by Laura Boushnak
My grandmother asked me to close my legs while I was peacefully lying on the couch watching a movie. She said with a very firm tone: “Good girls don’t sit that way. Shame on you.” Which immediately reminded me of the same irritating request made by my mother many years before. I didn’t understand it until I later learnt that the whole honour of our nation lies between my legs. I asked her: “What if I don’t, Teta (grandmother)?” She frowned and sweetly threatened: “I will tell your dad.”
After years of suffering from Alzheimer’s, my Teta passed away a couple of years ago. I must admit that at the beginning, not quite understanding what the disease really meant, my sisters and I found her stories quite amusing. She thought I was her sister or daughter. The whole house had to wake up at three in the morning because the night was over, according to her. She once asked who my father was. Not being able to hide a smile on my face, I pointed at him as he was sitting just right in front of her. She replied: “No. I’m asking about your real father!”
I watched her memory fade away, and with it that of Palestine.
Teta finished four years of primary school and got married at the age of 13. When she was 17, her Turkish husband passed away and left her with three young children. A few months later, in 1948, she and her family had to leave their home in Haifa, when the state of Israel was created.
After living in different places as refugees, they finally settled in Irbid, Jordan. As a widow in a conservative society, she felt the need to protect her reputation, and I believe that’s where her strict implementation of traditions and customs came from. As her Alzheimer’s progressed, she managed to hang onto two things, those traditions, apparently deeply engraved in her memory cells, and her wedding ring. She kept the ring until the day she died. I always wondered how she managed to survive all those years without falling in love. I plumped the taboo question once, hoping that she’d tell a story similar to those that we watched in black and white Egyptian movies: “Teta, did you ever miss having sex?” She sighed and answered: “When I barely started to understand what love meant, the husband died.”
Towards the advanced stages of her illness, she spent hours in front of the window of my mother’s house in Tyre, south Lebanon, looking in the direction of the sea. I convinced myself that she was thinking about her old home, just a few dozen kilometres south along the Mediterranean coast.