My mother’s hands were her ignored best friends. They witnessed every minute of her life and were there for her whenever she needed them without ever letting her down. They were very efficient; just like robots because that was expected from them. It is as if they were only created for scrubbing, rubbing, holding, squeezing, lifting, and dropping. They worked in hot, dry, cold, and moist environments. They started early morning and ended late at night, without ever complaining of arthritis, cuts, burns, bruises or inflammations. They were good at pulling hair, slapping, hitting, pushing, and shaking. They never had time to caress, massage or give any sign of affection to the kids. It was as if they feared being used for affection. They were rarely used to touch flesh. Even holding and caressing a child while the child was breastfed was not part of the hands agenda. The hands were trained to show anger, fear, and frustration. But they were never trained to show and feel love. I am sure they would have loved to feel love. Her hands never made a mistake or disappointed her but my mother never paid attention to them. It is sad because her hands were very beautiful. Their fingers and nails were long and beautifully shaped. They were slightly meaty with a beautiful strong olive skin. If my mother took care of them, they would have probably taught her that they were a tool for feelings through touch, a tool to show love and affection. But can you blame a mother who has 12 kids to have time to take care of her hands? Or can you blame her, when she herself never experienced what she could have taught these beautiful hands?
Every morning, when my mother woke up at 5:30 am, her hands helped her dress up. They washed her face with cold water, brushed her hair, and then opened the door to the milk woman, an old lady, with muddy, callous, big feet inside plastic sandals. A woman who wore a “malia” a traditional sari like attire worn by peasants and farmers and a headscarf that was turning grey, with bright pink flowers and bright green leaves. The milk woman smelled like grass in the winter and hay in the summer, and she had a hard time walking because of her heaviness. She had a huge face, with very small puffy eyes, bushy eyebrows, a beard and a mustache, and a huge nose. But when she talked, she was the kindest softest person. Every day the milk lady brought us three gallons of milk. Half of it was delivered in the morning and the other half was delivered in the evening.
‘My mother’s hands took the milk put it in a huge pot to boil on the stove. While the milk was boiling, my mother’s hands took the big heavy rug from the kitchen outside. These hands certainly had a very strong grip to be able to shake such a heavy rug for minutes. But their strength came from the energy inside my mother. My mother shook all the dust in her heart along with the dust in the rug. It was her moment of emotional therapy letting go of her anger and frustrations. The more anger and frustrations she had, the longer she shook that rug and the stronger the grip in her hands. They seemed to understand and to follow through with her will. I can still remember my mother’s facial expressions as she shook that rug every single day. She would bite her upper lip and twist her face in pain.
That rug was made of all our torn old clothes.
My mother would gather the clothes in a large stack and sit on the floor holding a pair of scissors. She would cut a slit with the scissors and then with her two hands she would rip the clothes in small strips. Every tear of the clothes was a rip in her heart fired by an inner anger. She ripped and tore for hours until her fingers were tired and had no strength to go on. They seemed to beg for mercy and that was when my mother stopped and gave in. When she was done, she stacked the strips of fabric in a big sac. And when the sac was full, she sent it with my father to an old man who would weave the rug in less than a week. One rug replaced the other for years until we all grew older and no longer needed them. Each rug was the playground of all the children. The rug was laid on the floor of the kitchen. It was the place where we, as kids, ate, played, fought, cried, and took naps or simply sat and stared at walls or ceiling while doing nothing. It was our daily-allowed roaming territory. It was restricted and constrained by a wooden gate. Three times a day, the rug was adorned by small short round tables called “midas” where we ate our meals. It is strange, now that I look back, how many territories I covered in my life, much bigger than that small space of the rug in our childhood kitchen.
After dusting the rug, my mother’s hands changed the babies’ diapers, fed the babies and put them on the rug.
It was now time for the school age children to wake up and get ready for school. My mother’s hands washed their faces, changed their clothes, brushed their hair and made them into tresses on each side of their hair. The kids went to the kitchen waited to be fed breakfast. Her hands picked up all the soiled clothes and sheets and carried them to the kitchen. Her hands prepared breakfast; a pudding or a cream of wheat or just bread and butter. The hands put milk on the table; a milk still warm and sweet, quite the best food we all enjoyed every day of the week and every week of the year.
When the older kids were done eating breakfast, my mother would take them back to the bathroom, makes sure they brushed their teeth. The ones who were not school age would go back to the kitchen to play. Then my mother would walk the school age kids to the bus station. She made sure to lock the house on her way out leaving behind all her toddlers and babies alone in the kitchen. The school bus station was about half a mile away from home. She enjoyed that walk in the neighborhood. It was the time of the day when husbands were gone to work and wives were busy with their daily chores, which included grocery shopping or cleaning the entrance of their homes. And that is when and where my mother met and greeted her female neighbors. On her way back home, she would stop at the grocery store, at the butcher’s shop and at the fruit and vegetable stand to buy what she needed for the day’s meal.
Back to the kitchen, my mother’s hands got busy again. They put a very large pot of cold water on a stove to boil for the laundry. While waiting for the water to boil, the hands proceeded to make my mother’s first coffee of the day. Two teaspoons of sugar in her special “zazoua;” a small copper pitcher, two third filled with water. When it all boiled, a teaspoon of a mixture of ground up coffee beans, dried orange peel, and a little bit of chicory was added to the brew. The coffee was served in my mother’s favorite coffee cup. The right hand put a cigarette in my mother’s mouth and the left hand lit the cigarette with a lighter. Then while one held the coffee cup, the other opened up the radio to my mother’s favorite station. My mother sat in the kitchen to enjoy the coffee and cigarette break. This was one of her best moments of the day, where she was almost in a meditative state, quiet and peaceful and enjoying the music coming out of the radio. When the break ended usually with the last puff on her cigarette and the water boiled, she went on to the next chore.
The soiled sheets and dirty laundry were placed in a large zinc basin filled with the heated water. Melted slimy soap and cold water were added to the basin and the dirty laundry was left soaking while my mother moved to the next thing. The hands pulled the wet mattresses out in the sun while my mother cursed at all her kids who couldn’t control their bladders.
At 9 am my mother was hungry. It was time for her first meal of the day which consisted of leftover food from dinner, or a sandwich brought by my father when he found himself in the vicinity of the neighborhood, or she ate a mixture of olive oil and condensed milk, or bread butter or jam. My mother had a very good appetite and a sweet tooth.
When it was time to prepare lunch, she brought all the food items she needed from the pantry. She put newspapers and a small basin full of water on the floor. She sat on the sheepskin rug and that’s when her hands started with great precision peeling and cutting the vegetables. Her hands didn’t use a cutting board. Her thumb was the best of all cutting boards and often ended up with small cuts or scratches. And with time, the skin became so hard that it peels without bleeding. When finished with the vegetables, her hands took away the trash and proceeded to cook the meal, a stew, or rice, or pasta, or couscous. While the meal was cooking, her hands picked up the babies, changed their diapers and gave them a snack, a piece of the vegetables, or a piece of bread, or a bottle of milk.
While waiting for the meal to cook, my mother sat on her small chair in front of the zinc basin filled with soiled clothes. She whistled to the tunes on the radio and puffed on her cigarette she held with her lips in the right corner of her mouth. She was the queen of multitasking. Her mind was busy thinking about the next thing to do. Her hands were busy scrubbing clothes with a hard and fast rhythmic stroke. The hands squeezed hard the washed clothes to get the dirty soapy water out of them. The washed clothes were stacked in a large basket while the basin was pulled outside and emptied down the drain. The basin was brought back to the kitchen and filled with cold water. The clothes were rinsed, and squeezed out of their water and taken to the roof of the house to be laid on the clotheslines for drying. The basin is pulled out again from the kitchen and emptied down the drain then placed behind the pantry door.
My mother went back to the kitchen to complete the preparation of lunch. The kids were around her but confined to the space of the rug in the kitchen, busy playing or fighting or crying. Her routine was sacred. She wouldn’t change it easily nor would she allow herself to get distracted by her kids’ cries and whining. In the beginning when she only had a few children, she wasn’t bothered by their sounds or cries. But as their number increased, their noise became irritating and hard to control. So my mother would start screaming and yelling at them to stop. She would scare them by saying: “If you don’t stop I will call the ogre and the “Jin” for you.” We didn’t know what an ogre or a “Jin” really meant but it was scary. So that did it for a while. But as we got older, it became obvious for us that there was no such a thing as ogres or “Jins” so my mother changed her tactics. She would hit us with a shoe, pulls our hair or slap us on the face or on the buttocks. But there were times when she was very pregnant and didn’t have the energy to use these tactics, and that was when she started saying curses that rhymed like poetry. Her favorite curse was: “I wish you bad luck and a horrible destiny” or “I wish you hell and misery.” That sounded serious especially when she evoked God who was mad at us for making her mad. We got quiet and worried about the bad luck and horrible destiny. But children’s memories are short and they forget quickly, which kept my mother repeating the same curses over and over again for most of all of our childhood and adolescent life. I could hear these curses in my dreams, or when I was under the water swimming in the ocean. They followed me for many years and didn’t want to get off of me like a sticky octopus hanging with her hundred of tentacles. But how do you blame a mother for saying all these curses? She had too many kids to handle and too much responsibility and had very few strategies that worked.
Back to my mother’s routine. It was now time for lunch. At noon, she fed the babies and put them in bed to take a nap. My father showed up at around 1:00 pm. She ate lunch with him and then did the dishes while he took his daily nap. That was her second favorite time of the day, where she went out to her female neighbors, or had the neighbors come over to her. They all sat around a small table. She served tea with mint and some sweets. They chatted about kids, and family. They shared news about the neighborhood and talk about projects. This was where women gathered and made major decisions about their daily lives. It was like the neighborhood council, and my mother was their leader. She wanted everybody to listen when she talked and they did. Most neighbors trusted my mother. They think that she is very knowledgeable about many things and it is true! She comes from a liberal family and lived in a very cosmopolitan environment whereas women in our neighborhood all came from small villages in the interior of the country and lived in a very restricted small environment. My mother gives them advice about cooking, shopping, and even how to dress. She talks to them about her sophisticated family; her brothers who lived in London, which is a city none of her neighbors heard about. I was very unusual for Tunisians to immigrate to England. Most Tunisians at that time immigrated to France or nearby Italy, but England seemed so far away and unattainable. She also talked about her other two brothers who lived in France working in construction and at a hospital. She talked about her brother the police officer, her sister the nurse, her sister the flight attendant, and the youngest sister who works for the ministry of finance. They all admired her and her family and therefore felt privileged to be her friend. She liked having that power and control over them even if it was gained using her siblings. It didn’t matter to her the means it’s the final result and she realized that the more she bragged, the more respect and attention she got from her neighbors and she used it, perfected it and excelled at it. These neighborhood ladies never made any decision until they got my mother’s approval. This includes making an addition in their homes, marrying their siblings, their kids’ education, buying a new piece of furniture, rugs, fabrics, clothes or anything related to their homes. In that time, in Tunis, the capital of the country, women made all the decisions related to the house. Husbands just brought the money and expected their wives to take care of them, which includes cooking for them, and taking care of the house and the children. It was a fair share and everybody seemed happy and content.
My mother felt that she was the smartest of all the women in the neighborhood. She felt that she deserved better than these women as friends. They didn’t add much to her life except inflate her ego. She was extremely competitive and used them to achieve her goals. She was good at observing them and understanding them. She then built an alliance with the most popular and the richest ones of them. Her best ally was a neighbor whose husband was a homebuilder who made very good money. She would ask about the projects he was working on and the member of employees he had. She would invite that woman almost every day to win her friendship and trust and then would learn about her best friends and acquaintances. She was the queen of assessments. She told me that she was better than most of these neighbors because she was a good observer and assessed everything around her. She said that these women don’t think but she does. She said: “Whenever I sit down in my daily cigarette pauses, I would be thinking about strategies to win and conquer my environment. If one of my neighbors told me about adding a room in her house, I would say that I was already in the process of doing so and would rush to add a room first even if I couldn’t afford it.” She described how she would borrow a large sum of money from the rich neighbor to complete the addition. She promises to return the money in small payments each month. She would borrow the next payment from another neighbor and promises to pay back later. She was the best economist in the neighborhood. She created her own bank by borrowing more and reimbursing less. The key thing was that she never missed a payment and that made her neighbors trust her and also confide in her. She was also very good at keeping them from talking to each other in her absence so that they didn’t know her strategy. She made sure that she attended all their meetings so that she could control all the information.
When her sisters came to visit, she would use them to brag. They were very pretty and very well dressed and mannered and that gave my mother the status that her neighbors didn’t have. My mother would tell her neighbors that she could make them look as elegant as her sisters if they allowed her to make them dresses. She was daring and courageous to offer such a service especially since she never had a formal training or classes in dressmaking. My mother had a good eye and understood proportions, and it helped her a great deal in designing dresses. She used old sheets or even old clothes to practice a hard design prior to using the real fabric. And her neighbors trusted her and agreed to pay her in advance. She would take the money and go to downtown Tunis and buys the cheapest fabric she can find. She would borrow one of her sister’s dresses and traces the pattern from it on the fabric she bought using chalk or pencils. She would then adjust the pattern to the size of the neighbor and cuts the fabric and sew the dress with her hand, stitch by stitch, even if it’s not perfect. The design was often good but the execution was poor. The neighbors were impressed with the result because she would make them believe that they looked stunning in their new attire. She uses half the money for the dress and keeps the other half for herself. She didn’t feel intimidated and loved and thrived with challenges. She was a true entrepreneur. She didn’t think about her neighbors’ reactions if they found out that she made a big profit on them. She talks about these things to her sisters who criticize her a lot about her behavior and she replies: “It’s not my fault if they are stupid. In addition, I’m propelling them from village to city ladies. I’m giving them a service and I am giving them a big chunk of my precious time and I deserve to be compensated.” But how do you blame her. She had to make money to support all these kids and she has always been the smartest and the leader early on in her life. Dressmaking gave her a taste of true independence. She could see that she could financially support herself and that made her feel even more powerful. The more money she made on her own, the more she rejected my father because she could sense that she didn’t need to depend too much on him financially.
My mother was the oldest of her eight siblings. When she was very young, she was already in charge of her younger siblings because of the chronic disease her mother had and her repetitive visits to the hospital. My grandmother was fifteen when she gave birth to my mother. They were almost sisters. My mother had the role of feeding, cooking, doing dishes, laundry and all the shores of a housekeeper. Her parents and her sibling appreciated her dedication and gave her all the respect she deserved. She was the distinguished one who deserved to be called “nana” an attribute reserved for the most respected one. Her sibling didn’t dare tell her anything bad or even call her by her real name and that was true power very hard to give up when you have it so early on in life. Unfortunately power comes with a price and for my mother, her responsibilities didn’t leave much room for affection. It suppressed her emotions and made her live like a true machine looking for things to do. And that was when her hands were trained to follow and execute.
My mother never complained about her responsibilities. She felt equal to her mother and she felt distinguished and superior because she was trusted and respected by her father and all her siblings.
Inside her parents house my mother was the queen and nothing would put her down. But by the time her sisters got older and went to school, my mother started to realize that her sisters were acquiring at school something she didn’t have, a different type of power through knowledge. My grandparents never thought about sending my mother, their oldest daughter to school because she had a bigger responsibility. But living in Tunis, a cosmopolitan city, they decided to send all for their younger sons and daughters to school because it was better than staying home. At least they would learn skills they could use to get jobs and raise a family. Girls’ schools in the late forties and early fifties offered reading, writing and home economics.
My mother helped her younger sisters get prepared to school. She saw them leaving the house happy and coming home changed by the day. She saw how much they learned and how they were transformed. They talked about places she never heard of, they used words that were not in her vocabulary, they spoke a different language she didn’t understand and even the Arabic they spoke was very different from the one she knew. They learned how to stitch clothes and do embroidery. They even learned some dance moves and some songs at school. They also learned how to make cakes something my mother never heard of. School was a magical experience my mother wanted to have.
When my grandmother felt better and they opened a school for older children to attend and catch up with their education, my mother joined. But my mother often said that she hated that experience. She didn’t focus about the learning process; she was more concerned about the stare of her younger classmates who giggled when she didn’t know how to read her alphabet. She felt embarrassed when younger kids knew more than her. She wasn’t used to being laughed at, nor at feeling not so smart. She’s the queen of her family and now at school, younger kids are laughing at her. Her ego was so strong and couldn’t take these insults. She tried twice to join the school, after her parents put pressure on her. But by the second time, she came back home and said that school was not for her. And that was her final decision.
I have always thought about my mother’s experience with education. She said that she didn’t believe in it but she also seemed envious of her sisters. When she talked about them to friends she would say, if I did go to school like them, I would have made it really big because I am the smartest one. I would have become a doctor, a minister or someone really powerful. I would be ruling this country full of stupid people. And I totally agree that my mother would have been very successful in school because she had the intellect and the focus to succeed.
But that was the destiny my mother chose and that path took her to that place in our house where she became the mother of twelve.
My mother grew up in a large traditional house shared with other tenants. Her entire family composed of nine siblings and a set of parents shared a single room in the big house. All the tenants shared the same courtyard, kitchen and bathroom. One side of the room there were two large beds one on top of the other. The top bed was for the daughters and the lower bed was for the sons. On the other side of the room there was a little day bed for my grandfather and a mattress on the floor for my grandmother. Facing the entrance door to the room there was a chest box and an armoire for storage of clothes. On both sides of the room above the walls there were shelves for storage of things such as bedding, soaps, and miscellaneous utensils and items. Food, and cookware were stored underneath the beds. Every morning, when she got up, my mother prepared breakfast, which consisted of leftover food from dinner or depending on the season, a soup in winter and a stew in warmer weather. After her sibling went to school, she spent her morning cleaning the room, doing the laundry and cooking under the strict supervision of her mother or one of the neighbors co-tenants of the house. My grandmother knew very well how to delegate shores and work. She had a firm and convincing way about her and people had no choice but follow her orders. She was a no non-sense woman, strict but fair.
In the afternoons, my mother joined the other female tenants to do collective chores such as cleaning the courtyard, sewing or altering clothes, while gossiping. There were breaks for sipping tea and having a mid afternoon snacks in which neighbors share some sweets or leftover food. Once a month my mother and her neighbors went to see Egyptians movies. Going to the movies was the highlight of my mother’s childhood. It made her discover other ways of living and made her dream about life. She imagined herself living the life of the rich and beautiful female characters. She didn’t care for those playing the roles of the lower society. So she practiced walking and singing like them. She wasn’t good at singing so she started whistling the tunes of the latest movies and she became the expert female whistler of the neighborhood. She also spent hours with the neighbors trying the latest hairdos and makeup. They taught each other how to apply kohl for their eyes they shared lipstick and even used colored chalk as eye shadows and blush. They would spend days talking about all the scenes and recite to each other all the lyrics of the song.
So when my mother got married and moved to our house, she created a circle of female friends but soon realized that she didn’t have much in common with them because they had a different way of life. She missed going out to the movies but she made up for it by having children and getting busy with real life.
Back to my mother’s routine; it was early afternoon, the neighbors were gone and the school children were back home. My mother gave them a snack and asked them to sit around the small table to do homework or play. She changed the babies’ diapers and gave them a bottle or a snack and then she sat on the kitchen bench with a cigarette hanging from her lips while she’s knitted a new pullover, or dress or a hat, or she’s repaired ripped clothes. Then she would bring the clothes from the clothesline on the roof in a huge basket. She sat and folded all the clothes one by one in a big pile and took them back to their storage place.
It was now time for dinner preparation; porridge like mixture made of milk, sugar and pea size semolina couscous grains called “Mhamsa.” Other dinners we had are a pudding made of sorghum flour, sugar and milk, or vanilla pudding or bread and jam or bread and olive oil and condensed milk. We had sweet dinners almost every night at 5:00 pm. After dinner, my mother would make sure that homework was done and the kids were clean and changed ready to go to bed. She would send us to our room at 6:00 pm. and by 7:30 pm every one must be sleeping. She turned off the lights and left us in the dark to sleep.
My father was back from work at 5:00 pm. He often sat with his male neighbors friends to chat around a cup of tea sometimes at our house and other times at our neighbors’ homes. He later came home for dinner and played a little bit with us until it is time to go to bed. The house was all quiet by 7:30 pm when everybody was sleeping.
Nights, I rested in the dark and wondered if while my mother dreamed her hands were still.
Saloua Saidane was born, raised, and educated in Tunisia. She is a mother, sister and friend. She says she loves humanity in general and that we are all connected.