By Shameelah Khan
To Love Some Body
The nurse pulled my mask up and reminded me that I needed to keep it on. She had a gentle touch and called me ‘mama’. I appreciated her calming voice in the hustle and bustle of the sterile smelling hospital. A certain eeriness pulsated through the dimly lit hallways as they reeled me in to the theatre. The Pandemic had changed hospitals. It no longer felt full and the dreadful noises we had associated to the space dissipated into a language of social distances, sanitizing stations and medical protocol. We were all suppressed by loneliness, even when we were close. My anesthetist had a bold afro and Nike sneakers on. She smiled under the surgical mask and my perched lips met her eyes.
“Well now Miss Khan, let’s put those beautiful green eyes to sleep.”
She placed a mask over my face and told me to slowly breathe in and out. In and out. In and out. In and…
I woke in my bed, my neck was writhing in pain, pulsing, like a heartbeat in my brain. My surgeon told me that I was lucky to have located the lump in my neck in time, just before it grew large enough to touch my spine, “then we would have trouble, our brains keep us alive.” I thought about that, what I would be without my brain. It disturbed me to think about not being able to think, have speech or locate my own identity. Our memories are our own historical archives. They were the places we built homes in.
I had been living alone since the lockdown started and decided it would be a good idea to explore what my body looked like. Who was I in the intimacies of my own home? If I didn’t find something to do, I would end up in the black box, where all the things I feared inside of my mind lived. I started to photograph myself. I called the series: To Love Some Body. It was comprised of portraits of the closer, zoomed-in parts of my body I didn’t always want to see.
I started to capture the tender arch of my back; the pathways of my hair; the bending of my belly fat; the way in which my breasts were heavy handfuls or the bony structures of my feet and then there it was- my lump. It was round and fleshy protruding out of my nape, pressed into the tip of my spine. I named her Ronda, like the poetic town in Spain. It was nice to not feel alone and engage with this beast living inside of me, visibly slow. For a while I monitored her, pressed her, touched her deeply and there was no pain, until there was and I knew then that it was time to let her go.
Nobody was allowed in to the hospital so I woke to the wind brushing up against the deep-blue curtain, slurred speech and the absence of Ronda. I felt overwhelmed with the post-surgery disorientation. As if waking from a second long coma, I tried to reach for the water beside me but slipped into a much-needed slumber. I felt the cooling hands of the nurse on my cheek.
“Mama, time to wake up and go, your mum is here to fetch you.”
She had called my sister and told her that she’d be taking care of me. The lockdown was stressful for my sister already, so my mother showed up instead. I slowly dressed, my nausea resting in the center of my stomach, swirling and taking from my lining as it pleased. The vomit churned at the tip of my throat and the heat swept across my forehead in slow beats. The nurse, whose name I finally learnt was Debra, walked me out and wished me well.
There she was, sitting on the hood of her car, cigarette in between her fingers, her 70s sunglasses on as if she were the femme fatale of a Tarantino film. Her beautifully defined, petite body perfectly lit in the sun and a smile that met me upon first sight. She embraced me with welcoming arms.
“Oh, my baby, don’t worry, you will stay with me until you are ready and rested.” She kissed me then.
After her split from my father, my mother continued to live in the home I had grown up in. The house was a wooden fortress decorated with art, food and rustic furniture. She helped me along to my old room, where everything was different, yet strangely familiar. I got into bed and slept, wondering if I had still been dreaming.
I woke in bed and took out my copy of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. Kiki, the main character, no longer looked as she once did- an ‘attractive’ activist. The book followed her marriage to Howard, an Academic; weaving together the intersecting lives of their family. The novel began to feel ‘too real’ to me and ‘too’ relatable. Kiki, on so many levels, had reminded me of my mother. Apt, I thought– the meeting points of the personal, the political and the deeply nuanced iterations of beauty and family structures- so evident in the nuanced and intimate writings of Zadie Smith.
I was reading a conversation between Kiki and her son:
‘No, it means we’ll deal it with politely as a family who – ’
‘Because of course that’s the Kiki way of dealing with trouble,’ said Jerome over his mother. ‘Just ignore the problem, forgive and forget, and poof, it’s gone away.’
They stared at each other for a moment, Jerome brazen and Kiki surprised at his brazenness. He was, temperamentally, traditionally, the mildest of her children, the one she had always felt closest to.
‘I don’t know how you stand it,’ said Jerome bitterly. ‘He only ever thinks of himself. He doesn’t care who he hurts.’
‘We’re not talking about . . . about that, we’re talking about you.’
‘I’m just saying,’ said Jerome uneasily, apparently scared of his own topic. ‘Don’t tell me I’m not dealing with my stuff when you’re not dealing with yours.’
My mother led me to the bathroom and a warm bath greeted my fragile, healing body. She sat beside the bathtub and slowly, ran her hands over the parts of me I had tried discovering through my image series a few days ago. But my mother’s hands, knew my body. They touched the tender arch of my back; the pathways of my hair; the bending of my belly fat; the way in which my breasts were heavy handfuls and the bony structures of my feet and then there- where Ronda once was, she lingered a bit longer. “Water heals, my child.” I loved my mother’s hands. I loved my mother’s body.
In the early morning, I had developed strange and absurd thoughts in my mind. A kind of On Beauty, of my own. Working through femininity and the body, in all of its forms can be gruesome, difficult at times. So often, I struggle to feel beautiful. I can find beauty in the world and I can talk about it. But as a woman, my personal positioning to the notion of beauty is at the begrudging unfolding of layers which begin to shape and define my body.
It is not easy to feel beautiful and know that we are bodies of colour, South African, African, products of ancestors who were raped and sold into slavery, mirrors of our wounds, and daughters to our mothers- where the personal story of beauty so often begins…
Sitting in my mother’s home, I moved from the moments of love at the dinner table, to the anxious nights of not knowing who she really was outside of me, to home-cooked lunches, playing dress-up, endless laughter, to impulsive family trips, the replaced keys, the misplaced apologies or her slow burning cigarettes on a Sunday morning while her coffee steam journeyed upwards.
I found her in the lounge beside a burning fireplace, the smell of incense and Nina Simone’s To Love Somebody filling the intimate distance between us. I lied down beside her, placing my head on her lap. She ran her fingers across my head, playing with my hair, her favourite thing to do when I was a child. And there, under her breath, I fell asleep in the warmth of my mother’s home, slipping into a dream of childhood music.
Once I had healed, I took images of my mother’s beautiful body instead. Mostly of her hands that I adore so much.
You don’t know what it’s like
You don’t know what it’s like
To love somebody
To love somebody
The way I Iove you
In this Issue:
Beauty — Gloria Shoki
Artist of The Month– Kamyar Bineshtarigh
A Bouquet of Flowers — Radiyah Manjoo
Muüd — Nick Pagemat
Finding Masculinity: A Return to Innocence Lost — Selabe Kute
An Odd Journey: Beauty — Amir Bagheri
Sunlight — Astrid Bridgewood
Revisioning Beauty — Elham Azimi
Beauty Poetry Bouquet — Alun Robert
Green Peppers — Mbali Tshabalala
You Are My Home — Samantha Maposa
Tayamum, Beautiful Dust — Shameelah Khan
Reawakening Beauty — Angelo De Klerk
Icarus — Luthfiyyah Rahman Nana