Lessons on living from my late uncle

Turning on a tune by Egyptian legend Abdel Halim Hafez, my sister Mandy handed her iPod to Uncle Hoda and gestured him to place the headphones over his ears. Seconds later, an expression combining astonishment and glee came over his face while listening to a melody that must have taken him back at least three decades. Our uncle laughed and sang along to the words of “Gana El Hawa, the Love Came to Us,” while swaying his head from side to side, fully mesmerized in enjoyment of the moment.

If there’s anything that I will always treasure about my Uncle Hoda, who passed away last month following a battle with cancer, God bless his soul, it is that he was among only a small number of people that I’ve encountered who lived for the present.

Sunrise in Egypt
Sunrise in Egypt, by Manav Gupta

I imagine it was Uncle Hoda’s deep connection with God that enabled him to embody this state of being. He spoke with great reverence of the Divine, and the love that sprang from that bond was contagious. Positivity and optimism radiated from him; whenever he entered a room, it was with the lightness and calmness of a person who was content with the joys and patient with the challenges of his life.

As my two sisters and I reminisced in our Whatsapp chat room about our beloved maternal uncle in the days following his passing, we alternated between tears and laughter. I was struck at how profoundly he had affected each of us, given we lived far apart most of our lives, Uncle Hoda in Egypt and us in a scattering of cities around North America, the Arabian Gulf and Europe.

It was joyous to reunite with our uncle during summer holidays, the distresses of our childhood dissolving away in his playful presence. He was consistently ready to offer a smile, which would make his small eyes almost disappear beneath his bushy eyebrows. Whether he was getting us to hum and sing along to the latest Egyptian pop song or sending us into an endless round of giggles during an afternoon drive around Cairo by swerving his car to the right and left in a zigzag pattern, Uncle Hoda always made us feel like the centre of his attention.

As I got older, the ease with which our beloved uncle yielded to the flow of life was deeply inspiring for my spiritual journey. He would constantly seek divert attention away from himself to calm the often-frayed nerves of his siblings.

When a car accident took our beloved uncle to within a hair’s breadth of death 16 years ago, I remember how on emerging from his coma, Uncle Hoda would downplay his pain to calm his rattled and restless sisters. Even as he battled the painful side effects of treatments for pancreatic cancer this summer, our uncle tried to reassure our worried mom that the symptoms were bearable and he was infinitely content with whatever God willed.

Losing a loved one brings the importance of my bond with God into crisp focus because I am forced to confront how near, present and palpable death is. In the past decade, reminders of mortality have become central to my consciousness as I endured the passing of my father, two aunts, and now five uncles.

The more time I spend recalling the transitory nature of existence, the more fulfillment I find, even in mundane daily pleasures. I remember to slow down, pause and be grateful, to breathe, to express love and to strive to be patient, gentle and generous. I’m less likely to hold a grudge for long, and more likely to apologize quickly if I feel I’ve hurt someone. Rather than agonize over each possible outcome of a struggle at work or in a relationship, I’m more able to let circumstances unfold as they’re destined to.

Yet I still grapple with replicating the serenity of my late uncle. His spirit was so entwined with the Divine that he embodied the attributes of a lover in harmony with the Absolute: humility, kindness, contentment, gentleness, charity and faithfulness among them.

One of my other fond memories of my music-loving uncle includes the time that he blurted out, “Yalla Beena Yalla” to the full room of loving and loud relatives gathered one evening at my grandmother’s ground-level apartment situated just minutes from the Pyramids, which smelled of a combination of jasmine flower and guava. He sang and danced to the chorus of Mohamed Fouad’s newly released 1985 hit, “Come on, let’s go!” Shortly afterward, we ventured to a nearby hotel for a slice of gateau and haga sa’aa, a cold soft drink. As a six-year-old who was normally in bed by 8 p.m., it was probably the most thrilling night of my life.

I shared this story in our Whatsapp group, and my elder sister Jasmeen recounted another visit to a Pyramid-side hotel 15 years later with our uncle, parents and cousins. It was our first trip to Egypt in seven years, and my modest uncle, who rarely treated himself , remarked on how blessed he felt to be sitting with loved ones sipping mango juice in a five-star hotel overlooking a world wonder. By neither dwelling on the past nor worrying about what might happen even an hour in the future, Uncle Hoda made us feel the beauty of our present surroundings.

“Stay up a bit longer and wait until the sunrise,” my uncle advised me more recently, when I told him I had started to cultivate a closer relationship with God and had fallen in love with the fajr prayer at the break of dawn. “That’s where the beauty lies.”

This advice crossed my mind as I gave supplications for my uncle at sunrise the morning after his passing. While I mourn the loss of one of the greatest lights to grace my life, I also rejoice from the certainty that Uncle Hoda has found peace in being reunited with the Creator he dedicated his life to serving with humility.

For he who is living in the Light of God,
The death of the carnal soul is a blessing.
-Rumi (Mystic Odes 833)

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