Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night


do not go gentle into that good nightWhen Dylan Thomas wrote Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night, little did he know how far and wide his words would spread. There is one person that always brought the words back to me. Allow me to tell you her story with me.

 

I walked into the living room to find Latifa standing on the window sill from the outside from our sixth floor apartment in Jerusalem. She was holding on with one hand. Latifa was not attempting to commit suicide she was merely cleaning the windows from the outside, using the free hand to wipe away layers of sand and dirt. I gathered all my strength in order to suppress my urge to scream. With the softest voice I could muster I said “Latifa, come inside I want to tell you something”. I watched as she gathered her robe around her in order not to trip on it, she held with both hands and then swung her body into the balcony with an agility that seemed out of character for her 60 something year old body. As soon as her feet were planted on the floor of the balcony and before she had the chance to straighten her self up, I started to scream.

ihath: what in heavens name are you doing?

Latifa: I am cleaning the windows from the outside.

ihath: We are on the sixth floor you could have slipped and got yourself killed.

Latifa: But the windows are dirty and they are too big and heavy, I can’t move them out of the window frame in order to clean them properly and so I have to go outside. There is no other way.

ihath: In that case leave the windows dirty and do your best cleaning them while standing on the inside.

Latifa: But when people visit you and ask you about who cleans your house and windows they will say that Latifa didn’t clean those windows properly. They will say that Latifa is dirty. They will not look clean if I only wash one side. This is what I do in all the other apartments as well. Don’t worry I never slip.

ihath: I don’t care. This is my apartment and you are not allowed to get yourself killed in it. Get yourself killed in somebody else’s apartment. Leave the windows dirty. I want my windows to be dirty. Do you understand that.

Latifa: (she waves her hand in a dismissive fashion and nodes her head) Fine! fine! you can have your dirty windows. I will do as you say. But if it was gods will that I die today, then I will die today, regardless of whether I stand on the sill of the window from the outside or not.

I go into the kitchen to have a glass of water to calm myself down. It was the first time of only two times that I raised my voice with Latifa. She was the domestic help I hired to clean the apartment in Jerusalem. Latifa was a Palestinian living in the occupied territories, she is living in a tiny village right outside the city of Ramallah. Most of the time I was too intimidated by her. She had a fierce personality. Her face looked like one huge wrinkle that had slithered all across of what used to be a face. Her hands were so rough from years of physical labor you could grate parmesan cheese on them. A constant frown adorned her face and frequently when she thought that nobody was listening she would mumble to herself. She always seemed to be mumbling to god to have mercy on her and to make her life easier. She had a sturdy and tall body and looked like she could punch the crap of anybody given enough provocation. There was something thuggish and menacing about her. When she stood in my living room with her hands crossed, wearing the traditional headscarf and traditional Palestinian dress, she looked like a rock. No, more like a mountain. Most of the time she gave me orders and told me what to do, not the other way around. For example, the second time she came to my apartment she opened the china cupboard and yelled at me. “I cleaned and organized this last week. Now look at it, it is messy again. You don’t expect me to organize it for you every week, do you? I will organize this again but you need to keep it in order from now on.” She set up a specific order in my cupboards, a place for the large plates, small plates, cups, serving dishes …etc. Everything had to be in its place. Otherwise, watch out for the wrath of Latifa. You would think I was working for her. Woohoo! those Palestinian women. Let me tellya.

I really like my Canadian domestic help here in Vancouver much more. She comes every morning with a smile on her face. She greets me with a pleasant “good morning”. She does everything I tell her without any objections and no arguing. I tell her “can you clean the cupboards please?” and the answer is “yes”. Then I say “thank you” and that is the end of that. My Canadian domestic help is dedicated to her job and does it very well but her dedication to her job is not suicidal. She would never stand on the sill of a window from the outside, no matter what. Furthermore, she never tells me that my skirt is too short and that as an Arab women I need to dress more modestly. She never tells me that I should spank my kids in order to teach them respect. And she never tells me that I must produce a son in order not to lose my husband. In fact, my Canadian domestic help never interferes with my personal life. She never tells me that I should do anything. When I have guests or friends over, the Canadian domestic help doesn’t give her running commentary about them. I don’t think I miss Latifa at all. In fact, I have to confess that of all the cities that I have lived in, I like living in Vancouver the best. However, I have to give credit to Latifa for one thing, besides making me realize that I am a wimp and a push-over, she is the one that made me realize the source of my infatuation with the Palestinian people.

When I was a little girl growing up in Kuwait I used to always say that I will marry a Palestinian. As young as 8 my mind was made up about this fact. You can ask my parents and they will confirm this fact to you. I frequently wondered why I made that determination at such a young age. The advantage of living in Kuwait was that I got to meet people from all over the Middle East. Kuwait had a large percentage of Arab national from everywhere in the Middle East working and living there. The Kuwaitis drove the expensive cars and wore the fancy ray-bans. The Iraqis were the most macho and had the most heroic tales. The Egyptians were the funniest and had the best jokes. The Palestinians were the geeks at school. So why did I want to marry a Palestinian but not an Iraqi and not a Kuwaiti? How funny, that in the end that is exactly what I ended up doing when I grew up. It was one of those secrets about my life that I frequently contemplated but never quite understood. Was it destiny? Was it the cosmic joker playing yet another one of his tricks on me?

Latifa means “the gentle one” in Arabic. There was absolutely nothing gentle about this woman. Her parents couldn’t have chosen a less appropriate name for Latifa. There wasn’t much gentleness in her life either. Forced to marry at age 13 to a man in his 40’s who proceeded to beat her regularly and sponge off her paycheck. Twenty years into her marriage her husband died which Latifa didn’t consider such a horrible disaster, if you catch my drift. At least she was free to use her money to raise her seven children. Upon her husband’s death one of her daughters had a nervous breakdown, an event shrouded in secrecy. I never got a good answer as to why her daughter had the nervous breakdown only that after a short stint in the hospital, the daughter spends most of her time staring into the void at home. Latifah was made a refugee twice courtesy of the Israeli state. As if that wasn’t enough, Latifah had to support her younger sister who was abandoned with 4 children by her chivalry laden husband. Plus her oldest daughter was divorced from a psychopath of a husband and so Latifah was supporting her and a grandson as well. She was most proud of one daughter that worked as a nurse and seemed to be having a happy and stable life.

“Sometimes being a bitch is all a desperate woman has to hold on to”. Latifah, taught me that. She never said those words, I actually heard that in brilliant movie named “Dolores Claiborne”. But Latifah was the true embodiment of these words. In the movie “Dolores Claiborne”, Kathy Bates plays a tough house keeper whose life has been a series of reoccurring misery visited upon her from many sources. She becomes a defiant bitch, who is not expecting any gentleness from the world and rarely ever receives any. Really, if you want to know what Latifah is like, go see Dolores Claiborne and imagine Kathy Bates with a head scarf, many more wrinkles and a long hand embroidered robe for a dress. It is as if Kathy Bates had based it on the non gentle character of Latifah.

It is as the words of “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” were written specifically for her. Let me give you an example.

I remember the news announcing the complete sealing of the occupied territories after suicide bombing or some other threat some real and others imaginary. The news would show the army blocking people from entering into the not so occupied territories. “The west bank is completely sealed” the news announcer would declare, “not even a rat can cross through”. Latifah would appear at my door steps anyway. “Latifah, how did you get through? How did you pass?” I would ask her. Latifah would just wave her hand in dismissive way. “Nah! they don’t scare me. Their stupid tanks with their stupid soldiers and their stupid machine guns. I have a job to do; a woman has to support her family”. And you ask me why I was intimidated by this woman. The fourth strongest army in the world couldn’t stand in the face of her determination.

In the Middle East we have all learned to eat shit from a very young age. The poor before the rich, women before men, but eventually we all learn the lesson very well. Just keep your mouth shut and look the other way. Don’t ask why. That is just the way it is. The Palestinians always had at least a tiny defiant flick of hair or a slight dismissive rolling of the eyes. They would eat shit just like the rest of us but at least they didn’t pretend they were liking it.

Latifah liked to socialize with my friends whenever somebody would come over for a visit. Once, a Palestinian woman friend from east Jerusalem came over for a visit. N. was from a well to do family of merchants. Like all snotty Arab upper middle class women, N. was always all dressed up and decked out in gold, layers of makeup and the latest fashion. I made some coffee and invited Latifah to take a break from her work and join us. N. was horrified by the prospect of socializing with the uncouth, illiterate Latifah. N. whispered to me, “you sit and have coffee with her?”. I said “Yes all the time, she has magnificent stories.” . Well! you could see the look of shock on N’s face at the prospect. Latifah, sat down in my living room made herself comfortable and starting chatting with N. Asking her questions about herself, her family …etc. I could tell that Latifah understood that N. was not used to socializing with people from a lower social class and she seemed to delight in the whole situation. She held her head high and seemed to enjoy making my snotty friend uncomfortable. I sat back and observed while sipping quietly joining the conversation on occasion. Eventually N. left. Latifah commented afterwards: “Your friend is very beautiful”. I said, “Yes everybody says she a beauty.”. Latifah replied “But you are much more beautiful than her, in a natural way with no make up”. It was the first time of only two times I heard her say something kind.

I don’t miss Latifah at all, but I appreciate the lesson she has taught me.

Do not go gently into that good night.

Old age should burn and rage at the close of day.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

October 27, 1914 ~ November 9, 1953

You can hear Dylan Thomas recite Do not go gently into that good night with his own voice here. Totally worth the listen.

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