Archive for the ‘A Cross-Cultural Marriage’ Category

Two years and some months ago I began a conversation with myself about an idea Ravi, my brilliant, charming husband, had presented to me when we were first married and he was still a graduate student newly arrived from Bombay. It had to do with a difference he had discovered on how Indians and Americans imagine the course of one’s life. He said Americans picture life as being on a trajectory beginning in childhood, rising to a peak in middle age, then declining into old age, and he contrasted this with the Indian view of a life lived in four stages. I set down here what he told me, with photos of him. (A photo of me in my fifties is here.) A traditional statement on the four stages of Vedic life, of Student, Householder, Post family and Sannyasa, is here.

Over time and with some thought, I developed a version of the stages of life model that made sense to me: The first stage is for learning; one is a student. The second is for family and work, the third dedicated to the community, and in the fourth stage one turns inward for reflection and peace of mind. I discussed the four stages here, elaborated it further here, and explored the psychological aspects of being in the fourth stage of life here.

When Ravi and I entered what he would have considered our third stage of life, at age sixty-five, we returned to the U.S. and moved into a house down the road from his brother. I explain, here, in considering where an expatriate goes to retire, why we went to this place and not elsewhere, but once having decided, I again launched into the time consuming process of setting up house and home for us. We were coming from twenty years lived in Paris where Ravi had been an haute fonctionnaire in an international organization and from where I had worked on a consulting basis with UNICEF, WHO and other international organizations in the planning and evaluation of rural primary health care projects in Turkey, India, Indonesia and once in the States. Not only had we returned to live in a medium size American city, it is a Southern city and I am a Midwesterner. Regional differences in America are not as pronounced as in other countries, but they are nevertheless real and I felt them. Ravi and I began our third stage of life, what Americans call retirees or senior citizens, while settling into a non-home place. After more than twenty years here it is still not quite home, but in the fourth stage of life maybe that no longer matters.

For more than a decade, until Ravi slide into his prolonged dementia, described here, I was active with various citizen groups concerned with community affairs, but while caring for him became disconnected from them. Currently, nice people invite me to join one or another senior citizens group and I decline. Invariably, I am at least a decade older than even the oldest of their members. I tell them my age and explain that although I am healthy, I am not a senior citizen, which I consider the third stage of life. I am elderly, in my fourth stage of life, and have already lived five years beyond my life expectancy. Generally, an explanation fails to interest them, so I let it be. Besides, I now think I should modify my version of the fourth stage of life.

I’ve been thinking, too, that I might anglicize “stages of life,” return to my anthropology days and use the idea of age grades, a universal in societies at all times and everywhere, one of the two basic principles for classifying individuals, the other being gender. In every society, one is either male or female and of a particular age grade, either a child or an adult or an elder, and this held until recently when, in the 1940s, Americans acquired a new, additional age grade. Adolescence, the transitional phase from child to adult, was transformed into “teenage” and a person of that age became a “teenager.” I was in my teens at time, totally unaware of being anything other than a high school student. My girlfriends and I were not  “Bobby Soxers” mad for Frank Sinatra, the forerunners of girls going crazy over the Beatles and other pop singers, but by the time I became an adult the teenage phenomenon was universally recognized. In their film on the history of youth, Matt Wolf and Jon Savage begin with “teenager” being an American invention, a way of viewing adolescence as a definable period of life with its own characteristics and not simply an early phase of adulthood.

In an email to a young friend, a woman in her early thirties, I mentioned that “teenager” had been invented when I was in my teens and she responded that for her generation it is the “twenty-something” and the notion of quarter-life crises. She had read and was fascinated by the book by Dr. Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist, “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter — And How to Make the Most of Them Now.”

My friend wrote that it would be interesting to delve into the sociological and psychological/physiological underpinnings allowing the advent of both age grades, and I agree. I was mother to three teenagers and remember vividly what that meant, as well as watching Ravi cope with being father to teenage boys when he himself had never experienced adolescence as an age grade. In those years, in the late 1970s into the ’80s, the neurological sciences had not yet revealed to us that during the teen and early twenty years the brain is changing, developing and not yet mature. I should have guessed it, though, simply from anthropological studies. In many societies, adolescent boys (but not girls) are given free rein to behave in ways not acceptable for either child or adult.

I also have memories from a study I did in the 1950s of a Mexican-American community and from living and working in the 1960s and onward in Mogadiscio, Ankara and across India. I observed changing perceptions of adolescence, of adolescents being considered as young adults, then because of social and economic change, and growing knowledge of the adolescent brain, the gradual introduction of a new age grade into society. But this is too complex to discuss here. I’ll return to it later.

Traditionally, all societies had three age grades: child, adult, elder, but I once read, long ago, in a study of traditional Eskimo life, of a family and their dog sled on the move, father controlling the dogs, mother and grandmother walking alongside, two small children riding. Finally, grandmother could not keep the pace and they stopped, built a small igloo for her to lie in until her final days while the family, in mourning, continued on in their search for food. In extreme circumstances, survival is not for the elderly.

In more settled communities, however, and throughout history, a number of individuals lived on into old age, preserving and transmitting knowledge through the generations. I wrote in the previous essays about ancestor worship and the leverage that gives elders in the family and the community. Here and here for life expectancy rates when estimating how many old people were around in different eras.

This article on life expectancy in the Middle Ages is equally fascinating.  It gives the age and the cause of death of adult members of the royal family of Wales in the 1100s and 1200s CE. Considering only those individuals who lived into adulthood, who survived the high death rates for infants and children, the median life expectancy for women was 42/43 years, and for men, 48/49 years. Six of the twenty lived to 50 years and beyond, two of them into their 60s and one woman into her 70s. By contrast, for ordinary people living in the villages, archeological evidence from their cemeteries shows no one living past 45.

What can I say about childhood as an age grade?  In my urban lifestyle, childhood is the time for learning, for enculturation, for play, and school attendance ideally beginning early, at age four or five years, and continuing into adulthood, for girls equally for boys. In other cultures, at least in the past, children begin by age six actually working for the family and the community. By puberty they are being initiated into their adult roles. An excellent description of childhood in preindustrial Europe is here. At that time, and until the era of modern medicine, about one third of the population would ordinarily have been under the age of 14.

Religious ceremonies mark the individual’s transition from child to adult. I am familiar with the Christian First Communion.

In literature the phase, Coming of Age, is used to designate the social rituals and often the personally significant experiences that mark a young person’s transition from childhood to becoming an adult. We have the coming-of-age story, the bildungsroman novel, and the coming of age movies.

Adulthood is the central and longest age grade. For men, adult activities vary enormously. They are what we know and read about as history. For women, until very recently, adulthood meant children and maintaining the family. In societies before or outside of modern economies, from menarche to menopause the typical adult woman was either pregnant or lactating, which are states during which she did not menstruate. If menstruating, she was confined for days each month in a woman’s hut. When cloth became available a woman could make a pad to catch the blood rather than go into hiding with a few other women. I came of age in a time and a place where commercially made napkins were available to use during menstruation and available toilet facilities allowed a woman to participate in public social life. I was free and tried to ignore the snide remarks boys made about a woman who annoyed them “being on the rag.” Here for a video of bright and active girls discussing how they manage menstruation in their modernizing lifestyle.

Despite all sorts of change in technology, the economy, the social system in countries around the world, urban and rural, until very recently, the lives of women remained essentially unchanged, limited to family roles – marriage, giving birth, rearing children, preparing food, keeping the home, engaged in outside work only when compatible with those fundamental responsibilities. In the private realm of life, in the home, in the women’s world, traditional life continued. Outside the home, in the public realm of men, life evolved and changed while women raised the children, instilling in them the traditional attitudes and values they would carry into adulthood. Thus, fundamental aspects of the culture persists through the centuries, even millennia, despite larger societal changes, and this has to intrigue anyone who reads history. One of my favorite examples of the persistence of culture is of Roman soldiers reporting on the women of Gaul spending so much time and trouble on their appearance. It’s the same impression I had of French women, and of the importance of their femininity, two thousand year after the soldiers had left Gaul. Or of Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s writing about democracy in the young country, America, and how his descriptions of American culture are recognizably American, even today. ….

However, a technology invented and distributed in the 1960s is changing much of that, making possible one of the most profound changes in human history. The reliable contraceptive has made possible the opening of non-family roles to women, of women participating more fully in public life. I was in my early thirties when the Pill came on the market. I felt it was a revolution in the making, and it is happening. It seems, for example, that Twenty-something is mostly about women in their twenties. What I read on-line is about a lifestyle concerned with work, clothing and appearance, dating, thinking about when to marry and have a child. All this is another matter, one to be explored in a separate essay.

Is Senior an American age grade? Perhaps. It generally means age 65 plus. If so, I’ve gone through it. I’m an elder in my fourth stage of life, creaky, slower, less sure-footed, more easily tired, but still relatively healthy. I count my blessings from having come of age when America was entering its most prosperous period ever and when medical science had advanced sufficiently to give me advantages over women barely a generation older than I. When, for example, my son was six years old and had strep throat the doctor prescribed an antibiotic and the illness was cured. For a friend some twenty years older than I, antibiotics were unavailable when her son at that age was similarly sick and she had to keep her active, lively boy quiet, out of school and in bed for months to ensure he would not develop rheumatic fever and a consequent damaged heart.  Wherever we lived, in the different countries, I could immediately identify the medical facilities and personnel we just might need. Dentistry improved enormously during my lifetime, especially through periodontal care, and I still have my teeth. When I was in my early twenties, older women told me that each baby costs the mother one tooth, or more.

So I continue on with life and expect I will eventually move into its last stage – fragility — when what I want, what we all want, is an ideal and totally unachievable ending to life on this earth, to fall apart all at once, as in an old poem, “The One-Hoss Shay” that I discuss here.

Years ago, being practical and to protect my children from the expense and trouble of caring for me, I took out insurance for palliative care at the end of life.  I read articles, as here, about how I will think and feel at that time, in that situation. I wrote here of Ravi’s ending, of the romantic love that took us into marriage, of how that love continued. I am in tears as I recall his last moments but he was at peace and that comforts me.



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Crisis may be too strong a word. Possibly, anxiety and confusion better expresses how Ravi thought and felt about his national identity when he returned to campus from Bombay and picked up again with courses for the Ph.D. in Political Science.

our wedding dayThis snapshot of Ravi and me was taken on our wedding day, June 16, 1953, on Tuesday, the day after I had taken the final exam in my Philosophy of Science course. Monday was the last day of my senior year of college. Ravi, twenty-two years old, had finished his M.A. requirements a few days previously. We married in a Justice of the Peace office in the City Hall and had a party that afternoon with friends, most of them graduate students, in the house where we rented a bedroom to live in. Ravi’s maternal aunt, whom the family had nicknamed Baby (explained here), only two or three years older than Ravi, also a graduate student at our university, wrapped one of her saris over my dress. I was proud of that dress; it was in beige raw silk, an unusual and rather expensive fabric. The sari was beautiful, but not mine and she took it with her when she left. It was my only engagement with a sari until seven years later, when the family sent Ravi’s sister to us to be married in our apartment. Naturally, she arrived with a full wardrobe of silk saris in colors of India, colors and combining of colors beyond any even imagined in plain Wisconsin.

Ravi and I had decided in April, only two months previously, to marry and after we each completed graduate school we would make our life together in India. Beyond that, nothing concrete. Ravi was to spend the summer at the United Nations in New York. An official from the Indian Embassy in Washington, on a tour of American universities, meeting with Indian students, had come to our campus, and having heard from the professors of Ravi’s outstanding performance in his studies, had held a lengthy interview with Ravi, afterwards promising him the U.N. summer internship reserved each year for an Indian student. We were excited; this could be the beginning of his career, either international or qualifying him for a position in the Indian Foreign Service. I recently discovered in his father’s collected letters that Ravi had written home that he was becoming fluent in Spanish as an additional qualification for the Foreign Service; he wanted to serve in South America. Then, one day in May an Indian student, a girl I had not seen before or since, came to sit with Ravi and me, and in her bubbly chatter went on about how she was going to New York to have fun and how she loved shopping in the city, mentioning in passing that her uncle had made the arrangements for her, including a summer internship at the U.N. to pay for all this. Wasn’t she lucky!! Ravi tried to contacted the Indian Embassy official but was unable to do so. We spent the summer working, earning a living, I as a waitress, he in the university library. After the fall semester began we lived on our Teaching Assistantship stipends. His scholarship funding had ended.

Ravi had come to the university in 1951 on a Fulbright scholarship. Included was payment for passage home and the requirement that a visa back to the States be made from the home country, in Ravi’s case, from Bombay. He left for India, sailing out of New York harbor on our first wedding anniversary. I was far from certain he would return. My father left me when I was twelve, having been drafted into the wartime navy, and he came home to his young wife but not to me. Still, I planned for Ravi’s return, giving up a summer student teaching position to waitress in a restaurant, in a job where I could save enough money for his passage back. There would be not help from the family; Papaji, Ravi’s father, was struggling with finding work. Then my broken leg and hospitalization happened (described here) and Ravi borrowed money to return quickly, by air rather than by ship.

Ravi had discovered in Bombay, after many inquiries, that jobs were scarce and his schooling in America (instead of England?) something of a negative. Not one job possibility opened for him. Nevertheless, he did not abandon hope for the career he dreamed of; he did not return to me intending to leave India. In the following years we encountered several Indians who had studied in the States and returned to the States; they said they could not find proper work at home.

I confess that I did not fully grasp what Ravi was going through. I knew nothing about India, and other than Baby knew no one from India other than Ravi. An Indian wife would have been more empathetic; I felt sad for him but only a little sorry. From my perspective he was back in school, teaching and on his way to the Ph.D. while I was stuck with my right leg in a cast and with the sort of fracture to the tibia and the fibula that rarely mends without a not-always-successful major surgery. A middle-class couple in the city, wonderful people, befriended us, found me a lawyer to sue the drunken driver who had hit me and showed Ravi and me how to borrow money to live on. Ravi rented a tiny apartment near the campus and I begged the doctor to change my cast to an unna boot and allow me to move about on crutches so I could be with Ravi and go to parties and have fun instead of sitting all day on a hospital bed. He did so reluctantly, warning me to be very careful, and scheduled my surgery for a day in January. Coming out of the anesthetic in the recovery room I reached down to feel the new cast and there was none. On the surgery table, the surgeon could not find the break and sent for an X-ray machine. The bones had begun to knit.

My drunken driver’s insurance company was trying every trick not to pay damages and the case dragged on for months. One day, on campus, when I was walking by the law school a young man stopped me to say that in the law firm where he worked part-time he overheard the insurance company’s lawyer discussing my case. This lawyer was preparing to tell my lawyer that we should settle for almost nothing because otherwise they would go to court, to a rural court, away from the campus, and I would get nothing at all. A jury there would be so prejudiced against my marriage that I would lose. I thanked the law student and informed my lawyer that I was more than ready to go to court, to fight this. My anger worked for me; finally, a settlement was made. The lawyer took one-third for his fees; the remaining amount paid for our living expenses debt and money for Ravi to send home. And for a typewriter.

Within weeks I was back on campus, too late to enroll in the 1955 spring semester classes. I tutored football players for the Athletic Department and graded papers, and otherwise stayed involved with the anthropology students and professors. Ravi attended his classes, was a Teaching Assistant, engaged in talkfests with his circle of friends from the Political Science Department and with our mutual friends. For me, everything was fine; the good life meant school, either as a student or as a teacher and researcher. For Ravi, whatever his goals and visions of the future, the pressure from his family was not for a return to India, it was to bring his brothers to America. I was totally unaware of this.

During the summer Ravi and I rented and set up our first apartment, a proper way for a couple to live. We bought the essential furniture, all second-hand, built brick and board bookcases and I began learning to cook Indian food. For the fall semester I was back in school, taking classes, a Teaching Assistant, being social as usual, keeping house and cooking for us.

My friends that year and the next were the other two anthropology T.A.s, both women, one of whom was the only married woman graduate student, besides myself, I knew of on our campus. Her husband was a student in astronomy and they went from our campus to Harvard. I have forgotten her name. I spent more time with Norma, an excellent anthropologist, single, Jewish and from New York. She was far more sophisticated than I and I loved talking with her. In the spring semester I had met Joanne, whom I knew first as the girlfriend of Abed, from Syria, one of Ravi’s friends. She, too, was a student, taking courses in speech therapy. I didn’t much care for Abed, which annoyed Ravi, but we were couple friends with them and I liked her. Joanne’s father didn’t like Abed, although her mother did. Most women liked Abed, which he used much to his advantage. He was so vain. He once asked me, when he was sitting with Joanne, fondling her, if I didn’t enjoy watching two beautiful people like them.

Joanne confided to me that she and Abed had seriously considered eloping but thought better of it because her father said he would disinherit her if she married Abed. The family owned a profitable business raising mink and selling the fur in New York, so the father’s threat was significant, followed, however, by the mother’s assessment of what to do next. I thought her instructions to Joanne wonderfully informative about small town middle-class society. As Joanne told me, her mother said she would bring the father around, and then something like, “Don’t you dare elope. I’ve been going to weddings in this town and giving wedding gifts for the past twenty-five years. Now it’s our turn. You will have a wedding right here, a really big wedding, and you will get lots and lots of gifts.” I had an image of Joanne awash in a wave of goodies.

That fall I not only returned to campus life; Tej, Ravi’s brother, had come from Bombay to live with us. And I was pregnant. In late January 1956 I gave birth and soon after Abed and Ravi arranged a cozy couples dinner for us in a restaurant. Joanne gave me a pair of very nice faux pearl earrings as a gift for having a son. Joanne’s father died, the mother did hold that big wedding, and at some point Joanne and Abed went to Syria to visit his family. On returning to campus, she stopped by to visit and tell me about being with Abed’s family in Homs. This was the first time I had heard an account of women’s daily life in a large household in a Middle Eastern culture, or for that matter, in any culture. Then they and we left the campus and went our separate ways.

Years later, in the 1980s, one of Ravi’s and Abed’s classmates phoned Ravi in Paris to find out if he had been in contact with Abed. Ravi had heard that Abed was teaching in a university in Michigan and walked out in the middle of the semester. One does not do that. Back to the campus on a visit, the classmate told us that before Joanne and Abed married she had gone to California, February 1955, given birth to a boy and let him be adopted. Then they married and had a daughter. Then Joanne divorced Abed because he was fooling around with other women. The classmate learned all this from the daughter, Mona Simpson, when she came to the campus seeking information about her father for her second novel The Lost Father. Ravi said the boy, their son, Steve Jobs, looked like Abed. I recognized the fictionalized Abed in that novel but not Joanne in Simpson’s first novel.

I have wondered about Ravi being friends with Abed. Maybe his having an American girlfriend was a factor. I think back to Ravi as student on an American campus and Ravi as professor in an American university. Over the years I often wondered, and worried, about him not investing in friendship as I did. He had no best friend, no circle of male companions. In the 1960s, when we were teaching in the university, we had an active social life and couple friends, most actively with two couples, one with the husband having done research in India and the other with the husband Chinese-American, both men also my colleagues teaching anthropology or sociology, both wives standard White American. A few of Ravi’s political science American colleagues went out of their way to spend time with him, to be buddies, and he accepted their attention, treated them pleasantly, but I cannot remember him ever initiating any of their activities together.

Tunisia 1956 stamp Bey then King Muhammed VIII al-AminIran stampsOn campus, however, while in school, Ravi had a good number of friends. First there was Albert Boyer from Haiti, but once into the Ph.D. program he spent his time with other foreign students, like Abed, and shared with them an intense interest in matters of government, power and politics in their countries. All these young men, from Ethiopia, Tunisia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, all would return home to high governmental positions in a time of political unrest. I remember Ravi talking for hours on end about the Ba’athist Party with Sa’dun Hammadi, later Prime Minister of Iraq, and Hassan Muraywid, briefly Foreign Minister of Syria. And there was 1950 stamp of provinces joining to form LibyaAli Attiga of Libya,  who went on to a distinguished career as Secretary General of OAPEC, Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, and with other international organizations, including Under Secretary for the United Nations Development Program. The one American Ravi talked with, and about, Larry Eagleburger, left school for the Foreign Service. I had no idea about the real world, about where Ravi’s friends came from, would return to, or about their families, their normal lives. Women would have Iraqi stamptold me personal things, their relationships, their feelings, but these were young men who could not imagine that sort of friendship with me, maybe with anyone. I knew them through Ravi and with Ravi and mostly listened while they discussed international affairs and American foreign policy. At one of Ravi’s student-faculty parties, I lost my cool in a discussion with Abed and disagreed sharply with him on a political issue. Ravi was furious with me over it. Typical of us, I did not ask why and he did not speak of it again. I had committed a faux pas. Perhaps, for this social set, it was gender; a woman and a wife should not behave as I did.

Ravi’s foreign student friends were from his world. He took American citizenship and became a professor in an American university almost by accident, as a means to earn a living and support his family. He was good with his American colleagues, and they with him, and his students respected, loved him, but as he expressed only occasionally and only to me, try as he might, he could identify with very little in his environment. His passion was the proper functioning of government, especially the government now his, yet the activities that had the most meaning for him – as a popular speaker on international affairs, speaking out against the Vietnam War – did not add to his qualifications as an academic. When his Department Chairman, a well-meaning friend, suggested he disengage from them and publish an article or two, Ravi did the right thing. He immediately wrote and published two articles in major journals but was left in a quandary. He was too much the intellectual to leave academia and too newly American to fit comfortably into a governmental bureaucracy. While still a professor, almost subconsciously, certainly without verbalizing it, he looked outside the States in his search for a career that suited him. I followed along because he and the children and I were a family and he accepted, even encouraged, my research projects as a sideline to being a wife and mother. I was never bored.

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Call the midwife posterI watched six episodes of “Call the Midwife” on DVD (it’s on-line), enjoyed it enormously and intend now to read the book on which it is based. The book, a memoir by Jennifer Worth, proved so popular that she followed it with several others, describing her work as a nurse-midwife in East London in the 1950s. She gives detailed descriptions of the people, of the place and environment, and apparently, of the medical and health aspects of her work. She was gifted as a nurse-midwife and as a pianist, a talent to which she returned in later life, then to writing.

For me the movie was informative. I learned about a health care program different from any I had known: nurses and midwives of my generation serving mothers and infants in poor working class neighborhoods. In the States, it has long been assumed that babies are born in a hospital and delivered by a doctor; I read articles about midwives and home birthing but have never met an American midwife. Not until the late 1970s had I even heard of the midwife as an independent medical practitioner, and that was in Paris. The one sage femme I know was trained in medical school, not as a nurse. In the movie, the nurse-midwives are employees of the local government health service, not in private practice.

For all my work in primary care programs in the U.S and developing countries, I had very little direct experience with the intimate issues of women’s health concerns or with childbirth. I had both read in anthropological accounts and had heard when doing my own field research about the social status and role of traditional midwives in India but knew nothing of how they actually delivered a baby. In Ankara in 1968, when seeking to enter nurse’s training (described here), a doctor took me to a hospital I remember as the Doğum Evi, the Birth House, and I saw a baby being born. It was a thrilling experience, despite having been through it twice myself. I learned recently that Ravi was born in a “nursing home” in Karachi, 1931, delivered by a trained midwife, a Christian woman from Goa. In India, 1980s, I worked in a program with Auxiliary Nurse Midwives, all of them Christian, each stationed in a village, all of them Hindu, to provide primary health care. In Turkey and Indonesia, I observed but was not directly involved in programs for teaching village midwives techniques to make their deliveries safer. I will comment in another context on all this and on what I learned additionally from watching and thinking about the movie and Jennifer Worth’s book.

Call the midwife cover with nuns“Call the Midwife” is set in Poplar, in the East End of London, where the central character, Jenny Lee (Jennifer Worth’s maiden name), worked as a midwife and district nurse, assigned to a convent, Nonnatus House, a pseudonym for the Community of St. John the Divine, where Jennifer worked. The first six episodes of the movie were filmed in London’s St. Joseph’s Missionary College, dating from 1866, but the College was lost to later episodes when the building was torn down and its grounds redeveloped as a luxury housing estate.

Programme Name: Call the Midwife - TX: 09/03/2014 - Episode: n/a (No. 8) - Picture Shows: Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) - (C) Neal Street Productions - Photographer: Neal Street Productions

The street scenes and exteriors of the houses were filmed in the Chatham Dockyard in Kent.

The nuns of Nonnatus House are midwives who belong to an Anglican, not a Catholic, order. They work with the District doctors and the hospital for maternal medical care and participate rather ineffectively, as is shown in one scene, in efforts to teach the younger women contraception via the condom. Jenny is one of four secular midwives living in Nonnatus House, each with her own room, keeping house and having meals with the nuns, all in good cheer, sharing in the mission of service but not in the religious life, although Jenny does feel the nun’s spirituality. The four women become friends with a lively social, as well as professional, life together. Call the Midwife Radio Times 7 feb 2012One, called Chummy, introduced in episode 2, became the TV viewers’ favorite. Three men are involved with Nonnatus House, one a worker who helps with maintenance, one with a romantic interest in Chummy and the other in love with Jenny.

We are not much informed about the women’s families, except for Chummy’s, about their educational backgrounds or their nurse-midwife training, but Jenny is clearly modeled on Jennifer Worth, even though details about her personal life are more alluded to than shown or verbalized. After Jennifer’s death her younger sister wrote a book about their relationship, and in interviews with the press, Jennifer’s husband and their two daughters spoke at length about Jennifer’s personality and some of her history. In her memoir, “The Midwife’s Sister,” Christine Worth told the story of their middle-class life ending with the parents’ divorce and of the considerable hardships that followed. Rather than my detailing them, they can be read here.

After leaving school at the age of 15 Jennifer learned shorthand and typing and became secretary to the head of Dr. Challoner’s Grammer School, then trained as a nurse at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Reading, and moved to London to train as a midwife. In Christine’s account, Jennifer quit school; lied about her age and got a job as secretary to the headmaster; fell in love with him, a married man, he with her; there was a scandal; he insisted she move away, with Christine, to begin a career in nursing, which Jennifer immediately loved and Christine did not. call the midwife Jennifer Worth in uniform photo from The Midwifes Sister Christine LeeJennifer’s husband and daughters said here that her relationship with the man was a tender one that continued by correspondence throughout her life. Call the Midwrife Jenny when youngTheir view of Jennifer has her as dynamic, adventurous, affectionate and loyal to her friends. In the movie one can infer to what extent and depth Jenny is Jennifer.

Reviews of the book give useful information as background for the movie.   – here and here  and here.  For a midwife’s review of the book here.

The midwives are shown at work. They travel by bicycle through the streets, their medical box carried behind the seat, going into homes to deliver babies and the births are shown, one for a breech birth being especially dramatic. The midwives and a doctor run a prenatal clinic for pregnant women, many whom we meet. Jenny is initially shocked by the dirt and disorder in which the people live, but by the end of the first episode she has come to admire the women’s resilience and considers them all heroines.

bricked-in row houses 1981

bricked-in row houses 1981

Much of the story’s drama lies in the character of the neighborhood. People are living in tall, narrow row/terrace houses built in the 19th century, damaged by air raids during the First World War and much deteriorated by the 1950s. The houses are identical, each with two or three bedrooms shared by adults and often ten or more children. The plumbing is a cold-water tap (and I imagine, a toilet). These are dark, grimy, bug infested houses, rats running in the alleyways, but cheap and within walking-distance of the docks where the men work. call the midwife book girslChildren play in the streets, dodging hanging laundry that the women wash in their cramped kitchens. Social services are not available, other than those by the midwives. call the midwife book coverChildren without a father to support them are taken into orphanages. A woman has few ways to earn a living and many resort to prostitution, one of whom Jenny tries to help. The neighborhood is crime-ridden, yet a midwife, respected in her uniform, can go out at night alone on her bicycle in streets where gangsters roam and policemen patrol in pairs.

From an obituary here —   In particular, quite apart from her shocking evocation of the poverty, Worth gives a wonderfully convincing portrait of the working class that inhabited that environment: infinite, tiny gradations of status within it; “rough indifference” in public between husbands and wives, but in private often domestic violence; frequent pub brawls and street fights, even knifings, yet an underlying decency that meant no old people lived in fear of being mugged; and an almost complete lack of interest in life beyond the East End, even beyond the next street, so that “other people’s business was the primary topic of conversation – for most it was the only interest, the only amusement or diversion”. Worth saw it all clearly, level-headedly and without illusion. We are fortunate she was there to capture with such compassion a world that – for good or ill – we have irrevocably lost.

The contraceptive pill was introduced in the early 1960’s. Jennifer Worth wrote, “Women were no longer going to be tied to the cycle of endless babies; they were going to be themselves. With the pill came what we now call the sexual revolution. In the late 1950’s we had 80 to 100 deliveries a month on our books. In 1963 the number dropped to four or five a month.” The ability to control when and if one has a baby transforms individual lives and the nature of the society. The reliable contraceptive’s meaning for a woman is obvious but has significance also for a man in how he organizes his life, and it reduces the society’s level of poverty. I cannot know specifically how fewer children being born changed Poplar in East London but am well aware of its effects elsewhere.

By the late 1950s slum clearance and comprehensive redevelopment had begun transforming Poplar. A classic movie, “To Sir With Love,” was filmed in 1967 in a much changed Poplar. (a wonderful movie and it’s on-line).

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I’ve been reading Ravi’s and my letters to one another over the decades and they do more than remind me of our life together; they tell me things forgotten and otherwise lost. Two I picked up yesterday have my mind filled with memories of a series of events that lead to a turning point for my life, and therefore for Ravi’s as well, and I find myself analyzing the events in a way beyond me at the time.

Our letters, numbering in the scores, are one part of the conversation that Ravi and I began the moment we met. We exchanged observations, shared ideas, puzzled together over things that disturbed us or we thought curious, and the dialogue continued nonstop until the end, even when angry with one another. The continual discussion was critical to our love and our friendship. It taught me that he had an extraordinary mind and it made him aware that I, just like he, to be happy and fulfilled, needed a larger, meaningful engagement in life outside home and family. I needed, much as he, to act on the beliefs concerning social justice we held together, in doing what I could for persons around us and for all people. Most men of our generation, and certainly a man from India, would have expected me to be content to step back, as a wife, and let him act on my behalf, but he married me, knowing me. We began as graduate students together and three years later had a son, then a daughter and his brother from Bombay. While Ravi went on to the Ph.D., I managed to finish my M.A. and teach as Lecturer, part-time, in the university where he was Professor. We lived, worked, had friends and colleagues together in the world of academia, popularly known in those days as the Ivory Tower. Even while living in Mogadiscio and Ankara the closeness continued. In Ankara I had a research grant from USAID and a Turkish Ministry,  affiliated with Ravi’s university, all of which was part-time to keeping a home together and functioning, and with the boy from Mogadiscio having joined our family, for our three kids.

From 1972 to 1976, Ravi and I lived apart. The children needed a stable situation for their schooling and he needed a change of career, to find work that required more of him, work that used his wit, charm, quick and acute sense of how people respond to situations, that made relevant his fluent English, French and Hindi, conversational Spanish and Portuguese, even some German. He was the consummate diplomat. By 1974 he had moved to Paris and become an international civil servant in an international organization. By then the two younger children and I had been in the States for two years, living near Chicago and they were attending an excellent high school. Our older boy was in college. I had given up on the Ph.D. and instead did an M.B.A. in hospital/health services, followed by a few months of hospital administration and a year working in a national public health program.

By 1976 the children were ready for college and the older boy had finished his M.B.A. Once again I closed our home to set it up elsewhere, this time in Paris — without the children at its center.

In our Paris home, Ravi and I, as usual, discussed and analyzed his work; I found it interesting and significant. I knew and liked his colleagues, held dinners and parties for him and participated in many of his organization’s activities. I also, after putting our apartment in shape and after months of French lessons, looked into possibilities for employment in Paris. Between the two years of my MBA I had done a summer internship in hospital management at the American Hospital in Paris, but the MBA had no meaning there, and besides, I hardly fit their profile for such a job, so that was hopeless, as was finding a position in one of the pharmaceutical companies, or certainly, in the French health care system. (I sometimes wished I were a schoolteacher. Teachers are employable anywhere.) No longer needed at home for the children, I began contacting U.S. and U.N. based organizations with health care projects in developing countries, which is where I wanted to be, anyhow. In the meantime, for my social life, I became a regular at the Paris universities’ social science library, keeping informed on research related to my intended new field, international public health, and spent much of my time with graduate students and visiting scholars.

Without realizing it, I had entered a new phase of our marriage and would pull Ravi along with me. I suspect a good many mothers take on a changed identity when children leave the nest, and maybe many a husband is confronted with an unexpectedly changed wife. We were no longer a young family. And despite all our traveling back and forth and being together for as much time as possible, the four years apart had changed us all, but the children and me far more than Ravi. During that time I had shared household responsibilities with teenagers, not a husband, focused totally on their needs and on our schooling. Ravi had lived alone, without a home. Some men would experience being single again as freedom; I think Ravi did not. In his culture, “bachelor” did not carry a positive connotation. (For an explanation, see “Ravi and His Identity as a Householder”, here.)

My first consultancy for a primary health care project came in early 1978, for Indonesia, a country totally unfamiliar to me and to Ravi. It would be my first time working, thinking, acting in an environment away from him. Later, when I did a consultancy or a research project in Turkey or in India, he usually traveled there with me to see the place and the people. Indonesia was too far from Paris for that. And yet more unsettling, I went to Bali. Bali danceEveryone falls in love with Bali and I even more so. I write, beginning here, about why and how Bali is such an extraordinary peasant society and culture. Bali gamelon orchestraThe Balinese dancer and gamelan orchestra shown here are performing in a beautiful folk tradition for a tourist audience.

Back to our letters, this one from Ravi, written on his official stationary in 1975 — “I am sitting in my office and it is 9:30 p.m. and I’ll be damned if I can think of anything else except that you and the kids will be here next week. … This has been a busy – but not unusual day. I spent the morning at a meeting we have organized on use of computers in the evaluation of the National Rate of Return on Irrigation Project Investments. I suppose that is when I first began to think of you today. Seven countries represented and all they talked about was linear programming models. And I used to think that international relations and development questions were glamourous!! I got back to the office at 1 p.m. and the morning mail had to be read (and he details the negotiations and politics over several projects) Right after that I got 3 phone calls from the States – though none from you. (and two pages about the day’s work, about the children, plus warning me, once again, to slow down and live in the present.)”

Someone took these photos for me in Bali, maybe because I was so obviously enjoying it all. Bali Prokesa teamI am with the Bali village development program team, walking with the health center staff and sitting with the volunteers at a ceremony. I wrote this letter in Jakarta, 1980, to Ravi in Paris  – “Your letter of July 5 – all about my acquiring knowledge unknown to you, becoming a totally different person, you being marginalizé des chose and all that jazz – Nonsense!! Bali village roadThe way I chatter on and on and on you will know everything within hours and don’t I always bring the people home with me? Like Oemi (she just arrived in Jakarta) and Widjanarko and Inne and Akile and now Loung-I (who even told someone that he is my son by a Bali ProkesaChinese husband) and Lucas and the Kerns and Subyakto and his wife. They will all show up in our home one day. Funny, you didn’t feel left out of my MBA, though I must admit this is more fun. … …” The rest of the letter is about the children and their concerns and my next day’s meetings.

While I was in Bali Ravi bought a large book on Bali, with lots of pretty pictures. In 1990 he arranged to attend a conference that took him to Thailand because, I am convinced, I had spent a week in Bangkok on the way back from Indonesia and he wanted to see what I had seen.

I found a letter I wrote to Ravi while doing a study in a town north of Bangalore. It records my feelings about where I thought we should settle – and it was not what he had in mind. I wrote some of that in “Where Does an Expatriate Go to Retire,” here.  The letter has me remembering and regretting.

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For decades I have been fascinated with nursing and the work nurses do. As a child I wanted to be a doctor, an unlikely future, given, as everyone told me, that little girls do not grow up to be doctors, and moreover, the cost of medical school was out of sight. Still, matters of health interested me, deeply, and in 1955, after having spent months in a hospital orthopedic ward, sitting there with a broken leg and otherwise in good health, watching and talking with the staff nurse, I decided that combining a nurse’s training with a Ph.D. in anthropology would take me where I wanted to go professionally. After the leg healed I went to the doctor in charge of the nursing program, applied for admission and was rejected. Nurses were trained in the hospital and housed there together; I was already a graduate student and married. In 1967, while a Lecturer at the university, teaching anthropology, I enrolled in the local community college two-year nursing program and had began classes when Ravi announced we were moving to Turkey. In 1968, in Ankara, I inquired about nursing school but it was totally inappropriate for me. In 1979, living in Paris, I attended a teaching hospital’s recruitment day for nursing students and the doctor/professor scolded me for being there.

In the early 1980s, at a health care conference in London, standing around a buffet table, I was explaining to a skeptical young person why I wanted to do nursing, about combining that level of medical knowledge and the nurse’s health care orientation with my work as an anthropologist, unaware that standing nearby, a doctor was listening. I can still picture her, the exact place, the setting. She was a beautiful woman, in a sari, from the Vellore medical center in South India, familiar to me from articles on their rural clinics and from having previously encountered and talked with two doctors from those clinics. This doctor understood exactly what I was saying. If I came to Vellore, she said, she and others would be pleased to provide me with the education and training I needed.

I was heart-broken. Being in Vellore meant a year or more in India, away from Ravi. We had already been through four years of living apart, he in Turkey, then Paris, and I with the children in the States while they finished high school and while I did an MBA with a specialty in health care management at a university within bicycling distance from our apartment, then worked with a consulting firm on a screening model preventive health program. When I joined Ravi in Paris I could find no job in my field. Instead, I went on consultancies to Turkey, Indonesia, India, and the States, each lasting a few weeks. Once, however, the evaluation of a major Ministry of Health rural health care program required my being six months in the field. I realized, on returning to Paris, that half a year was far too long a time for Ravi to be alone, which he was, even with the children visiting. He needed a wife at home. Another extended stay away from him was not possible. It would have meant my marriage and hence our children’s base for when they needed to come home and be with family. So that was that. (And incidentally, it was not the first time, nor the last, as wife and mother, I would turn away from an exciting career opportunity.)

Thus, I remained an outsider while, for more than three decades, observing nurses at work and following the professionalization of nursing as I did research on and evaluations of primary health care programs in several very different countries.

I begin with Florence Nightingale. 1820-1910. Recently, a student in a highly competitive university four-year nursing

showing that the majority of soldiers died not of war wounds but of fever, cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, and scurvy, all of which are preventable conditions

her diagram showing that the majority of soldiers died not of war wounds but of fever, cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, and scurvy, all of which are preventable conditions

program told me she had never heard of Florence Nightingale.  How can that be?  Florence Nightingale was the founder of modern nursing. “… … (her) influence, here, today extends beyond her undeniable impact on the field of modern nursing to the areas of infection control, hospital epidemiology, and hospice care. … … (her) work during and after the Crimean War shows that she was rightly hailed as a legend during her lifetime; played a key role in the areas of public health policy, medical statistics, hospital design and management, and patient care; and deserves a lasting place in the pantheon of medical pioneers. …” For a brief, readable account of Nightingale’s personality, character, accomplishments and her contributions to public health, here.

LettersFromEgyptOther than having heard the name, I first thought of Florence Nightingale as the very talented and extremely well informed writer of a Florence Nightingale beautifully illustrated book I bought because of the title, “Letters from Egypt, A Journey on the Nile, 1849-1850.”* Ravi and I had been in Cairo, visiting our son while he was studying there. We stayed with him and he gave us guided tours of the city, a one-day orientation followed by four one-day tours, one for each of the four periods, as he defined them, of Cairo’s incredible history.

David Robert's bazaar, 1838

David Robert’s bazaar, 1838

I can attest that Nightingale’s descriptions of the city, especially those of the mosques of Cairo, are marvelous. For a passage from the book, here.

After touring Cairo, we took the train to Luxor, down along the Nile, went twice into the Valley of the Queens and bicycled for an entire afternoon in Karnak. I could go on for pages commenting on Nightingale’s superbly informed and imaginatively presented accounts of Egyptian antiquities and of her portrayals of people, a few perhaps ethnocentric. However, more important for her and for history, it is enough to note that by the end of her tour she had resolved, at last, the conflict she felt between calls from God, her voices, and the family’s opposition.

From an early age, her early teens, Florence had visited hospitals in the cities of Europe where she traveled with her family, and decided then that she intended to become a nurse. Her parents were not pleased. Their two daughters were very attractive; certainly both would soon be successfully and happily married. The father, who had tutored his intellectual Florence, suggested that if she must have an occupation, let it be teaching, that nursing was low-class work and nurses were notorious for drunkenness and promiscuity. Moreover, medicine was not the highly respected profession it would later become. The family viewed Florence’s trip to Egypt, chaperoned by a married couple and accompanied by a maid, as a final adventure for her before she entered into the suitably brilliant marriage waiting for her upon her return. However, during the final days of her trip, back in Cairo and Alexandria, Florence happened to meet and be with Catholic nuns who organized and ran day-schools, health clinics and charitable work for the poor. Describing the hardships of the nun with whom she traveled to Alexandria, she wrote “So suffer those who pioneer a new road,” and “so fall those who throw their bodies in the breach, but they bridge the way for others to tread upon them. … One wonders that people come back from Egypt and live lives as they did before.”

On her journey home, Florence stopped at the Institution of Deaconesses at Kaiserwerth in Germany, where she stayed for two weeks studying nursing practices. There, at last, she discovered that it was possible to run a proper hospital, safe for its patients. In 1851 she spent four months at Kaiserswerth, training as a nurse, and she published a report on her findings. In 1852 she visited hospitals in London, Edinburgh and Dublin. In 1853, she became Superintendent of the Hospital for Invalid Gentlewomen. In 1854, in March, the Crimean War broke out, and learning of the suffering of sick and wounded soldiers, in October she offered her services to the War Office.

Üsküdar in Istanbul by Harder Hatemi

Üsküdar in Istanbul by Harder Hatemi

For Nightingale’s work in the military hospital in Scutari, Üsküdar, Istanbul, an excellent article is here.   And here for her contributions to public health. For the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing, here.

Florence Nightingale in Crimea

Florence Nightingale in Crimea

One view, here, has Nightingale as anything but a gentle sweet nurse but many others document that in the Skutari hospital she cleaned patients’ wounds, cared for the men, wrote families when a soldier died, wrote letters for the illiterate. She cared for her patients. She was a manager, her concern was helping humanity and the poor, even, as expressed in her letters, those in places other than England. She was convinced by solid statistical evidence that hygiene and sanitation, plus living decently in a clean environment, were at the core of keeping and restoring good health.

florence nightingale hospital designIt has been written that Nightingale did not accept the germ theory of disease. Nevertheless, it is clear from her notes to nurses and in her reports and correspondence, she required antiseptic, then aseptic, treatment of hospital surgery and other equipment as protection against germs.

Florence Nightingale and her role in modern medical and health care is fascinating but I will move on to something that was on my mind the whole time I worked in health care programs, something surviving from the past that I saw as an issue wherever I went and could find no one who shared my concern. Fortunately, health professions have changed, and dramatically so; persons far more qualified than I are now addressing my concern, if from a different perspective.

The issue and my concern was with the social image of nurses. I discuss it indirectly, through discussions of American movies from my era that portray nurses.

(*Letters from Egypt, A Journey on the Nile, 1849-1850, selected and introduced by Anthony Sattin, 1987, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, NY.)

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An unexpected and quite wonderful consequence of seeking to understand my husband’s childhood in India has been discovering fascinating places, astonishing history, great art, and additionally, excellent writers and intellectuals I otherwise would not have encountered, such as the impressive Dr. Nita Kumar, Professor of History in a California college. I expressed my admiration for her research here, in “Returning to Benares, Part II,” at the very end of the essay.

I checked into Dr. Kumar’s blog, here, to a post in which she comments on the movie “Cinderella,” a lush Disney production. One would expect Kenneth Branagh as Director to have an original take on the theme, but apparently he does not. For background on the movie, here. For a somewhat positive review with many qualifications here.

Dr. Kumar’s movie critique is a delight to read, but most interesting for me is her total annoyance with the classical music and dance presented in “Cinderella.” She writes that Western art “… had eaten up too much of my life” and she wants now to connect with Indian art and poetry. Maybe I know where she is coming from, literally and figuratively. It could be, as for Ravi, my husband of many decades, that she was taught far more in her Indian schools about Western art than about Indian art. In Benares, Bangalore and Bombay, Ravi attended English medium, European oriented schools, read books imported from Britain, and for most of what interested him he thought and conversed in English. He was taught almost nothing about Indian history or art, met no one who took it seriously. Dr. Kumar is a generation younger than Ravi, but perhaps the schools she attended had not changed greatly in that regard. In his last years, as he turned inward, Ravi took to reading fiction and it was the novels and short stories of young authors in the Indian diaspora that he most enjoyed. They made sense to him.

Dr. Kumar added another remark that has me thinking. She wrote “… the constant smiling and politeness that many Americans display, as flimsy and brittle as tin foil …” As an American who lived in a number of quite different cultures, this has meaning for me.

Public manners differ from one culture to another. Americans smile in public. It is a matter of courtesy. Women smile more often and more openly than men, but a smile or a hint of it is expected if eye contact is accidentally made in a public place. Parisians, for example, are different. One of my first memories of Paris, as tourists in 1963, has Ravi and me and our two small children sitting at a bus stop and French women looking us over, slowly and thoroughly, expressionless. Sales clerks did not smile as they served customers. An American can feel unwelcome. Our next stop was Rome, and there the very sight of us sent more than one Italian into joyful approval of our cross-cultural marriage. A few years later I enjoyed life in the once-Italian Mogadiscio with its Somali openness and love of talk. In Turkey I had to modify my style a bit. Hasan, my colleague in our social science research project, warned me against smiling at everyone; he said they would think I was either a bad woman or an idiot. I honestly do not know how I appeared in India, but Ravi did not comment on my comportment in public, so I suppose I was all right. India is so varied and complex. Who knows?

I remember Indonesia, particularly Java, as a place where people smiled, rather like Americans, but otherwise were different in their public manners. I was in Yogyakarta, the central city of an ancient kingdom, for the Eid al Fitr celebrations at the end of Ramadan, and traveled on buses with crowds of people dressed in their holiday best, going from one temple to another. The buses were, indeed, crowded, yet everything was orderly, noise was minimal. Each child was comforted and gently controlled by an adult. No crying babies or fretting children, no jostling, no sharp words, no signs of conflict. On the job, the public manners made working with colleagues easy and pleasant. No one ever said “no” to me, but that on occasion left me confused and frustrated. Moreover, it more than once seduced me into not defending my rights in a situation. I asked an Indonesian friend how one knows when “no, not at all,” is meant and he could not tell me. He said he himself did not always know. Once, though, in Sulawesi, the island to the east of Java, where speaking one’s mind was more the mode, a quiet remark from the doctor I was working with let me know that I had to change the way I was standing during an interminable wait for the authorities to arrive. I must not stand with hands on hips, arms akimbo, nor with hands held together at my back. I adopted a more lady-like posture, arms down at my side.

I have heard a few persons newly in America or dealing with Americans in other countries complain about the American smiling show of bonhomie. They interpreted it as hypocrisy, of the American pretending friendship during a conversation and then hardly recognizing the person after that. I heard fairly often about the difference between French and American friendship. In a presentation arranged for the non-French wives of men working in a large international organization, the speaker warned her audience not to expect having French friends. She said that French friendship is very serious, not like the casual, superficial relationship Americans call friendship. The French do not readily make friends, but once a friend, always a friend. On a blackboard in the room she drew two diagrams. One was of small circles floating here and there, representing American superficiality. For the French diagram she drew three concentric circles. In the small inner circle are family and a few old family friends. The narrow band around the inner circle includes friends from school or connected somehow with one’s family and close contacts. Around that border she drew a third circle for the people one knows and deals with every day and with whom one talks and is polite. Outside that circle was blank space, empty. No discussion followed the presentation. No one was smiling.

At about that time, Polly Platt, an American living in Paris, published her book on a matter more immediate than making friends. She explains what a foreigner needs to know when dealing with Parisian public manners, here. I’ve written a little about friendship in the expatriate life here in “Expatriate Wife, No Friends” and here in “A Friendship In Mogadiscio.”

Dr. Kumar does not mention one consequence of “… the constant smiling and politeness that many Americans display …” even if flimsy and brittle. It means Americans are vulnerable to falling into conversations with strangers, as were the Indians who chatted up Ravi and me and invited us into their homes and work places. I have accounts of such conversations, plus lovely photos from such incidents in “Pleasant Encounters — Memories From India” here.

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Yesterday, March 21, Azad told me that this is Navroz and every year on this day he jumped over a fire. He said that on Navroz Khoja men and boys joined with the Shanshia men of Hamar Wein in the celebration by jumping over a small wood fire made for the occasion, and before Azad was old enough to make the jump, his father lifted him over the fire to the other side. Women were, of course, excluded because they were in purdah.

To translate – The day, known internationally as Nowruz, is the Persian New Year’s Day. (A fascinating history is explained here) Azad was telling me about Somalia in the 1950s and ’60s, about an event taking place in the casbah of the Italian Mogadiscio, in the part of the city the Somalis called Hamar Wein. Actually, Hamar Wein was the original Mogadiscio, a thousand year old coastal city-state much diminished from its former glory. Pictures of Hamar Wein are here and here. Mogadiscio harborThe harbor is where through the centuries dhows anchored when coming to trade in Mogadiscio. The octagonal customs building is from the period when an Omani Sultanate based in Zanzibar dominated East African coastal commerce. Mogadiscio Town Hall from Il Modulo encyclopedia, 1976During Italian colonial times the Omani Palace from that era was used as the Municipio, the Town Hall. Mogadiscio 9 National Museum on Corso Vittorio Emanuele, facing the ocean. Formerly a Zanzibar era residenceThe Italians also turned a Zanzibar residence near the harbor into a museum.

Azad’s community lived in Hamar Wein. They are Shia Ishnashari and refer to themselves as Khoja, originally from the Kutch area of India/Pakistan. They were shopkeepers in Hamar Wein. The Somalis of Hamar Wein were an urban people different from the pastoral nomads, the most numerous and dominant Somalis, and from the farming people in villages along the rivers inland from the city. The Shanshia are one of the Hamar Wein Somali lineages.

The Khoja residences and mosque and the Shanshia residences and mosque were located near one another. The women of both communities were in purdah, wearing the veil. Shanshia women wore a long black robe when outside the home. Khoja women wore the burqa, a garment that covered a woman totally, with a small window crocheted into the face cover for her to see through.

The entire Khoja community left Mogadscio one day in 1991, most in a ship, to escape the violence that was leveling and destroying the city. Most of the Shanshia and other Hamar Weini also left, many for London.

Fra Mauro MogadiscioSheik Abba, the Shanshia leader, once told me their lineage was descended from the people of Shiraz in Persia. Azad heard this, too, and I think it reasonable to believe. Men from Persia certainly were among the traders who for centuries came to Mogadiscio and some would have married Somali women and settled down into the prosperous, attractive Mogadiscio of the past. A picture of economic activity from the mid-nineteenth century is here and here. The Shanshia looked like a mixed European-African people. I was told that the city name, originally Muqdishu, means Throne of the Shah. The Shanshia were influenced by Persian culture, as are the Khoja, whose holy cities are Najaf and Karbala in Iran, as well as Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

I like thinking about influences that span cultures, that continue from ancient times into our own, that connect us all as human beings whatever our nationality. And now Azad tells me about Nowruz, the New Day. Persian Zoroastrian astronomy is one of those influences.

Traditions that span the climate zones usually need some tweaking. Mogadiscio is on the equator, where at the spring equinox and the fall equinox the sun is directly overhead and changes direction very little after each. Nowruz would not have introduced a seasonal change for the Khojas and Somalis. I wonder how they interpreted the symbol of a fire and jumping over it.

For the northern latitudes, Nowruz has direct meaning; the spring equinox seems right for beginning a New Year. If so, why do we have the New Year begin in January, ten days or so after the winter solstice? Maybe because that tradition standardizes the global differences — equator, northern hemisphere, southern hemisphere. It’s efficient for today’s world. Yet, for my world, nature comes back to life at the spring equinox and I would welcome a ritual to celebrate its rebirth. Mine would not include fire but it is essential in many traditions, as in a few of the India I know. I live in North Carolina, U.S., latitude 35° 46′ 18″ N., about the same as for Tehran, Iran. Winter is finished. The days are lengthening. The air is warming. Billy's birdsAround my house, first came purple crocus pushing through the dry brown leaves that carpet the ground; then bright yellow daffodils set in clusters of slender green leaves; then clusters of lilies of the valley, larger and denser green, where delicate bell-shaped white flowers will soon be hanging down the tall stems. The vinca are already dotted with blue flowers. Luscious red blossoms cover the camellia bush. At the bird feeder, the drab winter goldfinches are gold again in the springtime sun. It’s glorious.

Happy Nowruz, everyone.

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