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About My Mother: Morocco, men and meeting God Open in fullscreen

Diana Alghoul

About My Mother: Morocco, men and meeting God

About My Mother was a poignant read [Diana Alghoul/TNA]

Date of publication: 9 January, 2019

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Book Club: About My Mother by Tahar Ben Jelloun is a beautifully crafted read with many layers to the story and characters.
Following the story of Lalla Fatima, About My Mother, by Tahar Ben Jelloun, closely unpicks the life and mind of a woman who was once a strikingly beautiful mother but Alzheimer's in its latter stages decayed her mind and body.

Lalla Fatima was born in the historic city of Fez when she was married off as a teenager in the 1940s and became a widow soon after. Sitting on her deathbed, she recalls her husband and the two other marriages that followed.

The reader goes on a journey with her as her family and friends watch her decay. The story swiftly switches from a present of Lalla's illness to flashbacks from her past. Rather than sweeping between memories, Lalla thinks she's still living in Fez, jolting between different parts of her past – at some point she speaks of her deceased husbands as though they are alive and at other moments, her vulnerability manifests into her becoming a child and crying out for her mother.

She finds herself trying to prepare for her brother's visit, even though he died decades ago. At many parts of the book, she was stressing about the food that she was preparing in the kitchen as she vividly smelt the lamb – despite not being able to leave her bed to walk to the kitchen, let alone cook for a visit.

When Lalla returns to reality, she's faced with being vulnerable in the present while being bed bound and facing the reality of loneliness, the inability to dance, cook and flaunt her what once seemed to be her everlasting youth.

About My Mother is a beautifully crafted novel with ostensibly autobiographical elements. It took the story of a dying elderly woman and enriched it with context, history, culture and a deep fostering of empathy

Marriage after death

The novel delicately touched upon contrasting aspects of the life and death at the same time, educating the reader on Morocco's history and culture. Reading the book, it's easy to pick up the life of a Moroccan teenager in the 1940s, but at the same time empathise with the same woman as she grew older and was forced to deal with losing herself.

The reader watches Lalla fall in love with her first husband after a successful arranged marriage, only to lose him to a disease. She eventually fell for the kindness of her second husband, albeit him being older and less attractive than the first, before he too dies. The third husband, however, is more of a test than a love story being weaved into tradition. Her love life regresses into nothing more than a routine.

The taboo of divorce and the insecurity of her final husband are ones that women today can still resonate with, even if they aren't in relationships that are traditionally arranged. Themes of toxic masculinity, jealousy and men revoking the natural feminine spark of women are carefully addressed, while still emphasising a somewhat codependency on her husband. Despite being able to describe her last husband's gloom-ridden traits, she still spoke of him with the respect a man should seemingly be entitled to.

Is time a dampener?

For Lalla, with time, life seemed to get worse. She was born in Fez, which to her was the perfect home that she had to leave to move to Tangier. Despite being nervous and reluctant to give up her childhood, her first marriage was her best marriage. Her first husband was the strongest, best looking and made her happiest out of them all.

Her children, whom she devoted her life to, were at their best state. Her relationship with them deteriorated at the same rate as her health. Lalla's only daughter was unable to visit her after falling into depression when her husband died.

As Lalla's health deteriorated, so did her house. The spirit of what was once a home that was full of life and accommodated family and friends gradually festered as the novel progressed, until it turned into a house that drained the energy out of anyone who entered.

Yet, death wasn't seen in the negative light that it commonly is perceived. It was spoken about through God, leaving a subtle reminder that discontent will rule the hearts of those who remain on Earth until they meet their creator.

Yet, death wasn't seen in the negative light that it commonly is perceived. It was spoken about through God, leaving a subtle reminder that discontent will rule the hearts of those who remain on Earth until they meet their creator

Characters

The characters were crafted beautifully with many layers to them, allowing the reader to feel tugged by the story of each person. Tahrar's vivid description of Lalla often leaves the reader feeling an attachment so strong to her that they may find themselves picturing their own mother in a state.

While Lalla was the protagonist whom everyone was able to tend to, the novel was written in a way that gave room for empathy for each character. It was difficult to be angry at Lalla's daughter for not visiting, because her mental health was described in the most thoughtful way.

The housekeeper, Keltum, was portrayed as a woman who had lost her patience with Lalla, often shouting at her, letting her sit in her own stool after she soiled herself. Yet, her a picture of her own sadness was sketched, creating a sense of compassion for her and recognition of her own misfortune in life.

About My Mother is a beautifully crafted novel with ostensibly autobiographical elements. It took the story of a dying elderly woman and enriched it with context, history, culture and a deep fostering of empathy.

Despite the fact that it is a sad read, it remains a beneficial one, allowing the reader to explore their own feelings and educate themselves on some historical and cultural aspects of Morocco in the process.

Order your copy of About My Mother here


Diana Alghoul is a British/Palestinian journalist at The New Arab and lifestyle blogger. 

Follow her on Twitter: @SuperKnafeh



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