About My Mother by Tahar Ben Jelloun

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Translated by Ros Schwartz & Lulu Norman

Reviewed by Alice Farrant

About My Mother is the story of a Lalla Fatma, written down by her son Tahar as she lays dying. Lalla Fatma has Alzheimer’s, in her lucid and confused moments she talks through her years, to the relatives who are there and those who have long since gone.

Personal narratives such as Lalla Fatma’s may get lost in strict patriarchal societies. The one gift of the Alzheimer’s is that Tahar gets to know part of his mother he may never have known otherwise. It pulls them further together, solidifying an already unbreakable bond.

“I was your wife and your servant too. You liked being waited on and I’d kiss your right hand the way I used to kiss my father’s.You liked that submissiveness, but you weren’t tender towards me.”

During one visit to his mother, Lalla Fatma begins talking to Tahar as though he is her third husband, she explains how unhappy she is, how stifled she feels. These are feelings she doesn’t feel able to voice to anyone else, she’s been taught to be a good wife and obedient. As she realises she is speaking to Tahar she takes a step back, redacts her frustration, excuses her husband’s behaviour – reverts back to the submissive.

“I married your father without ever having seen him. It was the same with the two previous husbands. People married without having met, without having laid eyes on one another. It was like a lottery, a complete surprise. In the beginning, your father was as sweet as honey, very gentle, especially when I become pregnant. […] Later, our relationship had its difficulties. You knew that. You saw them. Anyway, let’s forget all that now.”

Lalla Fatma is a constant surprise. She is married three times; once to a man she loved, secondly to a man much older than herself, and thirdly to a man who was angry his current wife couldn’t conceive. All three were arranged for her, she was given no choice. You find that her actions and feelings often contradict, as though there are two Lalla Fatma’s, and not because of the Alzheimer’s. One that railed against how men treat women, one who wants respect, and another who accepted that was just how things were. There was no opportunity for change in a male dominated society, so she enjoyed freedom where she could in her private life.

“Forgive me, son, you understand. The other’s don’t. My daughter gets upset and tells me off for repeating the same stories, she says I’m losing my mind. […] I’m not crazy, I’m just tired.”

Jelloun’s depiction of Alzheimer’s is a thoughtful, rounded telling of the affliction. You feel the underlying frustration of it, this exhausting condition, for people with it and the people around them. Memories get lost, people come back to life – your world turns upside down while everyone else insists it’s still the right side up. It’s hard to listen to someone who is breaking apart, repetitive and volatile, I envy the kind and tolerant such as Tehar who take these moments in their stride.

“I love my mother for what she is, for what she’s given me and because that love is near religious”

The love between mother and son overflows, facilitating the easy flow of memories from Lalla Fatma as Tahar sits by her side. He can’t bear the thought of nursing homes, the contrast between this approach to parental care and the Western one was pronounced. Tehar is horrified by the idea of moving Lalla Fatma to a nursing home, away from the one place that feels constant. They have to bribe doctors and nurses to get the best care, turn a blind eye to the servants and careers stealing, but Tahar would never consider moving his mother away from her home. I felt guilty, as though I’d seen my future and I wasn’t being so kind.

“I’m here waiting and I see the magnificent light, it’s our Prophet’s face, a dazzling light. That’s what death is, we depart of the rays of that light, we no longer suffer, we’re calm. Just thinking about it makes me feel better, less anxious.”

Jelloun has written a relationship bathed in affection, stripped of sacarrine or sentimentality. As though he created Tahar to be a the vessel of Lalla Fatma’s story,  curator of her memories. About My Mother by Tahar Ben Jelloun is a loving farewell to a mother and a look into the life of a remarkable Moroccan woman. Jelloun’s storytelling is exceptional, and Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman have written a beautiful translation.

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You can read more by Alice at her blog, of Books, or find her on Twitter, @nomoreparades.

Tahar Ben Jelloun About My Mother, trans. Ros Schwartz, Lulu Norman (Telegram: London, 2016). 978-1846592010, 243pp., paperback.

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