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.

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