If She Were Still Around
Seven years after the death of her grandmother, Saaleha Bhamjee finds herself with a similar dominion over which to rule.
If she was still around I would do things differently, I would say different things. I would ask different questions. And above all I would tell her how truly amazing she was. It is not having said these words that I regret most acutely.
Married at fourteen to a cousin from India who was himself not much more than a child, hers was a life of quiet servitude. She worked beside him through five pregnancies, helped by earning what she could. That my grandfather could retire in his thirties says something about the measure of their endeavours. They were not wealthy, but they were content. Therein lies a richness that few are ever blessed to achieve.
You might be forgiven for thinking “so what?”. Hers is a story no different from the thousands of Indian immigrants who made their fortunes on South African soil.
Then perhaps I should tell you what calls her to mind so often for me now, some seven years after her death. She was illiterate yet she had hands that were capable of weaving magic in her castle. Her kitchen. She understood the nature of her ingredients, was so in tune that she could taste a meal and re-create it without ever asking for a recipe. When she did use recipes, kindly read to her by my grandfather, she often added her signature of individuality, improving what was already good. She was thrifty as a cook, but still created meals fit for royalty. She was relentless in her pursuit of perfection.
And now I find myself with a dominion to rule over too. My bakery. And what I do and what she did don’t seem so different anymore.
In a world where being a mother is no longer considered a significant achievement and the measure of a woman is gauged by the number of degrees she has to her name or the kind of high powered job she holds, this may not seem like much. It may seem ordinary. Mundane. But to the people who ate her khitchro at Eid (and couldn’t stop eating out of sheer delight), or those whose senses were teased by the aroma of sizzling ghee as she prepared hot rotis in time for lunch, these are priceless memories richly embroidered with the taste and texture of everything that she created.
I’m sure you see now what makes her lessons so valuable to me today. I too strive for perfection. I too pay attention to detail. If I am to make a product viable in a competitive market, I need to be parsimonious, something I never was before. I too must have the ability to taste something extraordinary and recreate it when the need arises.
It hurts sometimes that due to family ‘politics’ I wasn’t able to learn from her fully. Or appreciate her fully. But I’m growing. And learning. And hoping that my children will learn from what I was able to imbibe, sadly a little too late.
Growing A Home
Umm Ibraheem gives thanks for the gifts of two great grandmothers.
My great, great grandmother was a princess according to our family legend, with none of the old generation around to verify whether this is indeed fact or just fiction. As the daughter of the Swazi king and still a virgin, she was selected to be part of a pedigree group of maidens who would accompany a nobleman on his journey to the next life. She and the others were to accompany him to his tomb; yes, she was to be buried alive. She fled with every ounce of life force and made her way to the Mpumalanga Lowveld, where she lived until she sensed her impending death and requested to be returned to her ancestral land.
In another chain of my lineage, my great grandmother left all that was familiar in India, her family, parents, siblings and her country, to make the trip by ocean to South Africa. With her, she brought seeds of mangoes, seeds of amli, of hektani hing, of the lentils that are meals of great nutritional value. In the parched heat of the town she now called home, she started up her garden so that her family could feed on the food of their homeland. Though I have never met this mother of mine, I have eaten from the fruits of her hands: I have tasted the amli in the pod and I swear that there were no sweeter mangoes than those from her tree.
Somehow, in Mpumalanga, the place of the rising sun, where these two great grandmothers of mine made their home, the roots of my family were planted. Wherever I may live and wherever I may travel, that part of the earth will always be home to me.
At the very core of me, in my genetic make up, I bear the gifts of these two grandmothers, and everyone else before them. Their genes have been gifted, some dominating, others becoming recessive but they are still there.
I carry India in my tastebuds, in my love for Indian food. I carry Africa in my strong back and the hips that are able to support my babies strapped to my back as I too go about my housework.
As I come to a new land, a new town, a new village, I hope that among the dominant genes they have left me are those that will enable me to make this place a home for me and for my family. I hope that I too can bear fruits that will survive to the next generation. And if I can’t, for I am not guaranteed that I will live to see my children have children, or that the plants that I grow will survive to the next generation – then still I am reminded, that whatever I do, will have ripple waves.
Huma Imam shares why she opts for a stony traditional cooking-aid in the 21st century!
The earliest childhood memories I have of my yearly trips to Pakistan are of sitting on a rope swing dangling from a mango tree in the courtyard and watching my grandmother labouring over a stone mortar and pestle. Using the heavy-duty granite flat slab for a mortar and a giant stone rolling pin as a pestle was part of her everyday cooking ritual. From crushing simple ingredients like garlic or peppercorns to finely mincing boiled spiced meat for kebab patties, the reliable kitchen tool was an excellent companion. Those were the days before the arrival of the high-tech kitchen aids that blend, chop, grind, mince and crush with the touch of a button. Those were also the days when we relished the most flavourful chutneys, fluffy rice pancakes and mouth-watering kebabs.
Time passed. Grandmother retired from cooking. A new generation took over. All of her four daughters learned to cook well. But only one, my aunt, managed to inherit the authentic taste of grandma’s dishes. She became known in the family for the tantalising taste of her kebabs and sauces.
Some of it must be her dedication to cooking or, like they say, ‘the magic in her hands’.
But I believe it has a lot to do with her insistence on using the traditional mortar and pestle like her mother. While others embraced the world of blenders, grinders and mixers, my aunt chose to toil over the physically demanding stone apparatus. Unlike the machines that simply cut through the food, the rolling and pressing of the heavy pestle ensure the release of the natural juices of ingredients, lending intense flavours to the dishes being prepared.
When I grew up and prepared to take on my role as a domestic manager, I knew for sure one item that I would have in my kitchen: a smaller and lighter version of my ancestral cooking aid: a mortar and pestle. Through it, I seek to enhance my culinary prowess. Through it, I hope to replicate the taste of that phenomenal cooking. Through it I wish to continue the domestic heritage passed down through a long line of accomplished women in my family tree.
A side plus-point: a stone-age tool proudly resting next to high-tech gadgetry lends a unique aesthetic appeal to a modern kitchen décor!
The Kitchen Talks I Missed
One beautiful afternoon, Sanjeeda chatted with SISTERS writer, Mariam Peris-Martin, about her journey to return to both Islam and a world she had once ignored.
‘Your mum is a rock’, my father told me. We were having a talk in my parents’ bedroom. I will never forget the humility in his face as he made this statement. But years had to pass until I realised the full intensity of his words.
When I was a little girl, for some strange reason, the feminine side of things never quite appealed to me. I was never interested in women’s affairs. I used to find men’s matters much more important and exciting. Perhaps my relationship with my father, in a way, shaped my early character and perception of the world. I truly admired my dad and I have always been close to him. I vividly remember how he used to take me everywhere, to his work place or even to a government building when he needed to pay a bill. My dad gave me confidence in myself, he taught me to be independent and to articulate my own opinions.
I remember occasions when we were having guests in the house. As in any traditional Bangladeshi household, men and women were accommodated in different rooms. I would quickly slip into the men’s side, where the real and important conversations used to take place. I remember being dazzled by talks about politics, the prices of gold and all kind of world affairs. Even though I was a little girl, I remember having the impression that everything that men talked about were the truly important things in life, much more important that any of the mundane talks that women used to hold in the kitchen.
I have always believed in Allah; however, for many years I was unaware of the true teachings of Islam. I was raised and educated in the West and, as a Muslim, I kept away from most haram. Yet, my lack of Islamic understanding prevented me from living a rich and nurturing Muslim life.
When I married, my husband and I moved to a different city. I didn’t have any relatives or friends around so I used to feel quite isolated during those days. One day, I decided to visit the local Masjid and I soon began to meet other sisters with a deeper understanding of Islam than I had. After a while, I began to read the Qur’an for what seemed like the first time. It reached my heart and awakened my soul.
Soon, I began to act upon the knowledge I was acquiring and my life started to change. Islam was present in my life with a greater intensity than ever before. Soon, I made the big step and I embraced the head covering and, after a while, I decided to wear an abaya too. I began to enjoy the feelings of protection and purity of doing something sincerely for the sake of Allah and following the simplicity of the teachings of Islam.
Nevertheless, the exciting new changes came with their own frustrations. There wasn’t a single shop selling Islamic clothing in the area where I lived. I didn’t even know where to find someone who could make an abaya for me. So there I was, taking the most important steps in my life for Allah’s sake and unable to obtain a simple piece of clothing. If I could only sew, I thought.
But my frustration was not just merely a sartorial dilemma. I began to reflect inwardly about other aspects of my life, the issue of my femininity and Muslim identity. I realised that I was not as independent as I thought I was; I had to depend on others for my needs and goals.
By this time, I had also developed other passions. I was particularly interested in cooking and food and down-to-earth activities such as gardening and looking after my household. It was then that I fervently wished I had listened to some extracts of these priceless women’s kitchen talks that I had completely ignored during my youth. How delightful it would have been to have listened to some of these ancestral culinary secrets from my aunts, to be gifted with the knowledge of how to keep a delicate chilli plant alive and being able to enjoy its fruits, to have shared with my talented grandmother the fine arts of tailoring and being able to design your own clothing.
Books cannot replace the richness of experience, the value of old skills and traditions and, what is more, the love with which this heritage is passed on.
These women seemed to have more time and an energy I feel I don’t have. They never complained, they just got on with things. They managed their homes while making a difference in society. I never used to see those as accomplishments, but I now see how much these women achieved.
It seems ironic that Muslim women are perceived as weak, oppressed and insignificant housewives when, in reality, Islam generates some of the strongest, most independent and brightest women.
Now that I’m running my own household and Islam is a main feature in my life, more than ever my father’s words have touched me in a way they have never before. Yes, my mum is a rock, the lynchpin of a generation of women who, silently, hold together the domestic seams of our lives.
Hearts Wide Open
Bint Abdel Hamid pays tribute to her “Tayta”.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but in the case of my paternal great aunt, she is a woman who, with the help of Allah, seems to have raised a village of children. It’s striking, the number of kids she’d looked after: six of her own and so many others belonging to friends and family and neighbours. Her husband passed away while she was still quite young, so she did a lot of this as a single mother.
My cousins and I all call her “Tayta,” an Arabic word used for “grandmother.” It’s traditional for her to be given that name as our grandmother’s sister, but she is even closer to being a grandmother to me. She nursed my father, her sister’s youngest son, as a baby, and years later, when my father was older and married and had his own children, she looked after me and my older brother.
Tayta is eighty-some years old now, and her age shows. Her bones creak beneath the weight of her own body, and you can tell that movement is not as easy for her as it once was. Her face is marked by deep creases and wrinkles and her eyes, once bright and sparkling, are glazed over with milky, greyish cataracts. In her youth, she was a beautiful woman, and even now in old age, she retains a certain beauty. Maybe it’s the kindness of her heart that radiates through her eyes, and the smile that frequently visits her lips.
She lives in a small town in Egypt, in an old clay house, now – one of the few clay houses still standing in the area. It is a one-story house with a flat roof you can walk out onto, sandwiched between two other houses. It has no external windows, and no yard; it opens out onto the street. The wooden door to her house is painted green, though the paint is faded and peeling. Past the door is an entrance hallway, and beyond that, a small space not much wider, used as a living room. Beyond is another small room, and to the side, the living room opens up into a tiny kitchen area. Close to it is a bathroom the size of a closet, and steps leading to the roof. The only other room in the house is a bedroom off to the side of the hall. The house is so small and narrow, the entire structure could pass as an extended hallway.
Just like the days when she raised all those children, Tayta’s house is still open and welcoming. Her relatives flock to her, often gathering for dinner and Eids, sometimes staying overnight. I wonder how all those people can fit into her home. Because her heart is large, her home holds more people than it seems possible. Even my mother, who doesn’t speak a common language with Tayta, loves her and feels welcomed by her.
Sometimes I compare Tayta’s house with the houses I see in the USA today. I think of American homes, which are comparatively large and spacious, but often empty. Families live hours apart, and relatives are cut off, unconnected. Tayta’s life is far from luxurious, and there is a lot about it that isn’t perfect; but there is a warmness to her home, and a feeling of barakah in the gatherings she has, the food she serves, even the space of her small home. I ask Allah (SWT) to reward her for everything she’s done for us, and to replace her house in this dunya with a palace in jannah, where the walls are made of pearl and ground is musk and there is neither sadness nor suffering.
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Safia A. reflects on the beautifully inspirational life of her grandmother.