Portrait of a Matriarch…

A short sturdy lady came towards me. Exuding strength, warmth, kindness, generosity, and an uncompromising self. She smiled greeting me with the booming greetings of the desert. At least 3 minutes dedicated to the ritual.

Allah hayki, kaif haliki, shlownki, Al-hamdulilah, Allah maki, Halla ya halla, Allah HAYki.

She kisses my cheek, grasps my head, then finishes by bowing me down and kisses the top of my head. I do the same in return. Our replies and questions the same and not necessarily in sync.

No-one makes you feel welcome here quite like her. Her household is always spick and span. An orderly, clean place. Full of warmth and welcome.

Her movements and activities always have this no nonsense sense of competence. What she does she has done it a million times, and does it well. There is a place and time for everything. She never seems to get flustered. Nothing seems to phase this woman. Even when bellowing at a naughty child, after bellowing she can in the same breath administer an enveloping hug, and kiss. Her wry smile never far away. She wears a black dishdash with red embroidery, sits by the fire and issues instructions to the children & young girls around her. She never sits for too long though, she likes to be busy.

Disobedience is met with a balance of stern vocal disapproval, mixed with tolerant humour.

Her presence at our house when I came home with my firstborn, comforted and terrified me. My lack of knowledge about babies made me nervous, and because she was there more nervous. Yet, I needed her there because she taught me the Bedouin ways with babies. The manners she showed me when doing this were beautiful. She would show me, scold me, tolerate my mistakes, giving me the space to fail, learn and succeed myself.
I was attempting to give my son his first bath. Anyone who has ever given a baby a bath for the first time, knows that this is a challenge. Their bodies and head need total support, the soap & water makes them slippery and they are likely to be crying. Read: me fumbling = screaming baby.

Bedouin babies get their first bath in a kind of tea made from desert herbs. It is anti-bacterial.

I had him in the water which she had helped me to prepare but I was struggling. How to hold him, wash him, I was discovering this was indeed a skill. She came in and took my son. Instantly the crying stopped. He seemed to feel he had been grasped by steady hands that knew what they were doing. I watched how she held him in one chunky strong hand, somehow supporting his head and body at the same time. With the other hand she quickly washed him, and then before I knew it he was all wrapped up in his towel. I felt devastated at my own inadequacy but relieved by her presence.

I did not forget the lesson and his second bath did go much better. Al-hamdulilah.

When tragedy strikes her she does not wallow in misery, bitterness or self pity. She bears her burden unquestioningly and accepts what has happened is from Allah and ultimately for the best.

She murmurs Allah Raheem, and the older women comfort each other. Not one of them totally free from hardship or tragedy.

This lady gave birth to all eight of her children herself in her own home (tent).

I love to talk to her and the other older women I know here who all have at least 6 children. Usually 8 or more. They remember all the details of each birth, a few of them giving birth on the side of road in the ambulance when they could not get to the Hospital in time. One lady gave birth when the whole town where the Hospital is, was in panic and evacuating because they thought they were imminently going to be bombed. The Doctor shouting at her to hurry up, so he could leave, delivering the baby with forceps. Al-hamdulilah in the end the town was safe and not attacked.

Her newborn son died. Allah Raheem.

Until now she has doubt about the Doctor and what caused the baby to die. She still feels his death to this day, but it does not keep her from being wholly herself. It is hard to describe but what happened is with her, but it has not irrevocably damaged her.

She focuses on Allah, and being grateful and Allah gives her heart peace and rest.

Most of the women here have had a few still births, or had newborns die, a good few of them have lost children when they were only young. They wear these stories in their faces, but not one, not one has a smidgen of anger or do they question what happened.

Islam teaches this perfect balance between fatalism and freewill – our choices. The balance between accepting what happens to us so we can live and move on, and not sitting back in our life and not trying, or struggling to do better, to do our best.

We have to accept, learn, move on and strive.

May Allah grant me and us all at least half of the strength and faith of these women. Ameen.

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