In the book About My Mother, Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun pens a stirring account of ageing and dying, drawn from real-life experiences with his late mother.
Uneducated but from a good family, Fatma was only 15 when she first got married and still a child when she gave birth to her first daughter. Married to three men consecutively, her first husband died of typhoid just months after their wedding. Later she was married off to a much older man who also died soon after of old age, and finally to a butcher who fathered the author.
The year is 2000 in the Moroccan city of Tangiers. However, Fatma believes it is still 1944, the year Jelloun was born, and that she is still living in her beloved city of Fez. Her short-term memory is shaky, time and reality are turned upside down, and sometimes she does not recognise her own children.
But she has crystal clear recollections from decades ago and of her childhood. Every day she is ‘visited’ by long-dead family members, “they file past her bedside, sometimes they linger.”
Around her, the once beautiful house has fallen into disrepair from years of neglect, echoing Fatma’s own deterioration. She has dedicated her life to her home and family, but in her final fragile years, is resigned to a lonely existence compounded by boredom and incapacitating illness.
Call of duty
Taking care of her is a young maid and the older Keltum, the long-serving househelp. Keltum has evolved into the primary care-giver, feeding and bathing the bed-bound woman, changing the soiled beddings and cleaning the floor of her messes.
Keltum is the most devoted person to Fatma, over and above the call of duty. But she has become increasingly belligerent from the physical and mental exhaustion of caring for an incontinent, progressively senile woman whose insomnia keeps her up at night.
The author lives in Switzerland but visits Morocco fairly frequently, unlike his siblings who show considerably less attachment to their ailing mother. One of his closest friends is Roland, a Swiss man whose 92-year-old mother is a sprightly and educated woman, who is still fairly self-sufficient and retains her mental faculties. They swap stories about their mothers and compare their attitudes towards the elderly.
The autobiographical About My Mother, reviews the process of ageing, dying and the fate of the old people from different angles. You journey with the writer day by day, week after week for years, as he observes the slow decline of his mother. You agonise with him as Alzheimer’s slowly strips away a woman who once proud of her home, loved cooking and was fastidious about her appearance.
Like Jelloun, you are wearied from Fatma’s repetitive questions, muddled memories and accounts of ghostly visits.
You enter into the old lady’s occasionally lucid mind, feel her fearfulness, and anguish arising from physical decline and forgetfulness. You understand her distress at losing personal belongings that have been pilfered by servants or she gave away but cannot remember.
Naturally, there is comparison between Fatma and Roland’s mother in Switzerland. In recounting the last years of his mother’s life, Jelloun seems provoke uncomfortable conversations that people in this part of the world will eventually have to confront.
Sending away elderly parents to a retirement home is still anathema in Morocco and most African countries. But as families become increasingly nuclear or careers take precedence over familial obligations, what will be our attitude towards the care of our parents?
Though the author and his siblings never considered putting their mother into nursing care, nevertheless they abandoned the burdensome job of care-giving to an untrained but loyal servant.
Whether or not it was intended, the story exposes an active prejudice borne out of class superiority and social inequality.
At a broader level, About My Mother indirectly questions the status and dignity society places on the vulnerable elderly. Like all his other books, it was written in and translated from French and won the 2016 PEN Promotes Award.
Jelloun, 77, has resided in France since the early 1970s is probably the most eminent author to come out of Morocco. About My Mother, like all his other books, was written in and translated from French. It won the 2016 PEN Promotes Award.