Category Archives: The Thinking Garden

The Thinking Garden in Jordan

The film The Thinking Garden, which tells the story of Hleketani Community Garden in South Africa, was selected by the Canadian Embassy in Jordan as Canada’s entry in the UN Women Film Festival in Amman this March. The embassy graciously hosted me for a week of festival screenings as well as screenings at the film commission and in UNHCR refugee camps.

It was a thrilling week for our film. The screening at Zaatari refugee camp was a major highlight. Zaatari, a few kilometres from the Syrian border, remains home to more than 80,000 Syrians. Many in the camp come from rural areas of southern Syria, near Daraa, and many had been farmers. After watching the film they wanted to talk about their farming lives – what crops they grew, how large their farms had been; I heard the phrase ‘self-sufficient’ repeated many times. That’s one of so many things they’ve lost, living behind the razor wire of a refugee camp. An older woman named Dalal came forward and told us that she was like the women in the film: she didn’t have a husband in her later years in Syria, and raised her children with her vegetables. The film shows that women can do it on their own, she said, like she had done. I was very touched by the way the story of the women’s farm spoke to people’s hearts.

Dalal. Photo: L. Rooney, UNW

The encounter with Syrians in Zaatari camp was especially meaningful for me since I’m part of a community group that sponsored a displaced Syrian family to build a new life in our city. Getting to know this family — and especially Mira (names changed), the mother who has become a close friend — has taught me a few things.  As an historian who has spent years studying Western representations of other-than-Western societies, it’s embarrassing to admit that it has taken me until middle age to puncture some of my own hardened biases.

I credit Mira with my re-education. Mira arrived in Canada with her husband and children two years ago this month, part of a government- and community-sponsored influx of more than 33,000 refugees from the Syrian civil war. There have been many surprises as our friendship developed. Once Mira’s English skills allowed deep conversation (my Arabic doesn’t extend beyond polite greetings), our exchanges on parenting, spirituality, and gender identities pushed my thinking in new directions.

It’s unfortunate that the burden of explanation falls on Mira. She has had enough on her plate – making a home for a family that had been living in exile for five years; studying English; building a community for herself and her children; working at catering to supplement the income from her husband’s night-time janitorial work; teaching Arabic to youngsters at the mosque and to a local schoolteacher; tending relationships with family members scattered across the globe – that she does not need the extra work of explaining her culture to an ignorant onlooker. But Mira takes up the role willingly, and I take advantage of her enthusiasm.

Mira is uncommonly fond of her dishwasher. She calls it her daughter. I cringe at the implication, but she laughs and explains that Abbas, her husband, has always been her dishwasher. His job now is to pack and unpack the machine; she appreciates his eye for quality control. The boys haven’t yet absorbed Abbas’s habits of helpfulness, which go well beyond dish washing, although middle son Ahmed shows promise. Sports and social media preoccupy the boys, but Mira is hopeful they will learn to be caring partners on their father’s model. My cultural stereotypes about “Muslim men” did not prepare me for Mira and Abbas’s household partnership.

One day at the lake with our children Mira tells me about a women’s party she’s looking forward to on the weekend. Women and children only, and preening is mandatory. They’ll have their hair done, dress for show, eat baklawa, listen to music. As a female friend, I’m used to seeing Mira without her headscarf – her home dress is much like mine, running to jeans and slouchy sweaters. Hearing about the women’s party, I have to ask: aren’t the hijab and abaya (headscarf and long coat) she wears in public confining?

Her public clothing is a statement of her religious devotion, Mira explains. Religious belief is not an aspect of her identity that can be tucked away out of sight, to be trotted out on holy days or special occasions. Her faith is as core to her identity as her family history, motherhood, and ethnicity. Faith is symbolized and signified in everything she does, from feeding her family to supporting community members in need, from praying several times a day to uttering “God willing” when she speaks of future plans.

While religious faith is publicly affirmed through dress, it is also intensely personal. When I was preparing for a work trip to Jordan recently, I asked Mira to show me how to wear a headscarf – not because I planned to pose as a Muslim woman, but in case I needed head covering to visit a mosque or other site. She was puzzled.

“Why would you wear a hijab?” she asked. I worried about offending people. Yes, she said, I would need to cover my hair in a mosque, but that was a simple matter of tossing on a scarf before entering. Otherwise my clothes were fine.

“There’s no need for a headscarf. It’s very open. You’re not Muslim, so you don’t need a headscarf.”

Zaatari audience: diverse dress. Photo: L. Rooney

The trip to Jordan confirmed Mira’s view. In Jordan the full spectrum of religious, less-religious, and secular attire is on display in the streets, often in a single social group. A dominant image is of a group of women, clearly family, walking into an ice cream shop. Grandmother wore a light scarf over her hair, a fashionable jacket and pants; mother was in hijab and abaya; one daughter wore a patterned hijab while her sister was in tight jeans, dark hair gleaming against her blouse. Most deliciously jarring of my expectations were the young people at the table next to me at lunch at Haret Jdoudna, a storied restaurant in Madaba. They were a raucous foursome of twenty-somethings enjoying a weekend visit. The women laughed and talked together in that way of closest friends. They all shared shisha, tobacco vaporized over a water pipe.

The surprise was the women’s dress. One wore a tidy hijab, loose sweater, and skirt – relatively conservative attire, you might say. The other was dressed, as I put it to my companion, “like a Barbie doll.” Bleached hair, false eyelashes, acrylic nails, thick makeup. In a final affront to my expectations, she had kicked off her shoes and perched barefoot and cross-legged on her chair. This woman would have stood out in a Bohemian café in my west-coast city. Here she was, in the ancient city of Madaba, sharing intimacies with a woman whose religious credentials were inscribed on her clothing. How could these two women be friends?

“Their clothes speak to their relationship with God,” my friend said. “They have nothing to do with their friendship.”

No doubt there are plenty of devout Muslims who, for religious or other reasons, would look askance at the choices of the woman I judged so harshly – just as I, in my middle-class prudishness, turn up my nose at what I take to be the sexualized dress of my teenager’s friends. Certainly there are contexts where this young woman would be punished for perceived offences to God. Meanwhile, women in my culture who dress like her are likely to find themselves censured and blamed when they “provoke” unwanted sexual attention.

Mira’s choice of clothing is a spiritual statement, an act of modesty and worship that she believes brings her closer to God. The same can be said for the young women in niqabs (full veils) who drew me into their selfies after a film screening in Jordan. Faceless, dehumanized? This was not my perception of these women as they laughed and jockeyed for position in the camera frame. The key word is choice. In some households, in some regions, men make these choices for women. That is unfortunate. Is it any more acceptable, though, for secular authorities in some countries in the West to seek to remove the choices of religious women by outlawing head coverings and veils? I challenge those authorities to pull up a chair and talk with Muslim women.

Selfies in Zaatari camp

 

Genesis of ‘The Thinking Garden’

When I first met the women of Hleketani garden I was moved by the community vegetable project they had set up under apartheid, but I didn’t quite foresee the rich research relationships that would follow. An offhand query as I prepared to return to Canada touched things off. Would any of the women like to talk to an historian about their lives? “All, all would like to talk with you,” Evelyn N told me. During the first season of our collaborative oral history project, in 2012, the women asked how the research findings would be shared. I explained that I would be writing articles based on our conversations, sharing recordings with their community, giving talks, and ultimately writing a book. “Aren’t you going to make a movie about us?” Mamayila M asked.

Mamayila’s colleagues thought a movie was a fine idea. Only a handful of the two dozen women involved in the community farming project are literate and fewer read English; academic writings are nothing to them. My first response to Mamayila’s suggestion was to laugh. When I returned for the second research season in 2013, I brought each woman a copy of a desktop-published book telling the story of their farm and including lots of colourful images of them hard at work. The book was a big hit – farmers took it home and had their children and grandchildren read it to them in wonderful moments of intergenerational knowledge sharing. Then came the collective question: “aren’t you going to make a movie about us?”

The idea took a while to germinate. It was brilliant in the abstract: the women’s farm is picturesque and the twenty-five-year history of its trials and triumphs is a story at once inspiring and sobering. These women’s life histories provide intimate insight into the gendered, racialized, and generational challenges of poverty; the diverse and innovative livelihood strategies of those “living with lack,” as my South African co-researcher Basani Ngobeni puts it; and the humble heroics entailed in meeting those challenges in marginalized communities around the globe. But I didn’t know how to make a film.

Things shifted in the 2014 research season. The farm was facing serious challenges from theft and drought. The farmers needed a boost and people needed to understand the structural challenges facing small-scale farmers in the Global South, and how those challenges are deepening with climate change. When I got back from South Africa I had lunch with Christine Welsh, a long-time colleague downstairs in Gender Studies and a filmmaker whose documentaries about Indigenous women I had always admired. Christine says she makes films about “ordinary women doing extraordinary things.” Perfect. To my delight she jumped at the project.

Christine, the film’s director and my co-writer, signed up well known filmmaker Mo Simpson as cinematographer/editor, and my indispensable colleague Basani Ngobeni served as assistant director. UVic student Liah Formby volunteered as a location assistant, and we hired people from the village in various roles. After frantically helping the women replant the garden — huge thanks to my generous Skwiza (sister-in-law) and Chomi (dear friend) — we filmed in May 2015. It was not smooth sailing. Godzilla El Niño brought temperatures well into the thirties (“winter” in Limpopo Province), the farmers were battling drought without proper irrigation, days were long, heat made us cranky, and high winds caused headaches for sound recording. But the women shone. They carry the film, which is recorded in the xiTsonga language (with subtitles). They tell their stories of creating a farm community and combatting malnutrition, poverty, HIV/AIDS and climate change in their own voices, in their own time. As a colleague said, “it’s amazing how we get to know the women, their personalities, in such a short film” (35 minutes).

Christine and Elizabeth record Sara’s mouth harp tune that opens the film

We launched “The Thinking Garden” in March 2017 at a full-to-the-rafters public screening at UVic. It won an award at its first festival (Vancouver International Women in Film Festival), screened at another festival in April, has made almost twenty stops across Canada (so far), and is under consideration for festivals in the US, Europe, and Africa. I screened the film in N’wamitwa and Johannesburg in May to warm responses. The farmers are delighted. As Rosina M says, “we never thought we would see something like this for our farm.”

Rosina at an advance screening in Jopi

 

 

 

 

After festivals we’ll release “The Thinking Garden” online, where it will be readily accessible to those interested in food security, women’s empowerment, climate change and related issues. In the meantime the film can be accessed through our distributor, www.movingimages.ca
For more info: jopifarm@gmail.com

Mo, Christine, and Basani run to get the shot as farmers carry water home
Filming Josephine’s early morning routine
Maria reviews a clip at the end of a day of filming
June 2017: Basani says the farm is “even better than beautiful”

 

‘The Thinking Garden’ in the news

Ahead of our March 1 official film launch (free, public event at 7 pm, David Lam Auditorium, UVic),  we’ve been in the news:

Elizabeth Vibert was interviewed about the garden and film by host Gregor Craigie on CBC Radio’s ‘On the Island’, Feb. 28;

Elizabeth was interviewed by Jen Blythe of Oak Bay News here,

by Dan Ebenal of Saanich News here,

and by Kendra Wong of Victoria News here – for articles about the garden and the film;

UVic’s The Ring  magazine did a feature story about the garden and film: Ring story

Salt Spring Island’s ‘The Grapevine’ published a story about the garden ahead of the community screening on Salt Spring  – Thurs. April 6 @ 7 pm at the Fritz Theater