Weapon of the weak
“Where you come from doesn’t matter. It’s about what you do with it.”
The question of what to do with where I come from has been an urgent concern of mine since I was nine years old and ran out of revolutions. It was Madame Saida, the grocer, who quoted Sartre to me one day. She knew I was fond of her savvy wisdom and that theatrical way she had of imparting it. She was a round woman, all maternal, soft and brown. She would strike a pose, breathe in deeply and bring her unique, elusive smile to her lips; “it’s what you do with it that counts!” she repeated encouragingly. I would rush to the store on my way home from school to find her surrounded as usual by all sorts of foodstuffs: fresh, frozen, and canned, stacked tins of green peas, baked beans and bright yellow corn. There were boxes of eggs piled high, rice, ketchup and several brands of packaged ham that she had never tasted being herself an observant Muslim. This was her public persona, people went to her for a million trivial everyday items they couldn’t do without. Nobody knew the name of the store, let alone her own. She and her husband Amid were the reliable corner grocers and that was the end of it, even the Arabs called them “the Arabs” in no discriminatory terms.
But I craved her attention and was keen for her to fulfill a surrogate role as an adult in my life. She confided stories to me about the distinguished older lady she cared for in the mornings, who liked to paint her face using too much make-up. She’d been a book publisher back in her day. The lady carefully selected pieces of literary texts and read them aloud to Madame Saida, it was her pleasure, she would say. She had found an earnest student in her personal caregiver. Madame Saida was eager to sit and learn despite the shrillness of the woman’s high-pitched voice and the airless room she was never allowed to ventilate. From time to time, the elderly woman would share with Madame Saida a particular aphorism, and these became the sources of her quotes to me.
Consequently, Madame Saida was a modest woman, but she had a thirst for significance that contrasted with the relentless ordinariness of her job (she felt pride in providing nourishment, she would say, in places where people were hungry).