Monday, July 19, 2010

Returning Home #3: Of Mothers

You have had dealings with other women. You have held them, and they have held you, and they have whispered in your ear how much they love you. And you look at this woman, your mother, and though she has never said those three words to you, you see quite clearly: no woman in the world will ever love you like her again. Though you were to meet all the women in the world, though you were to seduce (or be seduced by) all of them.

The other men you know, your friends, all swear by their mothers. When they are angry, when they fight, it is each others' mothers they curse. It has always seemed a bit like posturing to you, when they speak about all they will do for their mothers, once they have the money. And so you have tried, when you are alone, to understand your own feelings for yours. Their roots deep within you, the first person you ever felt anything for. Yet not quite emotions, not exactly. Seeming to exist in a previous state. It occurs to you that what we start with, what exists before emotion, has no name. Only: it is strong, and it is wild, and we barely have any control over it. And it is out of this uncontrollable product of our hearts, this raw material, that we forge what we call emotions, shapes we can recognize, feelings we can begin to describe. The connection between you and her exists in this pre-emotional state. You will go out into the world, and you will come back home, and always it will be waiting, while she yet has breath in her (and you cannot even begin to think about the alternative, coming home to not find her there, you are not yet, perhaps never will be, equipped for such grief…). So when the other men speak of their mothers, you are silent. There are things we hide within us, jealously guarding them, never sharing them with anyone. When you are feeling scientific you attempt to explain it to yourself. The bond between mother and child, how you grew up inside her for three-fourths of a year. But most days you are happy without an explanation, happy only to sit next to her, and talk. To listen to her speak, your mother, how she laughs when you crack a joke. Leaning over you, putting her hand on your shoulder. Moving with a lightness through the world that you have seldom seen in the men of the country, the proud rulers of their homes, full of faida. And you think, even as you grow into a Gambian man, how you would like to be more like her. But you think this in the same way a Gamo-kat speaks about being more like the holy Prophet. An attempt - nothing more - to reach heights you know you will never be able to, levels of goodness-of-heart you cannot even begin to comprehend how to achieve…

Sitting on your bed, she asks you a question, something about your life away. An illness you had suffered from in your absence, and how you battled it. And then she said, but it's over? And you said yes, and she nodded, and then she looked down at the clothes she was folding. Just like that - a nod, a look between you, that lasted only a second.
But in that second you knew. You saw it clearly written on her face, and you did not know how you had missed it, all these years. For what you saw in her face was a special specie of kindness, self-sacrificing, wholly given without expecting reciprocation - no more and no less than that. Later you would expand the act, break it apart into its constituent elements, add degrees to it. But in that moment you did not need to - it was as if the whole of human nature was written in that look, and if this were true you saw how there was hope for humanity after all. In their sermons Imams spoke about the wrath of God, and the wide expanse of its devastation. They spoke of how in the night God looked on the Earth, and saw the evil in men's hearts, and raised His mighty hand to destroy it, destroy all of creation that brought Him such displeasure, once and for all. But then, in His omniscience, God saw a Waaliyu, a holy man, a saint, standing atop a prayer mat, prepared to spend the whole night worshipping his God. And God saw this, and because of this man He delayed the coming of His wrath upon the world, and all of creation was saved once more. You always liked this story, this idea of God taking pity on Man, because of one man's actions. The earth's savior, unknown and unthanked, alone in his room bowing down before God, not knowing what power he held, to alter fate, to waylay destiny. But you think they got one part wrong. You think it wasn't a man praying that God saw. It was a Gambian mother, in bed, tired from a day's work, tired from buying firewood and tending the fire, from cooking and cleaning and washing the clothes and taking them out to dry and the million other things it takes to run a home, and still having time to raise the children. To love them as they ought to be loved. In your version of the story, this is what God saw, and what stayed His hand.

It has always puzzled you, the gender debate that has sprung up around the issue of women in Gambian society, and their position in relation to men. Women are weak, men are superior to them, almost everyone you talk to tells you, man and woman alike. And you think, this must be a very peculiar form of inferiority, for a moment you think, perhaps I do not understand what the word means after all. For in all the years you have lived in this country you have never seen a single woman complain about the work she does in the house, for her husband and her children. You still find this hard to believe, when you think about it. You can imagine yourself, for one day, taking on the duties of the house. You would sweep the floors of all the rooms, and later wash them. You would get into the kitchen, and on your knees on the dirt floor, eyes stinging, light a fire to cook lunch on. You would go to the market, and buy what little you could afford on the small depaas you had been given. And, because this was only for one day, you would do all this without a word. When your husband came home, and complained about how much salt was in the food, you would take it with grace and silence (though looking closely someone would be able to see just how brittle your smile had become, just how close to breaking). One day, you would repeat to yourself, it is only for one day. But you cannot, even in your most charitable moments, imagine doing this all your life, as the days turned into months, the months into years... Every single day, come rainy season or dry, come a chill breeze or the dusty harmattan. You think about what depths of unselfishness it must take, what mastery over one's ego. Doing everything one did, without expecting praise or payment - and for what? You do not understand - what's in it for them, you think over and over, and you can never come up with an answer. And before you ever ask her, this woman, your mother, you realize just how foolish the question is, how foolish and ridiculous, like asking 'when is the moon coming to dinner?'. It is a question that will make no sense to her. And you think about your own self, and how selfish you are. How you want every good action you do to be recognized, to be praised. How even when you claim to people you are modest, and do not want their praise, still in a secret part of yourself you hope they will not stop, they will continue to confirm what you have always believed about yourself and your own talent. What inferiority then, you ask yourself. Certainly not that of character - and what else should a man (or woman) be judged by?

Nights of insomnia, days of grouchiness and an over-bright Sun. You lie in bed in the dark and think, I have never shown her how much all she does means to me. You think, all these years I have taken her for granted, and never thanked her for anything. The best things in our lives we seldom notice, until it is too late, until they are gone… And then what heartache we feel, what regret. Once you saw a mother pleading with two paras. Her son in a knife fight, someone called them. They came to pick him up. She was one of the most quarrelsome women on your street, known for her razor-sharp tongue and her raunchy wit - all the men of the street fearing her. Yet there she stood before the para - who looked younger than her own son - and about her waist her headwrap was tied, and her hands were clasped, and she was almost on her knees. My son, she said, you know I would not do this, it is only youth. Please forgive him - please do not take him away. And the para, resolutely refusing her pleas, and the look of increasing desperation in her eyes. The way she tried to catch their eyes with hers, and the way they continually looked away, so she would not succeed. And you knew why: what you saw in her eyes made you want to forgive every crime her son had ever committed, on her word alone. And for a moment you felt what it must be like. A part of yourself, grown within you. A creature completely dependent on you, helpless, unable to feed itself, or walk, or do anything on its own. The only child in all of creation, the first and the last, the most beautiful thing in the world. Nights filled with its screaming, as red-eyed you sang to it to calm it down. All your days centered around it, sleeping only when it slept, eating only after it had been fed. Its cry getting you on your feet and running to where it was before it ever reached your brain, perhaps even before you had quite heard it… All the sacrifices you had to make, for its welfare - and yet every single one of them worth it, when holding it in your arms it looked at you and grinned - pink gums, eyes crinkled up, face so tiny… Growing up so fast - the first days at school, the scabbed knees and dirty shorts, beginning to discover a world outside of the one you had constructed for it so meticulously, beginning to explore its possibilities. Able at last to stand on its own, yet not ready, never ready, to leave - the world filled with shadows, and dangers, and a cruelty which would crush it - your fears, your worries, wishing you could live its life for it, absorb all the pain alloted to it, all the sorrow that awaited it in the future, and you would suffer it all gladly so it could live, so it could be happy, and nothing would ever mar that happiness…

Lately you have begun to think about writing an essay about your mother, and your relationship with her. How could you write about returning home, after all, without including the person without whom home would not exist, the heart of home, its pulse felt through your life no matter how far you went; and its skin, spread out so it could hold everything and everyone together, no matter what. The best person you have known in your life. But every time you try to get started, every time you sit before your laptop and open a fresh page, you come up with nothing, words fail you. Perhaps, you think, I am not a writer of sufficient skill - perhaps a better writer could do it without even thinking. But the last time you try, looking at the icons on your computer screen, you think, that is not true. For there are things that cannot be written down, that cannot be explained. For sometimes words are not enough, fall just short of the uses to which we would like to put them. And so you close your computer, and you walk away from it. You go into your mother's room, and you sit down on the floor, and lean against a wall. She is sitting on the bed, listening to the BBC world service, the radio held up close to her ear, a look of concentration on her face as she attempts to decipher the words over the static. She turns to you where you sit. Come, she tells you, patting the bed next to her and smiling, get off the floor and come sit next to me.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Returning Home Part 2: Of Age & Time

He walks beside the old woman, down the street - her escort. She walks slowly, laboriously, each footstep seeming to take forever by his reckoning. Because he is young, and life for him is speed, the never-ending rush to somewhere, anywhere, the perpetual next moment. He forces himself to slow down with her, and he does as long as he is thinking about it. But sometimes his thoughts wonder, and he walks ahead. Only to suddenly miss her by his side, only to turn and find her a distance behind him. Her back bent, her gaze on the ground as she measures each part of the road before ever she puts her foot down on it.

They sit on benches side by side - the old woman and the old man they have come to visit - and talk. He sits between them, closer to the old man. She talks about trips to Tunis, riding in boats and the backs of cows, nights in Mecca lying on prayer mats with no pillows, getting zam-zam from a well. The cruelty of the Arabs. How 500 dalasis could take you and bring you back, and still leave you with change to spare, to go shopping with. He fills in the pauses in her story with interjections. Allahu Akbar. Laa Illaha Illalah. Hm! Chey! And he sits there and their words fall all about him, and into him and through him, and in the distance there is the call to prayer being broadcast over a mosque's PA system, and he feels age - not old, not advanced in years like these people he sits between - no, he feels age itself, like the aether, and it is all around him, and it is a slight heaviness in the air and it is in the slow ponderous way they speak, and it is in the way their voices are distorted by their fallen mouths, how their words are measured, how they speak a wolof without slang, untainted by terms from other languages. He has never been in the presence of age like this, has never noticed the way it creeps after him and follows him everywhere he goes, like death, like time. It fills him with a feeling of awe - he has felt like this before only in mosques and at religious gatherings, or in the presence of great art. One day, he thinks, I will be like this. And it occurs to him that these two will be dead, long before then, transformed and no longer themselves.

Again they are out on the street. She asks him to walk her to the hospital. Now the rhythm of his footsteps has become aligned with hers, his heartbeat slowed. One step…. then another… the distance before them seeming never-ending. All urgency gone, a world slowed down. Or rather, the passage through it, the world itself a still thing, a thing of permanence. And in this slower rhythm he discovers a new understanding of time. It captures his imagination. Right at the end, how it is stretched out, how it is no longer a river, flowing, but honey dripping from a spoon. A little left on the tip, and then there will be nothing more, hanging in space. Subject to the vagaries of gravity.

And then there is the other kind of time, the kind between people, existing in the space between them. Again and again she asks him: how long have you been away? And when he tells her she holds her mouth. That long! It seemed only yesterday, when we took you to the airport! And he feels the same way about his time there too - it has seemed to pass in a flash, condensed by a trick of memory into a short series of instances, a place here, a person there, an experience, a thing he has touched, a food he has eaten, an embarrassment he has endured. These are all the artifacts of the three years he has spent abroad, a summary of time. A shortening. What is long, what seems to have taken forever, is the time that exists between them, in a hidden place neither of them are able to observe or scrutinize, except cursorily. This time-between will not be condensed or summarized: it is all the experiences he has missed, all the things that have happened at home in his absence. In conversation people will sometimes tell him of one of these things. Did you hear about such and such happening? Were you aware that so and so died - ndeysaan! So and so got married, so and so's house was sold, and he was evicted. But these are mere drops of water from the ocean he knows he cannot ever submerge himself in again, because it exists only in the memories of those who were here and not away, those who were present for its enactment. This curious (and sometimes merciful, and sometimes maddeningly frustrating) quality of life: that once we have passed a point we can no longer go back to it, that we can never visit a place as it was at a time in the past.

And he thinks, too, about death. (All these thoughts about time have put him in a melancholy mood). He looks at her walking, how old she is, he looks at her sitting, stooped over, her face weathered and worn with the years, her dentures clicking as she laughs. And he thinks, who will be here on my return. Who will be here, and who will be gone. And he thinks, there are people I am seeing now that I will never see again. And he resolves to take each experience he has in this place, to crystallize it and hold it in his head, store it in the deepest caves of his memory where they will forever be preserved. So in the future he will have them to console him. And he knows he will fail at this, he thinks of all the time memory has failed him in the past, how walking past people now they greet him and he does not remember their names, and has to mumble something in reply. His memory will fail, and all that will remain in its place will be grief, and he does not know how he will be able to handle it when the time comes, how other people have lived through it, people who have lost their family, and their friends. He thinks perhaps it would be easier to be the lost one, that the grief would belong to others, that the weight would be theirs to bear.

Crossing the street she is timid, the process of looking left, then right, then walking across the road - something he does every day without thought - slowed down to almost painful meter. Rude taxi drivers honk their horns as they pass. A lone streetlight looks down on the scene, and under it sit the cherreh sellers and the sellers of oranges, their wheelbarrows before them. She greets everyone they pass sitting down. Jaamangenam. Is there peace with you? Perhaps a greeting adapted from the salaam of Islam. Or perhaps - as he prefers to think - one dating back to pre-Islamic times, rooted deep in the past of the culture, this seeking after peace. Jaamangam. Jaama Rek. Mbaa Jaama Nga Fanaanor? Aaga Jamm. Jaama Jamm. It occurs to him that there exists a national pre-occupation with peace, in the same way other nations seek after success, or happiness. We have nothing, but we have peace - how many times has he heard this said. And how many times has he dismissed it as the last refuge of a desperate people, unable to claim anything else as their own. Yet now walking down this road with the old woman, he begins to get an inkling of what it means. The first glimmer of understanding, the beginnings of an epiphany. For Jaama is more than just a state - as peace is - it is a quality, possessed by the lucky, which allows one to move with lightness through the world. Jaama with the neighbors, jaama with friends, jaama with family. Jaama with strangers on the street. And the ones who practise it - for like kindness it is not only possessed, it also must be acted upon - best, at their funerals people will say: Kee ku baah la worn - amorn jaama ak ñep. He wonders if this will ever be said of him. He feels suddenly, inexplicably as if this epitaph is the most important thing he can achieve while he is still alive. That in the end nothing else will, could ever, matter.

When he takes her home she fumbles with the key at her door, before finally getting it open. She takes an age to climb the step, and he stands waiting, and he does not feel a shred of impatience. He follows her into the living room, watches as she takes off her kaala and drapes it over the couch, takes a deep drink from the water cooler she filled before they left. She wipes her mouth, and sighs, and looks at him. She remarks on the rejuvenating qualities of water. And then he takes his leave. Goodnight, she replies, using the English word. Let me lock my door - there are so many mad people in Banjul. He leaves her laughing at her own joke, and as he walks down the street he thinks he can still hear it, and it arouses in him a feeling he cannot quite describe, though it is fierce, and it is passionate, and it seems to have no source nor any goal. A kind of melancholy, a kind of happiness.