Sunday, 29 August 2010
The early rays of sun always found their way into the small room, fighting through the thin withered drapes that hung on the only window. Accompanying the light and never failing to wake up were the car horns and the shouts of the peddlers that began crowding the narrow streets of Hamra. Slowly getting up from my bed, before having my regular breakfast which consisted of black tea and labneh with a few olives and a slice of tomato, I would say my morning prayers. Drawing away the drapes from the window and opening it up in order to allow the air in, along with the smell of freshly baked bread and other scents of the street which were not all nice, I would clean the table and tidy the room, which didn’t take any time at all, since all there was besides the small bed and a dresser was a table on which stood an old television set. In the corner there stood two suitcases above which was a small shelf with a few books, none of which I had ever read, but kept nonetheless since I thought they looked good. The only book which I have read and come to know by heart was the Koran that I had received as a gift from my mother on that awful day twelve years ago. The screams! Each time I closed my eyes or found myself with nothing to do, the screams would come back and tears would slowly find their way down my cheeks! Forgive me God!
Being twenty eight years old, most people would tell me that I have my whole life ahead of me! I did not! Working as a cleaning lady in this twelve story building was comforting! I’ve been leading this life for eleven years, and I was happy! Or at least as happy as God would permit me to be! I made enough to get me by, and did not have to pay rent! Besides, the families in the building were good to me. And was especially good to one of them.
The pains came and went! I couldn’t breathe! Sweat! Bright lights! The corridor, men in masks! I was bleeding! Pain! I prayed! Cried! Screams! Blackout!
I had not always lived in Hamra. But there was something about this area that always attracted me. The countless stores with their bright displays, the numerous cafes and restaurants. The street was always filled with people, both day and night. And you could hear the different dialects and even languages everywhere. Arabic, English, French, and other languages that I never knew. The area was alive. It was alive with the sounds of the church bells that preceded the cries of prayer from the mosques near by. It lived through the arguments of the men sitting in cafes discussing everything from politics to some new movie showing at the theater down the street, with much preference to the prior topic. And it lived through the trees, and the benches, through the children that ran up and down the roads. The area lived, and all this life around me refused to let me die.
On the fifth floor of the building in which I lived resided Mr. Elias Khoury with his wife Najwa and their son Allen. Mr. Elias always reminded me of an overweight penguin in his suit, carrying his little briefcase filled with documents. Each time I mentioned this to Allen, we would both laugh, but never shared our laughter with anyone, it was our secret. Being a lawyer, Mr.Elias spent most of his time outside his home. Najwa was a sophisticated and up to date on everything housewife. And by up to date I do not merely mean fashion and politics, the neighbors of the three closest houses and their lives are also included. I guess she was bored, and gossip was a cheap pass time activity. She was older than her husband, and everyone was surprised when they welcomed Allen into their family. Allen was loved. And his presence in the family seemed to shade over the awkward appearance of his always late for something father, or the overly perfumed and too neatly dressed mother. Allen made the family seem real. And he was loved. Not only by his parents…I loved him too. Since Mr. Elias was always late at work and his wife had to be out of the house in order not to jeopardize her social status among her many friends, Allen was under my supervision at least 4 days of the week. If it was up to me, I would have spent each day with him.
The nights were still hard. After praying, I would change into my nightgown and lay in bed for hours. I would hear the laughter of the youth returning to their cars after drinking at the pub that was around the corner. I would listen to the cars passing by with the music blasting loudly. But that’s not what kept me awake. Each time I would close my eyes, it would all come back to me. The corridor of bright lights. The pain. And the screams that I heard for a few minutes before I was left laying numb and deaf. The screams that haunted me still. I would take his photograph from beneath my pillow, kiss it, press it gently to my chest and wait for what I had accustomed to follow. The tears. The picture was taken a few years ago. A young child standing with his backpack and his lunchbox waiting for the bus. And the inscription that know one ever saw. Ali, 10 years old.
Oum Ali was nice! She was always smiling! Each morning she would wait with me in front of the house for the school bus to pick me up, and she would be there waiting each time the bus dropped me back. My mother always packed nutritious meals for me, but they weren’t always tasty. Oum Ali made sure to slip me a chocolate bar each morning. It was one of our secrets. Her face was strange. Not ugly strange, just sad. She always seemed tired and had black circles beneath her eyes. And each time she looked at me, I could see tears hidden behind her smile. No one in the building, including my parents knew why she was called Oum Ali, since she wasn’t married and didn’t have any children. It was just the way she introduced herself my mother told me, and no one really questioned it. Every time she met me after school on days when my parents weren’t home, I would promise my self that I would ask her about her name, and where her son Ali was, but each time I decided to postpone it. It wasn’t polite according to my mother. But I just wanted to know.
Oum Ali was a poor sweet woman. She had never quarreled with anyone, and did everything that her job had asked of her and more. Our building was always spotless, and everyone’s mail was always delivered. She had taken a liking to our son and took good care of him. My husband and I had wanted to hire a housekeeper who would look after him, but we both figured that since Allen got along great with Oum Ali, there was no need. We had offered to pay her for the help, but even though we knew the extra cash would greatly help her, she never accepted any pay. So instead I would get her foods, clothes and other trivial things whenever I could. She had moved into our building as a cleaning lady after Allen turned six months old. And it was she who had volunteered to look after him whenever we needed a babysitter. Poor thing though, we never actually questioned why she introduced herself as Oum Ali. Who could have guessed?
I stare at Mrs.Khoury and different thoughts creep into my head. Not all of them are nice I must confess. But she’s a good mother I tell myself. She takes good care of Allen. He’s got everything. I guess one person’s misery is another one’s joy. Life is not fair, but all know that without me mentioning it. I did the right thing I tell myself. It’s not like I had a choice. I was only 16. My mother forced me. Dad didn’t even know. And still, there is always this one thought…what if?
One day after I had done all the chores and had spoiled myself with the falafel and hommos for lunch I decided to finally do it. He has the right to know I convinced myself. He deserves to know the truth if he ever seeks to find it.
Allen was sitting in his room doing his studies when I knocked before entering and asked him for a piece of paper and a pen. He asked me if I wanted to write down the lotto numbers as I usually did for his mother and father, I lied…and said yes.
That night I prayed, asking God for the strength to write down and immortalize what I have been trying to erase from memory for the past twelve years. And then I thanked God for keeping it all so vividly in my head. I wrote the letter, which was not very long and not as beautiful as they turn out in the novels or movies. It was the blunt truth. Nothing to make me seem like a victim. No excuses. Just the truth. I put the letter into an envelope and sealed it with a signature which made me smile, “To Ali.”
I guess what made me write the letter last week was the reason that I knew that I didn’t have much more time. By the time the doctors examined me at the AUH hospital during their charity event when people with no insurance could get an appointment and be examined, I had known that it was not cold nor food poisoning that made me ache all over. I had cancer. It was too late to operate. But I smiled at the news. At least I thought, I would be able to sleep without the flashbacks of the corridor of bright lights and the never ending haunting screams of the newborn.
According to the doctors I had approximately a month to live. They will be proved to be wrong. I had two weeks at most I thought. I felt that I would not make it to Allen’s birthday that was in exactly twenty three days from today. He will be turning thirteen. I guess some superstitious people will point out the unlucky number thirteen. I laugh at their concerns. Silly people.
I woke up feeling worse then ever today. Now that I think of it the term woke up is a lie, I never really slept last night, and for the first time it wasn’t that memory that kept me awake. I spent the night on my knees in front of the toilet throwing up the small portion of food I had that day. So when the sun rose up, and the street outside was coming alive with the noise I got out of my bed and placed the letter I had written in Mr. and Mrs. Khourys’ mailbox. After that I went back to my room, for the first time in almost thirteen years without sweeping the entrance of our building. I went back to my bed, placed the photograph of Ali that I always kept under the pillow close to my chest, and I guess in the duration of an hour give or take took my last breath.
When I found the letter in our mailbox I was confused. It never really hit me until later that day I had found out that poor Oum Ali was found dead in her apartment with a picture of Allen in her hands. It was then that everything made sense. I had read the letter over and over. Elias read it not less than a hundred times himself. It was only the addressee of the letter that never actually read its content. And he never will. This I promised myself and my husband. From the look on my face he realized that I was not going to change my mind and all he could say was…you’re right.
I stayed awake all night blaming myself for not seeing what was right there in front of my eyes this whole time. I could not give birth, and so we decided to adopt. We had adopted a child almost thirteen years ago, but no one in our neighborhood knew of this off course.
Oum Ali was Allen’s birth mother. She had to give him up for adoption unwillingly, and had spent the next six months searching for him. After she had found us she simply wanted to be as close as possible to her son. And know she wanted to let him know all this. Never! As long as Allen knows and will never doubt, I am his mother.
I burned the letter outside our house the following day.
I was very sad when my mother told me that Oum Ali had passed away. Who’s going to slip me bars of chocolate every day? Who’s going to wait for me for the bus, and be there when I come back from school? Who’s going to sit with me when my parents are out? I guess my mother will have to hire a housekeeper. I miss Oum Ali. She was nice. And what upset me the most, was that I never had enough courage to ask her about her name. But I was sure that somewhere there is a kid that’s even more upset than I am. Poor Ali, I don’t even want to imagine what it’s like to lose a mother.
Thursday, 9 July 2009
Thursday, 2 July 2009
A tree stood on a hill
You kept on wishing you could fly
But remained quite still
You did believe that you would die
Sometime not far from now
So you just stood there, you did not lie
Wishing it was not now
Beneath you life was passing by
Nobody seemed to care
About the boy that would soon die
Simply…due to a dare
What exactly does it mean for us to label or fill the shoes of something or should I better say someone that has already existed? If we take into consideration Barthe’s idea on toys and the myth that hides within them, we will with no doubt find the fact that since our early childhood we are raised to simply fill in the shoes of a certain user of this world, one that uses the life-less machines around him to re-create what has already existed! We are raped from our ability to create, we can not be creators, since something new might be produced, and something new means something not tested with time which in turns means that it might be dangerous. So in order to escape this fate we are given miniature objects of the real adult world “toys” and from our very early stages in life are raised to become and believe as well as accept our fate of filling the place of factory workers, construction workers, doctors and even stylists.
The most shocking of these is most probably the miniature dishes, spoons, irons, and life-like baby dolls that keep the young girls focused on their socially chosen path of life, and that is of motherhood and the upbringing of a family.
Heavenly bastard in the sky forbid if a young girl chooses to play with a toy airplane or a gun! That should not be heard of! A girl should be raised with meek and coy characteristics, and as an introvert! She is raised with the ideas that she is both physically and mentally inferior to the sex with some extra di-use piece of meat! Our patriarchal society places so much effort and advertising on a masculine image, that anyone who can’t grind cheese on their abs is simply not good enough for the role of man-kind representation if creatures from outer space ever decide to drop by for a visit. SAD isn’t it?
S - arcastically
A - bhorrently
D – isgusting
This only goes to show us that the illusion of decentering the patriarchy in our society is as vain as attempting to maintain the youthful complexion on the faces of the elderly. This need to maintain the order of things will constantly prevent the social changes that our society is in grave need of. Just like the ongoing revolution of removing the center of things and throwing the signified away from the signifiers, thoughts of balancing the manly dominated and womanly struggling shadows is still far away from becoming a reality. The image of this reality has slowly worked itself into the media, and although the screen has attempted to transcend the illusionary reality of the powerful woman, the behind the screen truly in power male executives are the running horses that are pulling this on-screen wagon of shameful trickery.
On top of the social pressure to clone every individual into another robot-like machine programmed by the illusions that are transmitted via the pixels from the all knowing and promising box of the lies, Barthe brings to our attention the idea that the struggle between the poor and the proletariat is also brought forth with utmost artistic realism through the work of Charlie Chaplin. The poor Charlie-Man approaches the idealism of proletariat with his portrayal of the poor man who does not politically deal with the issue at hand. It is also interesting that the idea of “poor” is portrayed with the oversized sandwiches and rivers of milk that flow, but there is still no woman in the picture. This idea of the poor man not being in the position of being able to get a woman sheds light on the struggle of the insignificance of the poor man in the wealth dominated world of romance.
Saturday, 9 May 2009
“Even though she was good-looking, nobody dared to court her because it was clear that Misshepeshu, the water man, the monster, wanted her for himself. He’s a devil, that one, hungry with desire and maddened for the touch of young girls, the strong and daring especially, the ones like Fleur”(p.11), with such strong accusations and beliefs of the Native Indian Americans it is easy for me as a reader to see the magical fascination which frightens as much as attracts the men of the novel and the readers alike to Fleur. Like almost every society with some sort of organized belief system, the devil always has and will be an identity that is both feared and respected. And the idea that it is the devil himself who wishes to have Fleur in his possession only further fuels the intrigue and need to understand not only her character but the element which draws all the gossip and common fascination of the natives towards her. But despite all this a brave soul is introduced to the readers, Eli. Despite all the rumors that circulate around Fleur, Eli is willing to pursue her and is not afraid to love her despite the fates of the other men who have been associated with Fleur. This does not only show the magnetic force that she posses but the power she holds over men. The novel progresses with constant reminders of the supernatural state of Fleur, which remains a mystery. Was Fleur really a being with elements from another world, a world beyond the reach of the commons, or is it simply the Native way to dwell in these thoughts? With references to Fleur’s daughter Lulu, such questions remain unanswered as is portrayed with phrases such as the following: “To our minds, Lulu’s eyes blazed bright as his. Yet she had the Kashpaws’ unmistakable nose, too wide and squashed on the tip. She was good-looking. She had Fleur’s coarse, quick-growing hair. Sheer black” (p.70). This characterization of Lulu not only gives her physical features but also suggests that perhaps Misshepeshu is the girl’s father when Pauline says that her eyes were like his. But then she goes on to say that her nose was obviously the nose of a Kashpaw.
But the supernatural and the unexplained does not only circulate around Fleur, Pauline, whose narrative is not very reliable since her character is portrayed with many insecurities and flaws also embodies the strange happenings common to the lives and beliefs of the Natives. “They say, or Bernadette does, that when they found me in the tree later that morning, everyone was shot with fear at the way I hung, precarious, above the ground. They were amazed I could climb there, as the trunk was smooth for seven feet and there were no hand- or footholds of any sort. But I remembered everything, and wasn’t in the least surprised. I knew that after I circled, studied, saw all, I touched down on my favorite branch and tucked my head beneath the shelter of my wing” (p. 68-69). It seems perfectly natural to Pauline that she turned into an owl and flew to the top of this tree. She felt at peace doing this because she had just found her calling, watching people dying and harvesting souls. This is a dark characterization of Pauline; she finds comfort and pleasure in watching people die and dealing with their dead bodies.
In conclusion I would like to say that Louis Erdrich successfully captured the essence and the magic which she presented in a unique way, not only to fascinate the readers but to open their eyes to the struggle and pain that any minority faces in our modern world of taming the unknown, claiming the rights to things which are not of possession and the political struggle for power, a never-ending game of the power holders of the world.
The heroine of the story depicts clearly and harshly the experience an immigrant faces in the new and alien place. “First, you don’t exist. Then you’re invisible. Then you’re funny. Then you’re disgusting.”(p. 26), quotations such as this one attacks with clarity the feelings that most keep locked inside and which even more people feel but are unable to turn into words. Her direct and honest, humane and merciless narration pinpoints the difficulties. But she is not the victim, quiet the opposite, the protagonist is an identity, that fights, that faces the reality and strikes back. We notice that Mukherjee’s story revolves and is fully narrated by a woman, who is not dependant on a man, in fact, the protagonist’s husband is the one who depends fully and in a sarcastically child-like manner needs and begs for her. This idea is clearly shown in the line on page 33 : “Tell me you need me. Panna, please tell me again.”
We notice that it is not only Panna’s husband who is placed beneath the critical microscope of a woman in the modern city, but other men are depicted as the women have been for so many years in literature. “Like many men in this country, he seems to me a displaced child, or even a woman, looking for something that passed him by, or for something that he can never have.”(p. 30). Quotations such as this one further prove the point that the male-dominating and constantly restated idea is one that should be looked at more closely, and after doing just that, Mukherjee proves to the readers that in fact it is the men who seem helpless and lost, unaware due to their egos of the state in which they are, parading their masculinity in an attempt to hide their insecurities and pain.
Despite all the qualities and strengths that Mukherjee gives her protagonist, we notice that Panna still is not completely comfortable in her shoes. The many echoes of the memory and nostalgia for the past plays a significant role in the story. To me personally, this is not a weakness, but a strength. At the end of the day, Panna is a woman, and her sentimental and feminine qualities must be present to complete her identity. By allowing the readers to see this side of Panna, Mukherjee places her on a pedestal of a complete woman in the big city, not fully conforming to the needs of the city, but battling all the opposing forces without having to let go of her true self. This was one the things that I found to be especially rewarding and worth of praise.
In conclusion, I would like to state that after completing this piece, not only have I found an incredibly interesting author whose works I will definitely make sure to look forward to reading in the near future, but also allowed me as a student of literature and a firm believer in the equality of the sexes to notice that there are some very strong and capable, witty and assertive literary activist, proving to the world that change happens only when we stay true to ourselves and take all the action we want to see into our own two hands and make it happen.
The fact that the colored heroine of the story is not even given a name was not a surprise. A name gives one an identity, a privilege which can not be bestowed on a lower class working local cashier girl. Through out the entire story, we notice the author dealing with the female heroine as an object: “Her eyes went over everything in the flat although her body tried to conceal its senses of being out of place by remaining as still as possible, holding its contours in the chair offered her as a stranger’s coat is set aside and remains exactly as left until the owner takes it up to go.”(p. 1935). I don’t think that this is degrading or offensive, this is the Gordimer’s way of showing the uneasiness and the reluctance of allowing the development of feelings towards the lower class worker in a country where you, yourself is a stranger, constantly under the close inspection of the local authorities.
Even though the story takes place over a certain period of time, precisely how long the reader tends to figure out but with no certainty, events are thrown in with absolutely no warning sign. In one paragraph our heroine visits the apartment carrying the groceries and leaving with a box of chocolate, and in the next we find her making the bed after she has slept in it. This to me personally was a remarkable technique. It felt alive. This is how life is in my opinion, one day you meet a person and it seems that this encounter took place just yesterday, but you are finding yourself in the same bed with this person on the next. I would like to draw attention to the futility of language and conversation that I believe Gordimer wanted to point out. The heroine speaks English in its most simple and often grammatically incorrect way. But this does not stop the feelings and the mutual interest growth. Even the love-making act which is an act usually portrayed filled with passion and fore-warned by endless talk of, happens in muteness: “He made his way into her body without speaking; she made him welcome without a word.”(p.1937).
The melancholic and cold feeling that never leaves the reader I believe to have the purpose to foreshadow the end. This relationship is doomed from the start. The lies, the hiding and the guilt-trips as well as the inability to understand the traditions and customs of the locals by the foreign further hints at an ending that won’t place a smile on our face. There is no “bad” character; there is no scapegoat or anyone to take the blame. The characters are real, and in each of them a mixture of wrong and right equates to them being themselves. Their attempt to make things work although proven futile at the end, leave them not in a position to place blame but in the reality of acknowledging that the trial and the attempt is much more rewarding than the outcome. They tried, and they tried the best they could, it just didn’t happen, it ended. The humility that the heroine faces in the conclusion and the little aid that the Dr. provides with the hiring of the attorney is mere human interaction, nothing more and nothing less.
In conclusion, although racial, economic and class issues are brought with solid force to the reader, I find the style to be of extremely emotionally filled higher ranking since the reader finds him/herself not judging or taking sides but living with the characters throughout the entire story in notion that reality is never judgmental, it simply is the way it is, and we each cope with it the best way we can.