We shared a birthday.

Auntie Laila and me.

And every year, when March 29th rolled around, I would call her, or she would call me.

This year marks the final such exchange.

Auntie Laila died yesterday.

Laila is dressed in a pale, buttery sweater set and looks into the distance in a contemplative gaze.

Just as her personality was larger than life, the impact she had on me is much larger than the quantifiable amount of time that we spent in each other’s company.

We’re also part of an extended family in a culture where the furthest relation is as close as your brother or your sister, your mother or your father.

Auntie Laila was married to my Uncle Ed who is in fact my paternal grandfather’s first cousin.

That gives you a sense of how distant we are from one another on the family tree.

However, when it comes to human connection, closeness defies measurement. You cannot measure love in metres, centimetres, and kilometres or miles, inches, and yards.

When it comes to family, to those we love, distance is only every measured in heartbeats, thoughts, and dreams. If you think of a person, then they are with you. If you dream of a person, then they are with you. And when such a person dies, they never leave you.

The strength of the tie between Aunt Laila, her daughter Medina, my mother, and my sisters can be traced to a particular time and place.

We were living in Beirut in the early 1970s when Aunt Laila and Medina came to visit. In my memories, my father wasn’t there. He worked in Kuwait and was typically home for only one week every month or so.

This must have been one of the times he was away. The task of entertaining and touring fell to my Mom who at the time drove a red, four-door Peugeot. We crammed into the car, all six of us, for whichever excursion Mom and Auntie Laila had dreamt up. We would pass the time in conversation, laughter, and with music. In particular, a song.

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …”

Whether careening around the streets of Beirut or driving up to Karoun, the family village in the Bekaa Valley, we’d sing loudly and exuberantly with Auntie Laila leading the choir as the minutes ticked by on the clock and the kilometres of asphalt flowed under the tires.

“You make me happy when skies are gray …”

From that point on, Auntie Laila and my mother were sisters and whenever they were together they would gossip, they would giggle, they would laugh out loud. They supported one another, they travelled together, and they cooked for everyone.

Laila is looking at the camera and is laughing.

When Mom died in 2015, Auntie Laila was unable to travel to Vancouver for the celebration of life, but she was in that room with us all.

She was there.

Knowing that Auntie Laila’s illness was advancing, and with the loss of another family matriarch that year, I was overwhelmed with the need to see her.

To hug her. To hear her say “Ya aini, ya habibti…”. My eyes, a profound endearment in Arabic, my dear one.

So, Luc and I did just that. We went to see Auntie Laila.

We embarked on a three-week road trip that took us from Vancouver to Kamloops, Jasper, Grande Prairie, Edmonton, Calgary, Lake Louise, Kelowna, and back home. At many stops along the way, we spent time with friends and family members. And in Grande Prairie, we caught up with Auntie Laila and the many relatives there.

It was magical.

“You’ll never know dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away …”

The last time I saw Auntie Laila in person was early December 2019.

I had suggested to my father that we visit Grande Prairie because the one truth that we continue to forget and have to relearn is that life — no matter how much we try to wrestle it to the ground — is random and change can come suddenly even when it seems like we will have forever. The toll of age and illness is never predictable. The time to go and see, to stop and call, to visit and reminisce is always now although it is not often feasible to follow through on such intentions and desires.

We were lucky enough to make plans and to act on them.

Dad and I travelled to Grande Prairie. As he challenged Uncle Ed to consecutive games of crib, I sat on the couch in the family room or in the living room and Auntie Laila sat in her chair. We would chat or not, we watched the Christmas movies playing on the television, or not. It didn’t really matter. What mattered is I could look up and see that she was there. I could smile at her, I could hug her, I could say, “I love you.”

The last time I saw Auntie Laila was just a few weeks ago on March 14th during a Zoom call that gathered households together from around the world to celebrate a number of family milestones.

Auntie Laila didn’t say anything, and she may not have quite understood what all the fuss was about, but just to see her made me tear up because while it felt as if she were in the room with me, she was so very far away.

“The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamt I held you in my arms …”

And now the connection has been disrupted.

There is comfort in the idea of Auntie Laila at peace, or more accurately — as my cousin Medina said to me on the phone today — she is somewhere cooking, shopping, laughing, gossiping, and partying up a storm with Alma, Haifa, Maza, and Yulanda among so many others.

It is, however, a cold comfort because the void she leaves behind is immense. It is now a distance that we will all only be able to traverse in our dreams, in our memories, and in our hearts.

Ed and Laila embrace and are smiling at the camera.

In the stories we share with one another, over the years to come, of a woman who meant so very much to each and every one of us.

“But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried.”

Hieronymus Bosch.  A late-Medieval Dutch painter and an artist whose work intrigues my son.  

This month the Vancouver International Film Festival Society (VIFF) is screening a movie about curators preparing an upcoming exhibition of Bosch’s work. How interesting! How cultural! How … wait a minute: what do you mean I can’t take my son to see the film?  

It turns out that if a film is unclassified, the regulations prohibit the sale of a ticket to anyone under 19. How absurd! Furthermore, when a film is classified and those under 19 are able to attend, the VIFF theatre concession can no longer serve its adult patrons alcohol. How ridiculous!

So, I’ve written a letter to Minister Oakes urging her to cut this red tape and I will mail it this evening.

If you share my point of view on this, please write the Minister, too.  

The more she hears from BC voters, the more likely the government will address these anachronistic provisions, which make a mockery of consumer protection.

September 2, 2016

Honourable Coralee Oakes
Minister of Small Business, Red Tape Reduction
& Responsible for the Liquor Distribution Branch
P.O.Box 9054, STN Prov Govt
Victoria, BC V8W9E2

Reema shares a photo of an outdoor interactive Bollywood film screening in Lyon, France.

Dear Minister Oakes,

I had wanted to buy tickets for my family to one of the Vancouver International Film Festival Society (VIFF) screenings of a movie about Hieronymus Bosch, the visionary late-Medieval Dutch painter.

Unfortunately, I’m unable to do so since the movie is unclassified and I cannot buy a ticket for my fifteen year-old son.

My son is an artist and has long been intrigued by Bosch’s work. As his parent, I’m very comfortable in accompanying him to this movie. Its content is cultural, informative, historical, and fascinating. It is in no way a threat to his well-being or his psyche. I think anyone would be hard-pressed to argue that he doesn’t have the maturity necessary to watch this particular film.

In inquiring as to why I was unable to take my son to the movie, I have learned that it is provincial law, not VIFF policy, which demands the classification of films before they can be shown to teenagers.  Apparently this law covers only theatrical screenings and DVD releases, but not television nor the internet. 

This regulatory policy is based on a logical fallacy that an unclassified film is the same as an unsuitable one.  It is a level of red tape that not only hinders operations at VIFF, one of Vancouver’s outstanding cultural institutions, but it also assumes that parents are incapable of determining which movies their teenage children may watch.

The same anachronistic regulations prohibit VIFF from allowing liquor in the theatre on Seymour Street when youth under 19 are present.  This seems like an unnecessary duplication of restrictions given that concession staff would be prohibited from serving minors. It also diminishes the experience for older patrons who are denied their full privileges simply because the broader classification of a particular movie expands the audience for that particular screening.

I am writing to ask that you review these particular regulations and amend them at the earliest opportunity.  Allow teenagers to attend unclassified movies with their parents’ approval and allow liquor service when a movie audience includes those under 19.  That would be an effective red tape reduction and a positive support for small business in the cultural sector.

Thank you Minister Oakes for your consideration of the above.  I hope that you will take the measures necessary to introduce a more enlightened approach for screenings of unclassified films in Vancouver, whether at the VIFF theatre or at other locations.  Such an approach would facilitate the attendance of teens at film events. It is an approach that will draw in younger audiences, not shut them out and without diminishing the experience of older patrons.

Sincerely yours,

Reema Faris

cc.

Honourable Suzanne Anton, Attorney General & Minister of Justice

Jacqueline Dupuis, Executive Director, VIFF Society

Rob Gialloreto, President & CEO, Consumer Protection BC

 

Three days ago, I posted a photo of what I’d made for dinner on social media. It received likes, hearts, compliments, and requests for the recipe.

I’m pleased to share that recipe with you now albeit with hesitation.

Why?

Because I learned to cook from my mother and my grandmother and they didn’t use recipes!

And while I always use recipes for baking and sometimes for savoury dishes, my version of cooking is a little bit of this and a little bit of that and I wonder what this would taste like if I added that.

So take this more as a guideline for preparing Fateh al Laban (laban is the Arabic word for yogurt). Make the dish your own by experimenting with the proportions and the seasoning. There’s a vegetarian option, too, that Mom developed. I’ll describe that alternative after I’ve given you the details for preparing the traditional dish.

There are six components to Fateh: croutons, chickpeas, pine nuts, ground beef, yogurt, and herb garnish. I find it easiest to serve the components separately. Each diner can then assemble a plate according to their likes and dislikes. That also means the leftovers keep better than if they’ve been mixed together.

Reema shares a mouth-watering image of Fateh al Laban, a traditional Lebanese dish - © ReemaFaris.com

Croutons
Take two loaves of pita bread. Separate the halves of each loaf and tear them up into bite-sized pieces. Spread on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper and cook in a 350˚ oven until golden brown. Remove and set aside. Regular croutons will work but then you’ll miss out on the Lebanese look!

Chickpeas
Open a small can of chickpeas. Drain and rinse the chickpeas. Let them sit in a colander to dry until you’re ready to serve.

Pine Nuts
Fry a handful of pine nuts in butter until golden. Remove and set aside. Alternatively, mix them with a touch of olive oil and bake in a 350˚ oven until golden brown. Pine nuts burn easily, so check on them frequently if you have them in the oven.  If you’re frying the pine nuts, turn off the heat just as the pine nuts begin to brown.

Ground Beef
I typically use .5 kilogram (1 pound) of lean or extra lean ground beef for two and that leaves a lot for leftovers. Fry the ground beef in a pan until cooked through. Season with salt, pepper, and allspice (no more than 15 ml, 1 teaspoon, of the latter). You can also add chopped jalapeño and a few drops of Worcestershire Sauce. Drain and keep at room temperature. As I’m writing this out, I realize that it would also work to mix the pine nuts in with the beef. I might try that next time.

Yogurt
Use approximately 250 ml (1 cup) of plain yogurt. It doesn’t matter which brand you choose or whether the yogurt is skim, 2%, or whole. I’d recommend the 2% or whole — just make sure it’s plain and not French Vanilla! In a mortar, crush 1/2-1 clove of garlic with salt, pepper, and a few, washed, shredded fresh mint leaves. Add the spiced garlic paste to the yogurt and mix thoroughly. You can also mix in diced cucumber to the yogurt mixture for an extra bite.

Garnish
Finely chop a green herb to use as garnish. I use cilantro because L. likes the flavour; parsley is the traditional option. You could also use mint or a combination of any or all three.

And that’s it. Seriously. Those are the components and once they’re ready to go, layer them in a bowl and dig in! I prefer to put the croutons on top rather than using them as a base so that they stay crunchy. If you place them under the yogurt, they get soggy pretty quickly.

Vegetarian Option

  • Substitute boiled pasta — rotini or penne works best — for the croutons.
  • Substitute broiled eggplant slices for the ground beef.
  • Leave out the chickpeas.
  • Mix all ingredients together to serve and garnish with chopped herbs.

Sahtain — bon appétit in Arabic — and let me know how your version of this dish works out.

For me, this dish is one of my comfort foods and L. loves it, too.

As with so many things, to share this dish with you is to share memories of Mom and to honour her legacy.  Thanks for requesting the recipe.

 

I feel the absence of my mother most keenly when I catch a glimpse of her writing.

When I look at the carefully crafted words and sentences she moulded; the ones she wrote down. An alchemy of thought, energy, effort, pen, and paper.

Mom used writing to express her thanks. To scold political leaders. To extend congratulations. To advocate for causes. To nurture connections.

She cherished the handwritten note even after her grandsons helped her learn to use email.  

My mother believed there was a personal quality to a handwritten note that was impossible to replicate in type form. I agree. Each stroke of the pen captures a person’s personality, their character, history, and experience.  The way in which hand-written words create a web of meaning is the most affirmative statement of “I am here”. When I catch sight of my mother’s writing script I wonder how it is that she is not here.

How can the person whose heart propelled the pen across the page not be here to cross that and dot that i?

Reema shares a photo of her mother's handwriting script taken from a travel journal - © ReemaFaris.com

I feel the absence of my mother most keenly when I see her writing, with an intake of breath and a vise clamped around my heart.

My mother’s script is from an earlier era when education had not been commodified and contorted. When it was a gift to learn. A time when writing was valued not only for its content but for its form. When penmanship spoke of culture and education and, yes, privilege.

That script, her unique cursive style, is undeniably and uniquely my mother, Yulanda.

I feel the absence of my mother most profoundly when I stare at her writing.

René Descartes said, “I am thinking, therefore I am.” My mother’s cursive script says, “I wrote, therefore I have been.” And as the ability to recall her physical presence becomes the dream of time lapsed, her writing will remain forever real and tangible.

As her daughters, her children, and perhaps someday her grandchildren and descendants, we will carry her DNA forward in time.  However, her letters, the drafts of her speeches, the thank-you cards, her recipes, the quotations she noted down, her signature — like the one in the volume of William Shakespeare’s collected works that she used for her studies at McGill — these all serve as a testament to her personal spirit.  

No other hand shaped those words, no other mind developed those ideas, no one else forged those connections: letter to letter, person to person, heart to heart.

I feel the absence of my mother most keenly when I catch a glimpse of her writing.  The words and sentences that flowed from the pen she held, the pen she guided into forever.

In the year and months since my mother died (and a month before what would have been her 79th birthday), my family has cried, laughed, and celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, and weddings.  We’ve attended funerals. We’ve had time at home, we’ve been away together and separately.  Time has carried us forward. It is life’s imperative.  

And she, my mother, has been there with us.  In each moment, in each thought, in each word.

She always will be.

“If we danced more and sang more, we’d be happier people.”

Yulanda M. Faris

July 2, 1937 – April 23, 2015 

Reema shares a picture of her standing in the courtyard of the Hotel des Grandes Ecoles in Paris with her Mom and Dad - © ReemaFaris.com

 

Author’s Note:  I’m sad to report that FUB passed away on May 27, 2014.  The world is a dimmer, duller place without him.

There is a man I know.

His name is Robert.

Bob.

Or as we like to call him FUB – Funny Uncle Bob.

Funny because he is witty and bright.  Even in a serious discussion with Bob, there will come a point when you find yourself laughing.  Maybe a chuckle, but more often than not a belly laugh, a laugh from the heart.

Bright because he is a spark.  He creates, he paints, he draws, he writes.  He is an artist, an inspiration, a giver, a friend, a husband, a father, a grandfather.

He’s not actually my uncle, but the dearest and closest of family friends.  If I were to ask my parents, I’m sure they would recall the moment when they first met Bob and his wife Carol.  For me, and I think for my sisters, it’s as if Bob has always been there.  There is no first moment, there just is.

Go Habs go!

In 2010 my parents received the Ramon John Hnatyshyn Award for Voluntarism in the Performing Arts.  Each recipient of a Governor General’s Performing Arts Awards is allotted a number of tickets to the events held for honourees. The number in our group exceeded the limit because my father lobbied to ensure he could include Bob and Carol.

Our four days in Ottawa were magical.  From evenings in the bar, to Question Period in the House, to receptions and galas, Bob’s wry gaze, Bob’s singular perspective, Bob’s irreverence enhanced and enlivened every moment.

Bob’s generosity of spirit has spilled over into his interactions with my son who is an emerging artist.  During a visit to Hornby Island in 2008, we went on walks together and we would sketch en plein air to capture the golden aura of Helliwell Park and the shimmering blue of the ocean.  I was even required to join in and put pencil to paper!

Bob also sat down with my son indoors and they drew together in the creative stillness of common purpose.  It was mentorship of a seven year-old to show what it means to observe as an artist, to be diligently aware of your surroundings, and how to express what you’ve seen for others to experience.

Hornby Island Landscape

This past summer, my mother, my son, and I went out to visit Bob and Carol at their home. It was an opportunity for my son to see Bob’s studio, to have a look at Bob’s world, the world of a successful artist.  My son was whisked away upon arrival and when the two rejoined us for lunch, my son was clutching canvases, drawing paper, and pens.  Gifts from one artist to another with the most priceless one being the encouragement to do.

That’s FUB.

That’s Bob and he has decided to discontinue chemotherapy.  He is at home with his family and he is embraced within a circle of love which extends beyond the boundaries of time and place.

His name is Robert.

There is a man I know.

And thus it shall be forever.