A few months ago, I saw my father flipping through an old notebook filled with pages of Arabic handwriting. It was a notebook of poems my grandfather, Mustafa Afaneh, had written – some poems dated back to the 1970s. I took it from my father and put it on my desk. We needed to make copies of this in case it ever got lost, I thought. It’s still sitting on my desk.
A couple of months later, right before the new year rolled up, my grandfather passed away. He was eighty-two years old – half of those years spent in the Middle East and half spent in New Orleans.
Mustafa Afaneh, Sr.
Some years ago, when it was olive picking season in Palestine, the subject of my grandfather’s birthday, which is on November 4th, came up.
“You know, I’m not quite sure if November 4th is actually my birthday,” my grandfather said in Arabic. We were sitting on the baranda of his home in Palestine that faces an Israeli settlement. He was holding prayer beads and sat across from me, staring into space and smiling.
“How so? Your passport says your birthday is the 4th of November,” I replied, breaking into a laugh. I knew a story was coming along. He always had a story.
“Well, at the time, they [the British] put November 4th on my birth certificate, but my mother said that I was born between mawsem el teen wel zaytoon, the season of figs and olives, which is anywhere between April and November,” he told me.
I was fascinated by the idea that at one point in time, birth dates revolved around the present season in which the event took place. In a way, they still do. I smiled at my grandfather, and he smiled back.
“That’s how November 4th is my birthday, but we’ll never really know.” He laughed. I can hear his laugh as I write this.
“Then, we’ll have to celebrate your birthday at least once a month from April to November,” I replied.
I think back to his life some times and the lives and places he’s touched, especially when I walk around the French Quarter. He worked with antiques, created some of the most beautiful work, and taught my father the craft. He, along with his brothers, also wrote and sang Palestinian folklore. He was a beloved grandfather with a sense of humor like no other.
We could make copies of poetry books – even of antiques – but we can never copy or replace the people we love and lost.