the centre of it all. She was the matriarch of the family, we would say. And how can I forget voting in the first democratic election in Egypt together! We displayed our blue thumbs to all, and we each posted the photo on our Facebook accounts. She was so proud of me participating in Egyptian democracy, and I was so proud of my incredible Teta for taking me to vote.
When I was turning 17, Teta (who was 87 at the time) composed a heartfelt memoir of what life was like for her at my age. She described a hard-won lesson of humility that led her to change from being “aggressive, argumentative, and competitive” to becoming “sensitive to human jealousy.” As she put it, “Since I have always been interested in building good human relations and I derive my happiness from being on good terms with others, I have learned to be careful of other people’s feelings and build happy relationships.”
“I have learned a lot of lessons along the way,” she wrote, “and I am still learning at the age of 87. The first lesson I’ve learned is how to bring out the best in people. It is quite a challenge. Some people are easy to like from first sight, but with others you have to discover their hidden treasures. It is very often a long voyage of discovery, and I am very happy when I succeed in building positive relationships. But often I try very hard, but do not succeed. In this case, I avoid the company of such people. I hope you remember my Three C’s, tell me what they are and what you think of them?”
“Another lesson I learned,” she went on, “is not to define people, but let people define themselves. As you may well know, I have done all sorts of jobs ranging from teaching to social work to being a youth worker and working with the world-wide YWCA and the World Council of Churches in Geneva. I faced many challenges, but my lessons helped me to look at people with loving eyes and be very happy in whatever job I was doing.”
What granddaughter wouldn’t be inspired by such loving guidance?
I used to call her Yoda (although she never understood the reference), as she was my petite, powerful, shining star and guiding light. Teta taught me about the power of love and compassion, giving yourself and expecting nothing in return, fighting the injustices we see in the world, and about the power of women. She was the strongest woman I know. She was a role model, a mentor, and an inspiration to so many. I am proud to say that not only was she all that for me, but I count myself the luckiest of all, because she was also my Teta.