I have learned a multitude of lessons from my Palestinian friends – many of which I am probably not yet conscious of. But there is one lesson that was distinctly personal….one that caused me to step back and look at myself, and to see myself with new eyes.
It has to do with being a Hajji.
When we first arrived in Yatta, it didn’t take long to notice that just about every “old” woman was referred to as a Hajji. I thought it was just a nice term to refer to old women (who, of course, were much older than me….or at least looked it).
Until one day Abed, our young, 25 year old driver (and friend), referred to me as a Hajji. Now that was a different story!!
My western culture that idolizes youth at all costs clicked into high gear. Aghast at the very thought of such a thing, I steamed silently to myself. What do you mean….me a Hajji?? Of course not. I am not old. I am fit….I can go up and down the mountain to Jinba. I can powerwalk up and down the hills of Yatta. I cross country ski at home. I canoe and swim in the summertime. I have some grey hair….but just a bit…..Some wrinkles….but not THAT many….. a grandson, yes. But he’s just a baby. How could Abed say such a thing? What was he thinking??? Does he not realize how offensive this is??
But then, I watched, and I listened, and I learned….
On one occasion, we visited a young mother to discuss educational goals and aspirations for her small, remote village. The young mother and myself shared a significant level of trust and we had a deep, open and honest discussion that day. As we were leaving, I bent down to say goodbye to her precious three year old daughter, a child I was very fond of. The beautiful child kissed me on both cheeks and took my hand and kissed it. Her mother explained that this was a sign of appreciation, affection and respect especially reserved for an older woman, a Hajji.
Another time, I had the privilege of attending an Eid celebration of sacrifice, a religious ritual of great significance to Muslims. Present and overseeing the whole event was the family matriarch, the Hajji. The family brought her over to where we were standing to introduce her to us, the international guests. She then took a place of honour, sitting on a chair overlooking the sacrificial ritual that was taking place. You could not help but notice that as each guest arrived to join the Eid celebration they first greeted the Hajji, kissing her on both cheeks and bowing to kiss her hand. It was only after greeting her, that they spoke to and visited with other family and guests.
Over months, I watched our neighbour’s family, observing the high place of honour they hold for their mother. At 65, she is mother to 9 living children, ranging in age from 25 to late 40’s. She is an integral part of her children’s lives and their family’s lives. Their love is evident. They spend time together. They laugh together. They enjoy her company. They respect her immensely.
I learned that in Palestinian circles, age is something that is talked about. It is not considered rude to ask a person how old they are. It is simply a fact of life, a point of interest. They wonder why we westerners are reticent to discuss age.
I learned that the hardships of the Occupation lead people to age quickly. On average, the Palestinian people look older for their age than westerners do and their life expectancy is correspondingly lower. Years of suffering, less than adequate nutrition, the struggle for water, lack of access to medical care….they all take a toll.
I noticed that products such as hair dye, age defying anti wrinkle creams, and the like are available in Palestine, but are much less evident than in North America. Poverty no doubt plays a role in making these products inaccessible to the majority of women, but it seemed that if that were not the case, these products would still be deemed unnecessary.
I learned that the word Hajji comes from the phrase “the Haj” …the Muslim journey to Mecca that every Muslim is to make once in their lifetime. Strictly speaking, a Hajji is a woman who has made the journey to Mecca, who carries the deep spirituality that is gained from a lifetime of living and the experience of the journey to Mecca. But in every day circles, the word Hajji is a fond term of respect, appreciation and endearment for an older woman – an acknowledgement of the wisdom that life well lived brings.
From my Palestinian friends, I learned to look at myself from a new perspective. I learned how insidiously our culture affects our thoughts, our expectations and our attitudes towards both ourselves and others – even when we think it doesn’t. I learned to look more closely at our western culture’s adulation of youth and it’s costly impacts upon the self image of middle aged and older women, and to more fully discard that shallow and empty view of life. I learned to recognize and appreciate myself and others in a new way. To accept what is and to celebrate the fulness of what is with joy.
I learned to love hearing the workers at the checkpoint greet me with a warm and enthusiastic “Good morning, Hajji!!”
And I loved hearing Abed greet me as Hajji and refer to me as Hajji. What an absolute gift he has taught me.
Thank you Abed. Thank you Palestine.