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Little Hands

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Formative reading experiences of Gabeba Baderoon

Cinderella, illustrated by Adrienne Segur... When she had done her work, Cinderella used to go into the chimney-corner, and sit down among cinders and ashes.However, Cinderella, notwithstanding her mean apparel, was a hundred times handsomer than her sisters,though they were always dressed very richly. Not far from the mountain, not far from the sea, in a flat and sandy stretch of land shaded by steaming cooling towers, many years before she imagined The Museum of Ordinary Life, A Hundred Silences and The Dream in the Next Body, Gabeba Baderoon had little hands and this is what she read …

Gabeba’s earliest memory of books and reading:

I remember my mother and father reading to my sisters and me. We would go to Hanover Park library, choose our books and sit in the small wooden chairs next to the child-sized tables. I loved disappearing into the faraway worlds of fairy tales and legends.

Her godmother scooped out all the inside of it, having left nothing but the rind; which done, she struck it with her wand, and the pumpkin was instantly turned into a fine coach,gilded all over with gold.
Gabeba’s first books:

I remember being struck by the connection and difference between hearing a story and reading it. Cinderella was the book in this case – hearing stories told again or rereading books allowed me to learn the pleasure not of suspense, but of knowing what would come and enjoying the language and unfolding pace of the story.

Gabeba, as an adult, reading with children:

Children love the private world of books. I have four godsons, but no children of my own. Whenever I browse the stacks, I think about which books to give them. I love buying them books that are not only worthy and interesting, but also surprising and secret and delicious.
She left behind one of her glass slippers, which the Prince took up most carefully.

Cinderella always begins:

Once upon a time there was a rich merchant who had a lovely wife and daughter. But the wife died, and in time, the merchant took a second wife. Now this woman was also fair of face, but cruel and hard inside her heart, and she had two wicked daughters whom she favored above all things. She dressed these two in silk and lace and fed them on white cake and cream. Her step–daughter she clothed in rags and fed with scrapings from the bottom of the pot. The child became their scullery girl, and slept in the ashes of the hearth for warmth. She soon grew thin and filthy, and they called her Cinderella. . . .

Cinderella in Iran:

A remarkable version of the story was recorded twenty years ago in eastern Iran in which, like the Scottish version, the mother returns in the form of a cow. The story is part of a Muslim women’s rite in honor of Bibi Fatimeh (the daughter of Mohammed and wife of Ali, also known as the Lady of Wishes) in which a ritual meal is prepared in supplication for the fulfillment of a wish. The ingredients for the meal must be begged from certain households in a certain way: the begging is done by dark of night, by pairs of completely silent women whose identity remains concealed. The food is taken to the mosque. No men may be present there.

In the morning the women return and a meal is prepared of foods no men may touch: komaj, a bread of “blessed” flour, and ash, a kind of soup. A widow and a motherless virgin sit side by side in the center of the mosque, surrounded by ten to fifty other women. The widow has a bowl of ash. The young girl has an empty bowl. As the widow spoons soup into the child’s bowl, she recites “Mah Pishani,” a long and lively variant of “Cinderella.” Each time the girl receives a spoonful of ash, she must answer “Yes” to affirm the tale, which is briefly thus: A rich merchant sends his daughter to religious school. A female teacher at the school convinces the girl to kill her mother in a vinegar jar, and subsequently the teacher marries the widowed father. The new wife bears a child, after which the first daughter is starved and mistreated. The original wife comes back in the form of a cow and gives aid to the girl, who proves herself to be quick–witted and good–hearted after all. The second daughter is vain and lazy and this eventually causes her downfall. The first is rewarded with a moon on her brow, a star on her chin, and a good marriage. The second is cursed with a snake on her chin. At the end of the story, the meal is consumed and the ceremony completed.

Margaret A. Mils, a folklorist who has worked extensively in Iran and Afghanistan, comments on the tale at the core of this fascinating ritual: “In this form of [Cinderella], as in most, the dominant relationships are between women: loyalty and disloyalty between mother and daughter; rivalry between the stepmother and her offspring and the first born daughter. That the girl first betrays her own mother is an important element in the equation of solidarity and redemption. . . .” (Quoted from Cinderella:Ashes, Blood, and the Slipper of Glass by Terri Windling)

Postscript by Gabeba Baderoon from The Museum of Ordinary Life:

In my old bedroom I reach for boxes
and the dust of undisturbed years rises
in the afternoon light. As children we drew

our names on such powdery floors. I flick
through high school report cards, forgotten
library books, letters now tearing and flaking.

My hand pauses on an envelope, sealed but unsent.
On the front, the name of our neighbours,
on the back, above the name of my family, I slide
a finger under the flap and tear open the years.
Inside, I find, on a Christmas card two decades old,
a greeting to the tailor next door, who has since died,
in the writing of my father, who has since died.

How brief and irretrievable our actions,
the writing and the forgetting,
and the lives that unfolded from them.
Opening a letter not addressed to me,
I wonder if I am stealing a gift,
or completing a small, necessary ritual.

In the dusty room I say their names out loud
and place the card again among the old papers.

Aims of The Little Hands Trust
• To support initiatives that promote reading for enjoyment.
• To mentor African literary artists, including writers, illustrators and editors, to produce creative, suitable and appropriate children’s storybooks for children of various ages with a focus on early childhood (ages 0 to 9 years).
• To collaborate with African publishers to increase and sustain publication of children’s books in African languages. To initiate and support translations of stories between African languages, from African languages to ex-colonial languages and from ex-colonial languages to African languages.
• To help to orientate and educate adults in the importance and significance of reading to and with children.

 

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