Monday, August 29, 2011

Writers on Dance: Said Makdisi on Gypsies

In this excerpt from Jean Said Makdisi's memoir, Teta, Mother and Me: Three Generations of Arab Women, the author tells of her childhood memories of the mysterious gypsy women who came to their summer village in Lebanon. In this section, the natural lifestyle of these women, the freedom they exhibit with their gestures, makes the author conscious of her own:

"A band of gypsies came to Dhour al-Schweir every summer, as surely as we did, and camped just beyond the summit of the hill behind our house. Although we were strictly forbidden to go in their direction, there was no way to stop them from coming in ours. And sothere was a steady stream of young women--at least, now they appear young; at the time, they seemd ancient. We would hear a call in the distance: "Bassarra, barraje; bassara, barraje', a fortune-teller claiming to see what others could not, and to interpret the zodiac.

"If mother was out--for we would never dare do this if where were at home--my sisters and I....would rush out and call for a gypsy to come and tell our fortune. A young gypsy woman wearing long black robes and usually bare-footed, her head covered with a black scarf wound tightly over her forehead and around her chin, would suddenly appear out of the woods, startling us although we were looking for her. Her costume gave her cheekbones height and her face character, all of which was accentuated by the tattoos on her face and hands, and by her eyes heavily lined with kohl. These women always bore themselves with extraordinary grace, as if they should have been carrying a water jug on their head, which they were doubtless used to doing. They swung their hips as they walked, while their upper bodies remained fixed and straight, their necks and heads held high." (p. 96)

I'm breaking this passage in two because it is lengthy. What I like in this passage is the mystery imagined in the women's dancelike walk and lifestyle. While Makdisi is describing a culture on the fringes of her own culture, I am reminded of both Emerson's journals when he went down the Nile of his perception of the Egyptian manner of walking so gracefully and of Flaubert's controversial descriptions of Kuchuk Hanem. While Makdisi is intrigued as a child, there is some element of "otherness" that is similar in all of these writings--certainly financial class (the Saids were financially privileged) and displacement or lack of place of those being observed. But more powerfully, she experiences an enchantment when viewing these women. The perceived lifestyle of the women being observed make Makdisi, it seems, more aware of her own. Orientalist? Of course.

The book, Teta, Mother, and Me, presents a case study of three generations of women living through turmoil in Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt. Jean Said Makdisi is Edward Said's younger sister. Someone gave the book to me recently at an Arabic music conference. Before then, I wasn't aware of her work. (Photo: Gerome's Almeh. I used this iconic painting because it represents a woman with the tatoos Makdisi mentions and represents those of us on the outside, looking in.)