(Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, in case you’re wondering about the title.)
In our patriarchal, unfortunately chauvinistic, society, many of the words or phrases used to denote positive qualities have a distinctly male flavour: gada’ or dakkar, for example.
The brilliant Cairokee, right at the end of their song Matloob Za’eem (Wanted: A leader), recorded before we elected our current poor excuse for a “leader”, declared that the ideal za’eem needed for this country, post-Mubarak, should in fact be a dakkar.
The word is hard to translate, but roughly it means: “Someone with balls”.
Well, no single segment of this population has more “balls” than its mothers.
“In politics if you want anything said, ask a man,” noted Margaret Thatcher. “If you want anything done, ask a woman.”
Perhaps we really should have had a female president. Especially a mother.
Can’t find something? Ask your mother. She’ll always find it (how on earth do they do this? Do they have radar or something? I think the US’s rather pointless mission to search-and-destroy Ozzy Bong Laden would have ended years ago if only they’d sent a crack-unit of badass muthas).
Want to find out something? Don’t ask Google; give your mum a call. Somehow she’ll always have the answer.
Want to organise your finances? (“It’s the economy, stupid.”) Your mum will come up with an ingenious plan to divide your monthly salary into envelopes for each week of the month, along with one for rent and another for bills, only for you to forget the envelopes in Alexandria over the weekend and have to spend the entire week on a shoestring again.
There’s been much said in this newspaper already about women in this country more-or-less running this country, becoming, in some families, the main, sometimes even the sole, breadwinner, carrying their families on their heads like rural felaha women carrying those heavy bags of God-knows-what on theirs—and suffering for it in turn. So I won’t dwell on it here.
I will, however, reflect once again briefly on how the language we use reflects some of these attitudes. One of the many Arabic words for “lion”, asad, is sometimes used to denote a real “man’s man”; a true “lion” (testosterone no doubt seeping profusely out of his every pore).
The Arabic word for “lioness”, however, is used to denote something rather different: a—how shall I put it—“fallen woman”.
(The reason for this bizarre linguistic appropriation, I’m told, is that a lioness can mate with multiple males when she is in heat.)
I love felines (the big, the small, the Kirsten Dunst) so I just want to explain why I think this particular use of language is perhaps as bizarre as calling someone a “dog” (loyal, loving, beautiful animals), or a “donkey” (hard-working, diligent, also beautiful animals, who help humans earn their daily bread), while illustrating a wonderful example of motherhood in nature.
Prides of lions are dominated by the lionesses. The majority of the pride is made up of genetically-related females (around six or seven), with usually just one male (though sometimes two), plus all the cubs (both male and female).
Now, it’s actually the lionesses in the pride, not the “king of the jungle”, who do all the hunting. The lionesses will go out and hunt for the prey while the male waits with the cubs. But despite this, they still won’t get first dibs on anything they catch (sound familiar?). In fact, they, and the little cubs, have to wait their turn, until the male (or males) have had their fill. And if there’s nothing left of the carcass, they may not eat at all. And, of course, the maternal instinct being what it is, the lionesses will always let the hungry cubs eat first.
“The Prophet said woman dominates men of intellect and possessors of hearts, but ignorant men dominate women, for they are shackled by the ferocity of animals.”
From Jalal Al-Din Rumi’s Masnavi (Masnawi, Mesnavi; no-one seems to know what it’s called).
A few lines later, Rumi says: “She [woman] is the light of God, she is not your [earthly] beloved: she is creative, you might say she is uncreated.”
If God is the creator of the cosmos, what can be more divine in this world than the female, than motherhood: “Heaven lies under the feet of the mothers,” as the Prophet also said.
For just like a tree, which gives unconditionally of its shade to anyone who rests under it, of its fruit to anyone who is hungry, no matter who they are, animal or human, prince or pauper (to the good, the bad, and the Badie), motherhood is overflowing with kindness and utterly selfless. Those countless videos of interspeciary adoption are testament to this.
Anyone who has watched a mother coo over her baby might get an inkling as to what Rumi was talking about here (I think inklings are what most of us mere mortals can ever aspire to with Rumi; this man was on another planet—another universe, even). Listen to this bit of verse written by an anonymous female Arab poet from the Umayyad period:
“My little boy’s smell is all lavender / Is every little boy like him, or hasn’t anyone given birth before me?”
I think most men find women simultaneously spellbinding, perplexing, infuriating, and, ultimately, mysterious. I think this whole thing with them carrying something in their bellies for nine months—continuously growing and sapping away at their strength—makes them fundamentally weird to us.
“She carried me for nine months in her belly,” you always hear people say when they speak fondly of their mothers. But in my mum’s case, I think it was the next three decades that truly sapped her strength.
Both my poor parents suffered a lot to bring me up (we need a Father’s Day in addition to Mother’s Day in this country, for all the great Dads out there like mine).
I was a pretty stubborn, difficult kid. I hated school with a violent passion. I’m still uneasy about the concept; to me, they still seem like some sort of kinderkonzentrationslager (I ask you: Is there anything more fascist, more sadistic, than making teenage boys still pining for the warmth of their beds and their downy duvets, play rugby in the freezing cold on a muddy wet pitch at 10 am?).
Anyway, I gave my parents untold problems in this regard. I would refuse to do work if it didn’t suit my tastes; I’d sit at my desk and doodle, pretending to do work when I wasn’t, and then do this at home with homework. This left my parents and teachers somewhat perplexed (parent-teacher evenings at school, which, depending on the school, I was sometimes required to go to, were always a bit of a weird, uncomfortable experience).
By the time we’d hit the terrible teens, I was cutting school altogether, spending the whole day at the library or the cinema (where I still think my real education took place, to be honest).
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. But I don’t want to embarrass myself with all the other stuff. Needless to say, I gave my parents, especially my mum, a really hard time.
Mother’s Day? “It’s silly, mum; every day is Mother’s Day; I don’t need a day to show you how special you are, surely?” (That didn’t go down too well.) The same went for birthdays and Eids and all the other celebrations and festivals this deliberate nonconformist deemed too “silly” to participate in, and would deliberately forget.
My mum’s an economist by training, and possesses a precise, mathematical mind that would put any computer to shame, coupled with the kind of artistic flair and bravura that would make Señor Dali look like a square. I remember her spending hours using different multi-coloured bits of plasticine to make eerily lifelike copies of different kinds of flowers; she’d put them in pots, and everyone, including me, would have to approach and touch them just to check when told they weren’t real.
Yet despite these talents, she chose to devote the majority of her life and time to my sister and me.
Trust me, my mum would have been the greatest president this country has ever seen.
Everyone thinks their mum’s cooking is better than anyone else’s, and I’m no different. But in my case, I might be right. Even outside the family, her culinary masterpieces are well-known, and guests coming to our house for dinner parties would actually make special requests.
However, for me, my mum’s culinary meisterwerk remains her seemingly mundane, but in reality heavenly, omelettes with melted cheese. She seems to think this is the answer to everything: sadness, tiredness, you name it (and, of course, she’s right). She learnt from the best, here: my maternal grandma had a variant of this using French fries and sausages. Carnage. Needless to say, this sleepless kid would sleep like a baby after having one of these bad boys.
This year, I also deliberately forgot Mother’s Day. They say the best kind of gift is one you make yourself, so I’m dedicating this column to my mum, for all the agony she went through to bring me up, and all the agony she still has to go through.
It’s a poor excuse for a gift: no gift will be enough to repay her; only God can do that.
So, and without further ado, Happy (somewhat late) Mother’s Day, mum.
Your loving son,