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Starting with a dark-skinned girl barely out of adolescence when she gives birth, Lesley Hazleton weaves together the many facets of Mary's existence: peasant villager, wise woman and healer, activist, mother, teacher, and yes, virgin, though in a sense we have long forgotten. She follows her through the worst any mother can experience-the excruciating death of her child-and then looks at how she transforms grief into wisdom, disaster into renewal. Strong and courageous, the Mary we see here does not merely ...
Starting with a dark-skinned girl barely out of adolescence when she gives birth, Lesley Hazleton weaves together the many facets of Mary's existence: peasant villager, wise woman and healer, activist, mother, teacher, and yes, virgin, though in a sense we have long forgotten. She follows her through the worst any mother can experience-the excruciating death of her child-and then looks at how she transforms grief into wisdom, disaster into renewal. Strong and courageous, the Mary we see here does not merely assent to her role in history, but chooses it and lives it to the fullest.
Her hair is almost black, and has been folded into a single braid down her back for as long as she can remember. The weight of it raises her chin and makes her walk tall, as she has learned to do when carrying jars of water or bundles of kindling on her head. You don't bend under the burden. You root into the ground and grow out of it, reaching up and becoming taller. The greater the weight, the taller you become: the peasant woman's secret of making the burden light.
Her thin linen shift is torn from snagging on rocks and thorns. Even the patches are torn, and the original black has long since faded into gray. When there's a village feast—a wedding or a circumcision—she begs a few threads of brightly colored wool from the old women, the ones too infirm to do anything but sit and weave, passing stories and shuttles back and forth in the sun-baked courtyards. Then she and her girl cousins huddle together, giggling as they work the threads into each others' braids. They have two colors: red from madder juice, yellow from kaolin clay. They've never seen blue wool. Only the rich can afford indigo, and in this village, as in all the Galilee villages, everyone is poor.
The shift hides the gentle bulge in her belly. She is unmarried, and pregnant. Sometimes, when she's sure nobody else is around, she'll fold her hands just below the curve, feeling how much it has grown. Her grandmother once told her you could know a child's sex before it is born by where you put your hands: above the belly means a girl, below the belly, a boy. Or is it the other way around? She can't remember, and it doesn't really matter. Like every pregnant woman, she hopes for ten fingers, ten toes, a hungry mouth, and a lusty yell—a healthy baby, despite the odds.
She knows how long those odds are. All the young women do. They've heard the stories the old women tell down by the spring, washing themselves once they've spread the laundry to dry on the rocks, and then lingering to gossip. Horror stories told by women splendid and terrifying in their brief nakedness as they raise their shifts to pour water over creased bellies and drooping breasts.
Yes, you can die in childbirth. Many do. The first time especially. You can howl for hours, even days, until it takes three women to hold you down as the midwife kneels between your legs, her hands covered in your blood. She presses her head hard into your belly, trying to force the child out, until the pain is so bad that you beg and pray to Isis, to Artemis, to any and every god, to help you, forgive you, spare you. Every god, that is, but Yahweh, the god of all gods, too grand and too remote to hear a peasant woman's pleas. You hear yourself begging to die, cursing the child that is struggling inside you, cursing even the name of your husband and all his issue, for doing this to you.
Yet this girl is not afraid.
Her name is Maryam. A name so common in her time and place that if you call out "Maryam," one out of every three women is likely to answer. The Latin version of her name, Maria, will come into common usage only four centuries after her death, once the universal Catholic church has been established with its base in Rome. Later still, in what will become the English-speaking world—for this is some two thousand years ago, and English does not yet exist as a language—she will be known as Mary.
Even in her own time, her name gets lost in translation. In Hebrew, the formal, ritual language of her people, she is Miriam, after the sister of Moses, the great priestess who led the Israelites in song after they crossed the Red Sea in their exodus from Egypt. In Greek, the administrative language of the Roman Empire throughout the eastern Mediterranean, she is Mariamne—the name of King Herod's most beloved wife, the Hasmonean he married to bolster his claim to Jewishness, then fell obsessively in love with, and so, in the end, murdered. In Coptic, the Egyptian language in which many of the second- and third-century gnostic gospels will be written, her name is Mariham. And in Arabic, in which she will be honored in the eighth century in the only sura in the whole of the Koran to be named after and devoted to a woman, her name is Maryam. The same name as the one she goes by, but in a different language.
The language she speaks is Aramaic—the language of the Assyrians, from the region of Aram, near Damascus, whose empire dominated the whole of the Middle East eight hundred years before she was born. This is the language that displaced the Israelite Hebrew and countless other local tongues to become the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean for well over a millennium, in a wide arc from what is now Iran all the way to North Africa. It is both the language of trade and the peasant language, spoken by those who live by whatever meager crops they can coax from desert and dust, rocks and thorns. Its multiple dialects bind Judeans and Galileans, Syrians and Persians, Egyptians and Arabs, Nabateans and Idumeans—all the peoples, tribes, and nations living under the far-flung rule of the eastern Roman Empire.
The Aramaic name is important—the Middle Eastern name—for Maryam's is a Middle Eastern story. Where Mary floats to us on a cloud of incense, a delicate European draped in silk, Maryam carries the scent of heat and dust clinging to her skin and her thin linen shift. One is the legend; the other, the real woman. And if we are to reach beyond the legend, we must surely start with the most basic gesture of respect. Let us do Mary the honor, then, of calling her by her real name, Maryam—the name she recognized and responded to, the name she thought of as hers.
Some two thousand years have passed since Maryam was thirteen, and yet the date she gave birth is deeply embedded in our consciousness.
We number years by A.D. and B.C. (Anno Domini, and Before Christ) a system conceived by the Scythian bishop Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth century, formulated by Isidore of Seville in the seventh, popularized by the Venerable Bede in the eighth, and now universal. Whether in Jewish or Arab Jerusalem, in Cairo or Damascus, in New York or London or Paris or Tokyo, we measure time this way. We do it so easily, so automatically, that we rarely if ever pause to ask where it began. The twenty-first century since what? The year 1776 or 2010 since when?
No matter what faith we profess—or abjure—we date our checks, invoices, e-mails, newspapers, newscasts, history books, birthdays, anniversaries by this one event that took place in the Middle East two thousand years ago. That year in Maryam's life is seamlessly integrated into everyday twenty-first-century life. It makes no difference if we substitute the political correctness of C.E. and B.C.E. (Common Era and Before the Common Era), since the "common era" dates from that same moment. Maryam gave birth, and even the strongest atheist cannot conceive of time without acknowledging her.
How, then, can we know so little about her?
She lived in Nazareth, that we know. And she had a son. Beyond these bare facts, she is given mere cameo appearances in the New Testament gospels: anxious at the temple and at the wedding at Cana, and in only the last one, John, grieving at the foot of the cross. Even then she is nameless, simply "his mother." And Paul? In all his voluminous letters, he never even mentions her.
Everything else we think we know—even who her parents were—is legend accrued over the centuries, far removed from her in both time and place. And though these legends are magnificent, they work as perhaps all legends do: they obscure any idea of who the real person was. Each successive image of Mary has taken her progressively further from the reality of Maryam. She has been used, as all those who are venerated are inevitably used, to further individual, social, theological, even political causes. She has been garbed in silver and pearls, crowned with gold and girded with angels. And in the process, she has disappeared. She has become all image and no reality: a virtual Mary. Or rather, an infinite number of virtual Marys.
Many Christians do not even care to entertain the fact that she was a Jew. And Jews tend to respond in kind. In Israel, she is called Maria hakedusha: "the holy Maria." The use of the Latin Maria instead of the Hebrew Miriam is a means of distancing her, keeping her at arm's length as though to say, "No, not one of ours." Another way, that is, of stripping her reality from her.
What was that reality, then? Who was she? Who must she have been? Who could she have been?
Just asking the questions is exciting. We are so used to the image that the very idea of the real person sets the eyes alight, the mind to wondering. And yet precisely because we are all, one way or another, deeply involved with her, there is also a great sense of trepidation.
Virginia Woolf's biographer Hermione Lee wrote that readers of Woolf's journals "will feel an extraordinary sense of intimacy ... They will want to call her Virginia, and talk proprietorially about her life. She seems extremely near, contemporary, timeless. But she is also evasive and obscure."
How odd to read this about someone who left a vast trove of written material, let alone the mounds of writings about Woolf by those who knew her—someone we can see in photographs, who existed in living memory—as I was researching the life of a woman who left no written material and about whom we have nothing at all written by her contemporaries. No eyewitness accounts, no recollections of those who knew her, not even a record of birth or death. It is as though the most famous and revered woman in the world never existed in the flesh.
The proprietoriness and protectiveness that Lee notes about Woolf exist a hundredfold, if not a thousandfold, when we come to Maryam. And this is daunting. In the four years it took to research and write this book, I've fielded innumerable intrigued questions from friends and acquaintances who knew what I was working on and were eager to know what I had found out. Yet I sensed that more than answers, what they wanted was reassurance. There was a certain discomfort, maybe even embarrassment, at the very idea of Maryam the flesh-and-blood woman. A feeling, perhaps, that this is one figure we shouldn't touch. That we'd be better off to leave her alone, to surrender her to myth and legend, accede to the established church image of her.
I suspect the source of this unease is a fear that she may emerge from any biographical exploration as less than we would wish for. If we strip away the aura, we fear standing there bereft. And this fear seems almost Freudian. The image of her as the ultimate mother—a symbol of maternity whose physicality has been transformed into the metaphysical—reaches deep into even the most agnostic heart. We quake at the idea of getting too close, at the prospect of the sacred revealed as human.
The "official" biography of Maryam has survived and flourished over two millennia for a very good reason: it works. Yes, it is impossible for a virgin to give birth. And yes, that is precisely why the story works. It is a mystery tale: a mystery both in the modern, detective sense and in the far older, religious sense, touching on things mysterious and unknown to mere mortals. The crux of her story—the virginal mother—is the perfect paradox. The sound of one hand clapping pales by comparison.
How dare I, then?
This is the question that haunted me as I began this book. How dare I even think of a biography of someone so intimate, so integral a part of our culture, and yet simultaneously so remote? How dare I seek the flesh-and-blood woman behind the legend?
I knew that the simplicity of asking who she was and who she must have been was deceptive. Such questions lead straight into a minefield of deeply held beliefs, unwitting preconceptions, cultural assumptions, even vested interests. Yet once I had asked them, they couldn't be unasked. I wanted to know. There was no way to go but forward. And though I didn't start out with a detailed map, I had at least a clear idea of the lay of the land.
I lived in Jerusalem for thirteen years, working first as a psychologist and then as a political and cultural journalist. Those years gave me fluency in Hebrew, a rough grasp of Arabic, and the ability to decipher more Aramaic than I'd thought. More important, however, they gave me a strong Middle Eastern sense of both place and time.
In most of the modern world, two thousand years ago seems an eternity. In the United States, twelfth-century Anasazi ruins are called prehistoric; a foreign visitor has to do a double take and remember that history is relative—that this is the "New World" and that so far as most Americans are concerned, their history only began in the fifteenth century.
Not so in the Middle East, where what happened two thousand years ago has a tangible presence: cultural, religious, and above all, political.
There are other places with ancient pasts, to be sure. But in Europe, say, Greek and Roman ruins have shed their religious and political significance. Tourists can admire a temple of Apollo with carefree ease; nobody believes in Apollo any more. In the Middle East, however, nothing ever seems to shed religious and political significance. What is prehistory in the States and archeology in Europe—magnificent ruins ensuring a continuous flow of tourist revenue—is everyday political reality in this part of the world.
Those years in Jerusalem either warped or strengthened my sense of time, depending on your point of view. Events of two thousand years ago seem close, familiar. You live with history, just a short walk from the giant ashlar stones of the retaining walls of Herod's temple in Jerusalem, his pride and joy and the cause of as much trouble two thousand years ago as today.
How not have the long view of the present, reaching deep into the past, when a single olive tree can be a thousand years old or more? How not be aware of what happened in this land two millennia ago when the very place names—Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Capernaum, Galilee, the Jordan River—are familiar to you from childhood, when you know them from Bible stories, from Christmas carols, from the Koran, from the Passover Haggadah, from hymns, folk songs, and spirituals.
You'd think that when you live here, everyday familiarity would dull the aura of these places. Not so. Instead, you incorporate them into your sense of time. You leap millennia in a sentence, even in a thought. The Via Dolorosa is where Jesus carried the cross and where there's this blue-fronted antique store full of old postcards and poor man's icons made of tin. The Mount of Beatitudes, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, is where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount and a perfect place to spend the night in the convent guest house. The Temple Mount is the site of both the first and second temples of Yahweh, but it's the two Islamic domes—the Dome of the Rock and the El-Aksa Mosque, gold and silver—that create its grace and majesty today. The flagstone floors, subterranean flights of stairs, and grim-faced Eastern Orthodox nuns in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the site of the crucifixion, make a film buff think of the classic movies of Sergei Eisenstein from the 1920s and 1930s.
Everything is anachronism, not in the usual sense of being out-ofdate, but in the more precise sense of being out of its place in time. Or rather, in two times at once: simultaneously past and present.
Sometimes, in fact, it seems there is no such thing as the past at all. In this history-soaked part of the world, you could well argue that history does not even exist.
Nothing is ever done with. Nothing ever past. Stones and slingshots, the weapons of biblical tales, were the weapons of the Palestinian Intifada in the late 1980s. For years, the most popular Israeli sandals—basically just strips of leather on a leather sole—were called tanachiot, "biblicals." Jewish settlers' claims to the land are based on Hebrew texts that originated 2,500 years ago. The hatred and violence on both sides are of epic Old Testament dimensions. And in Nazareth, the most bitter source of tension in the past few years, pitting Moslems and Christians against each other, has been the attempt to move the shrine of a nephew of Salah ed-Din, known as Saladdin to westerners. The nephew was mortally wounded on July 4, 1187, when Salah ed-Din's forces decidedly defeated the Crusaders at the battle of the Horns of Hittin, and he was brought back to Nazareth to die. The idea of moving his modest shrine would be insult enough to Moslems; adding insult to the injury is that the move was planned in order to create more parking space for the marbled Basilica of the Annunciation nearby.
Excerpted from MARY by LESLEY HAZLETON Copyright © 2004 by Lesley Hazleton. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 28, 2011
Hazleton, a historian specializing in the time of Jesus, has fashioned a biography of Mary based on what is known of the lives of people in Nazareth and Gallilee. In so doing, she puts a human face on Jesus' mother that is more in accord with His passions than the usual Madonna blandness. Hazleton posits that Mary, like many women of her time, was a skilled herbalist and even a doctor or nurse. I found this fascinating.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 21, 2012
No text was provided for this review.