Monday, June 20, 2005

a gathering of old women

The other night, while sitting on the porch with the family, some of Nigora’s relatives came by to invite her to a gathering this afternoon. Nigora’s niece was holding a reception for her mother-in-law, who’d gone to Mecca earlier this year. Because I was sitting there, they invited me too.

I knew the invitation wasn’t sincere, but I thought it would be interesting to see. So I decided to go. And I figured the food would be much better than what I’d find on my own for lunch. So today I spent my lunch break with a gathering of old women.

I picked up Nigora at 2:15 and we went there together. She was wearing a pink-patterned tent-like dress and a head scarf. She carried a covered pot of steamed meat dumplings that she’d run out to the central market to buy.

Her niece greeted us upon our arrival and poured water out of a brass pot over our hands, letting it fall into a golden brass bowl. A towel draped over her arm for us to wipe our hands on.

We were led into the house to a long u-shaped table, piled high with food. Four old women sat at the head of the table. All of them wore long, largely shapeless velvet and silk dresses, and everyone except me wore a headscarf. I felt out of place in my thin-strapped tank top and pink pants.

They welcomed me kindly though, leading me toward a space near Nigora, where we sat on mats near the table. Every time another person arrived, they said a prayer, then wiped their hands over their face, as though they were rinsing their face with invisible water.

Four women sat across from me, with a large carpet hung behind them. They looked like a quartet of queens on miniature thrones. I only had an hour to sample the smorgasbord, but Nigora said she expected to be there until six.

“Can you eat for four hours?” I asked.

“We can eat for six hours,” she said. “That’s probably why everyone here has such a big stomach.”

I ate little strawberries as light and tart as fizzy candies, thick, round cherries, raisins, pistachios, slices of rindless watermelon, plov with meat and tomatoes, chocolates, samsi, and of course, lepushka.

One woman at the head of the table seemed to be taking the lead in the conversation. I asked Nigora what she was saying.

“She’s talking about the Koran, what one needs to do and what one shouldn’t do.” She said that these women had nothing much to do except study the Koran, pray five times a day, and try to live out its requirements. Many of them had been to Mecca.

“Do you want to go to Mecca,” I asked Nigora.

“It’s not my time yet,” she said. “One has to raise their children, educate them, and marry their sons before they can go to Mecca. They have to go with no obligations to themselves or their families. And they also have to live out the Koran, which I don’t do either.”

I asked if it was boring for them to do nothing but pray all day.

“They do other things,” she said, “like looking after their grandchildren. And even the praying is almost like gymnastics. I try doing it during Ramadan and I find that it’s hard. I have to try to get my stomach out of the way.”

After an hour, I left. I didn’t get home from work until 9:30 and Nigora had just returned an hour before me.

“It was kind of boring,” she said. “They were old women and they talked about their things. That one woman who talked about religion never stopped. They tried to interrupt her, handing her tea, and telling her she must be tired. But she’d just set it down and keep talking.

“Those people who know a lot about religion become like fanatics. They have studied a lot and they think people want to hear everything they know. The things she was saying were true, but nobody needed to hear that much. People were stifling back yawns.”

She also said that an old woman at the table lived near us and told Nigora they should go home together. “So I had to wait for her,” she said. “Not only did she stay a long time, but then she walked so slowly. We didn’t have a car and we had to stop several times to rest on the way.”

After coming home, Nigora fixed a quick dinner of eggs, noodles and lepushka for everyone.

“Now I think I’ll go out on the street,” she said. “The women are discussing when to have our next monthly get-together. Everybody has a problem on a certain day.”

“No, you can stay here and drink tea,” Shavkat said. “If you aren’t there, they can decide without you and then tell you the result.”

And Nigora sat down at the table with us. Then Shavkat dominated the conversation, talking about everyone’s concern about his accident, his complete calm, how his blood is full of adrenaline, and how it’s difficult for him to accept all the energy people are sending him with their concern. But as he gradually takes in some of the energy, it’s making him like his coworkers and value his work more than before. His employer has offered to pay for all the car repair and he plans to get it into great shape, then sell it.

1 comment:

heathercheryl said...

I stumbled across your post because I was searching the internet for a phrase I read in one of VS Naipaul's books. I stopped to read and I am glad I did.