Saturday, 23 July 2011

Encounters with Women- Encounter 1: OUT OF MEMORY

This was a woman I met when I was a child, may be when I was no older than eight or nine years.  I was travelling with my family to my grandparents’ house in the countryside on a rainy Sunday.  My siblings and I were clustered together on the back seat of the car, looking out at the deserted road under a bleak winter sky, and at the muddy streams that ran down from the hills and went across the road.  Suddenly my father hit the brakes and stopped.  I did not know why he did, the road looked totally deserted. My father then drove the car back a few meters.  On the side of the road something caught my sight. There was someone standing, the size of a child, but it was not a child. It was a woman, a very old woman.  She was so tiny and curved that I did not see her when my dad drove past her.  He got down, and we knew he wanted to offer her a ride.  He opened the back door of the car -we had a van back then with a large space at the back- to let the woman in.  I was shocked and totally shamefaced; my father was not the kind of people who showed disrespect to old people the way he did that day by deciding to stock the woman at the back as if she were a holiday tent.  Soon, she was inside the car, while my siblings and I sat on our knees and faced backward to look at that strange creature, for that was all we could think of her.  Sitting with legs crossed, she was almost shapeless, her head sank inside her shoulders, and I noticed she had a hunchback that was bigger than anything else in her body.   She looked like a small holiday tent spread at the back of the car.  I understood why my father offered her the back of the car instead of offering her a seat, for she could not fit on any seat, nor could she sit in any other way but the way she was sitting.  She was almost totally deaf, and when she talked, we could barely understand a word of what she said.  My father introduced her to us as remote relative, but she looked like she had just been dropped out of a hole in time, and that minutes ago before she got into the car with us, she had been in a world where people had not yet known vehicles.
It was not the last time we saw that women.  A few months later, she came to a visit to our grandparents’ house.  I remember that my father called us to greet her, and that he re-introduced us one by one to her, but that she could not remember nor hear anything of course.  She was sitting on the floor the way she was sitting on the back of the van, - by then it became more and more evident to us that she could not sit on chairs- , noiseless, in a state of nearly absolute torpor.   When my siblings and I surrounded her and started noisy efforts at making her speak, she blurted out with a talk we did not understand at first, but then, we realised she was telling some sort of story, a folk story she may have memorised in her younger age.  It seemed like it was the only thing she could say, and her only way to keep communication with the world.
Remembering the story, an old African proverb comes to my mind:  ‘when an old man dies, a library crumbles down.”  I thought about that woman and I thought she was that library, and that when she died, all her knowledge sank into the silence of the grave.  It surprised me that telling those stories were the only thing she could say, and probably her unique way of communication.  She could barely maintain any other type of conversation and whenever she did, she would lose track, and she could hardly remember the names of people around her even if they were close relatives. However, when she told a story, she would regain the coherence and organisation she missed in ordinary conversations, and somehow, her memory was able to reach into the store of tales, which old people with weak memories or with Alzheimer are surprisingly capable of doing.   I still do not understand the secret behind that, but the more old people become disconnected from the social world and became immersed into themselves, the more their senses and consciousness were linked to a world that has already vanished.
I thought also about the same African proverb and thought about the importance of stories for women. In most cultures of the world, women were the libraries and the living memories of their communities. More than men, women preserved the spirit of storytelling; they passed their wisdom from generation to generation, while men would be busy coping with a very hard environment, and waging cruel struggles in the market or toiling on farms.  It did not mean the role of women’s in the household was less tiresome, or that they did not contribute with strenuous labour on the farm, most women in rural areas did, but they, as the dwellers of the household, were more in touch with the treasures of oral culture.
Nowadays, preserving oral culture is done through turning it into written culture, the way the Grimm Brothers collected the oral lore of their communities into compact books. This may diminish the value of stories as many folklorists contend, but at least, there will be an effort to preserve the core culture of a lot of women that is going to disappear if this lore disappears with the lives of their tellers.   That oral culture is the companion of old women in transition between life and death is not an accident.  The oral treasure is not a mere historical monument to be preserved; it is a paragon with psychological and emotional value, and a vital connector between women and their world.  In a brilliant book Behind Closed Doors, Monia Hejaiej discusses the role of folk stories in divulging part of the women’s daily preoccupations, and she weaves the forms of repression these women suffer with the structures and the morals of the tales they recount in closed households, and within the domestic sphere.  I tried to imagine the same old lady in her youth, when she was a young girl, or maybe a middle aged mother taking care of young children.  Probably, her existence weighed upon her one way or another, the way life becomes unbearable with a lot of women nowadays when the balance between satisfaction and the life they sacrifice to others becomes difficult to find.  However, she may have been in possession of something we do not have.  For she, through the stories handed down to her through her ancestresses, was able to translate her plight into words, words that she would weave into stories, which would be circulated whenever the social occasion allowed. Imagine being able to tell your own quandaries in codified language over and over and the healing effect it has over you.
Years later, when I asked my father about the woman’s name, he did not remember it.  He did not remember the day he stopped for her by the side of the road.  He did not remember a woman with a hunchback at all.  Nobody in my family remembered her in fact. I wonder how she has suddenly fallen out of memory and gone beyond every recollection, and I doubt sometimes that I might have invented her. I wanted to know her name at least, so that I can write it when I would tell her story on my blog, and I find myself unable even to remember it.  It is fine I tell myself, as I long as I can still tell about her, it is ok.  Perhaps it was my own ritual to keep shards of women’s disconnected history together, to pass it on to the next generation. 

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